viernes, 14 de julio de 2017

The President’s Gardens /A Girl with a Book

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli
A Girl with a Book

Our story starts where it ends; with beheadings. Tariq, Abdullah and Ibrahim are brothers in all but flesh. Born in the same year, they face life’s various milestones and paths together as one, until the day they don’t. Ibrahim and Abdullah drop out of school, leaving Tariq to study while they are enlisted in the army. The time in service brings Abdullah and Ibrahim closer together, until it doesn’t. Abdullah is captured and kept as prisoner while Ibrahim returns to his village and to Tariq. Fate, it conspires, seems to keep the trio apart, until it doesn’t. Abdullah returns, after 20 years away.

Finally reunited, the three men attempt to come to terms with all they have missed in each other’s lives, and to make the most of what is left. Yet apart from the horrors and barbarism witnessed during the war, there are other horrors at home, which almost go unnoticed. Ibrahim’s wife is in the grip of cancer, and in order to provide for their daughter and his wife’s treatment, he takes a job in Baghdad, tending the President’s gardens.

Growing among the pristine flowerbeds and immaculate lawns, Ibrahim discovers also that other things have taken root; massacres sprout about his feet, and he must tend to them, silent and obeying.

Memory can be inspiring or foreboding. As we retrace the steps of this trio of men from childhood to their separation, we need to overcome the obstacles of war. Brutalities and barbarism abound, in the words of the author, ‘madness incarnate’. While the work is one of fiction, it encompasses whispers of atrocities faced by real people, the tearing apart of real limbs and families, making it all the more powerful and macabre.

The narrative is steeped in melancholy and stirred by outrage. Al-Ramli surrounds the reader with discomfort; forcing them to see the cruelty of which their brethren are capable, and to question what can be done about it. The President’s Gardens is deeply distressing and equally beautiful, making it a powerful and vital read. 

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli is published by Hachette and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

domingo, 2 de julio de 2017




Tony Malone
July 3, 2017
For those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties, Iraq has never been far from the news headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons, and over the past few years, books telling of life in the country have started to be translated into English, particularly since the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  However, today’s choice takes a longer view of events.  Rather than focusing on the aftermath of the invasion, or looking at an isolated incident, the author follows a small group of friends over a period of decades.  In the process, it tells the story of a country plunging into the depths of a catastrophe, one it still hasn’t managed to claw its way out of…
Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens (translated by Luke Leafgren, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) starts rather dramatically, with an early-morning discovery the finder would rather not have stumbled across:
In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons.  Along with each head was an I.D. card to identify the victim since some of the faces were completely disfigured, either by torture before the beheading or by something similar after the slaughter.  The characteristic features by which they had been known through all the years of their bygone lives were no longer present to distinguish them.
p.7 (MacLehose Press, 2017)
As the village awakes to the gruesome discovery, one of the nine heads causes particular distress to Abdullah Kafka (so called for his nihilistic views on life).  His best friend Ibrahim is among the casualties, bringing to an end a close relationship spanning decades.
At this point, the story takes us back in time to when three youths, Abdullah, Ibrahim and the third member of their band, Tariq (nicknamed ‘the Befuddled’), roamed the village dreaming of a bright future.  Tariq, the son of the village’s spiritual leader, takes on his father’s role and manages to become a respected (and wealthy) model citizen, but his friends will not be so lucky.  The ensuing decades are to be times of war and hardship, and Ibrahim’s nickname, ‘the Fated’ is to prove unfortunately apt.
The President’s Gardens is fascinating tale in which the writer introduces a tragic event before taking the reader back in time to see how we got there.  It’s a story of the country’s recent history which is told through the experiences of three friends born in 1959, a generation living through turmoil, but it’s also a history lesson for those unfamiliar with these events.  Abdullah and Ibrahim are unlucky enough to be conscripted for military service just before the Iran-Iraq war breaks out, and when it seems as if the country (and the friends) are recovering, Saddam’s disastrous decision to invade Kuwait sends Ibrahim back into the war zone.
Al-Ramli doesn’t shy away from describing the hardship his people faced.  We learn of Abdullah’s captivity and torture in Iran, before the story moves on to the events of the following decade:
What they saw was a true hell in all its horrors.  In their entire lives, they had never seen, nor would they ever see again, an event as terrifying as this, a madness incarnate.  Severed body parts and scraps of metal were scattered amid tongues of flame and the thunder of explosions.  The road was transmogrified into an explosion of fire, smoke, limbs, blood, destruction, ashes, death.  It was a highway of death, on which and around which everything that moved was ground together in flames. (p.70)
Through Ibrahim’s eyes, we experience life on the front line, or rather carnage in the desert, yet the effects of war aren’t restricted to death and mutilation.  The use of chemical weapons in the earlier conflict brings unexpected consequences for one of the group.
The twist in the novel comes when Ibrahim needs to move to the city to get better medical attention for his dying wife, with Tariq’s contacts coming up with a well-paid, exclusive position.  The catch?  The war hero is sworn to secrecy (not that he’d be tempted to open his mouth about his new job).  Ibrahim’s first task is to tend to the gardens of the title, catching a terrifying glimpse of the country’s leader in the process.  Later, he is given a new position, one that comes with more money and prestige, but involves some even dirtier work.
The President’s Garden is an enjoyable read on many levels, and Leafgren has done excellent work in producing a flowing English text with a distinct style, using exaggeration and anecdotes, as well as providing a sense of elegance and tranquility.  Al-Ramli teases the reader a little, introducing several ideas in passing, only to leave us in the dark as to the full story.  It’s only later, when he circles back to fill in the gaps, that we understand the full significance of, or motives for, certain actions (such as why Ibrahim’s daughter is so keen to find her father’s body).
Part of the pleasure of the novel is the picture the writer develops of the main character’s home village.  It’s a very different kind of place to that most readers will be used to, with the men tempted to take multiple wives (and often under pressure to marry widows).  Everyone knows everyone else (and their business), and when there’s something to celebrate, there’s gallons of tea, but not a drop of alcohol in sight.  Yes, there’s a lot of trauma, but some of the best scenes show that life goes on, too.
One slight issue I did have with the book was the structure.  The President’s Garden’scontains several major strands which, at times, seem to act against each other.  The secret of Abdullah’s birth swings between a major development and a minor detail, and when Ibrahim gets his new job, the story almost develops into a new book (and, to be honest, probably could have).  Al-Ramli does tie everything together eventually, but (for this reader, at least) it felt a little unbalanced at times.
These are minor quibbles as, for the most part, The President’s Gardens is an excellent novel, entertaining, informative, thought-provoking and well-written; of the few Iraqi books I’ve read, it’s probably the one I’ve enjoyed most, largely due to the extended scope.  More importantly, though, Al-Ramli’s novel reminds us that the casualties we hear about in the news are real people, each with their own lives:
Each head had a story.  Every one of these nine heads had a family and dreams and the horror of being slaughtered, just like the hundreds of thousands slain in a country stained with blood since its founding and until God inherits the earth and everyone on it.  And if every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue. (p.12)
Every victim has a story, and this is Al-Ramli’s attempt to tell just a few of them.
Tony Malone

sábado, 1 de julio de 2017

Muhsin Al-Ramli: 'This is Iraq / Middle East Eye

 Author Muhsin Al-Ramli:
 'This is Iraq: it was and will be troubled'
Despite now living in Spain, Muhsin Al-Ramli's novels all tell the story of his homeland which he fled during Saddam Hussein's rule 

Tuesday 27 June 2017
“I wanted to become an actor,” says Iraqi author and poet Muhsin Al-Ramli, “but I come from a conservative family. My father wouldn’t allow me.” Instead, he tells Middle East Eye, he opted for journalism and later started writing novels.
His latest novel,The President's Gardenswas long-listed for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. His works have also been compared to the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Khaled Hosseini.
Although Al-Ramli has been living in Spain for the last 22 years, his personal life was scarred by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. His brother, Hassan Mutlak, a poet, was executed in 1990 for participating in a coup with a handful of officers.
'I wanted to become an actor, but I come from a conservative family. My father wouldn’t allow me'
Mutlak's attempt to overthrow the government had repercussions for the whole family. In those years, Ramli was reluctantly serving in the army, as Iraqi law demanded three years of mandatory national service, and failure to do so meant jail.
His feelings about the time he spent in the army comes through regularly in his writing: the humiliation, the sense of injustice, the fear of talking out of turn, loss; but also the comradery, like the one he had with his friend Ahmed al-Najafi.
“He shot his own hand in front of me, so he could leave the army and return to his family, but they discovered him, they knew he did it on purpose and they threw him in jail,” he said.

Jordan and Spain

In 1993, Al-Ramli travelled to Jordan to pursue a career in journalism. Yet his path in life was not easy there due to his status as an immigrant, and periods of unemployment, making it difficult for him to put down roots.
'During the war, it was impossible to write, scrutinise facts, and with the sanctions on Iraq, things got worse'
“I refused to learn English,” Ramli confessed. “I couldn’t stand it, so I learnt Spanish because of the great literature produced in that language." Learning the language made it easier for him to study in Spain later and set up a life there.
In 1995, Ramli applied to a university in Madrid and was accepted. moving to Spain. He pursued his studies until he obtained a PhD in Philosophy in 2003. For a while, times were hard. Upon his arrival, he only had $200 in his pocket and could not find a job; but with the help of a few friends, he managed to stay afloat.
Then thanks to money coming in through translation jobs, in 1997,  he set up one of the first Arab magazines in Madrid, Alwah
“This was also an excuse to grant my brother’s silenced voice a readership,” he said.  
Once again to Hassan Mutlak, and it is not the last
I will tell him all that the tyrant has done
between the two rivers, between the palm trees
and between friends.
I will describe the rope they used to hang Hassan Mutlak*,
and the machinery that minces souls and makes Iraqi meat.
But I have found his house empty
with the exception of his rocker, trembling,
between the window and the poem.
Since then Ramli has come a long way. He is now a professor of Arabic and literature at Saint Louis University in Madrid, a translator of Don Quixote from Spanish to Arabic, a poet, an author and a screenwriter.
Ramli’s talent has also been acknowledged in recent years: the translation of his novel Scattered Crumbs by Yasmeen Hanoosh won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award in 2003 and most of his novels have been translated into many foreign languages. Some of his poetry and screenplays, however, remain unavailable in English.

Severed heads in banana crates

Ramli was finally able to visit Iraq in 2004 following the fall of Saddam Hussein after the US invasion, and again in 2014. However on the second visit he could not return to his home in Baiji in northern Iraq as it was under the control of the Islamic State group. He hasn't visited Iraq since then. 
When asked about his native country, Ramli is clear in his convictions. For him, if there is one mistake that is often made about Iraq today, it is to forget its recent past.

US marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down in Baghdad's al-Fardous square on 9 April 2003, while an Iraqi waves the US flag (AFP)
In 2006, Ramli’s family was decimated by a horrific event. He received a call from a family member in Iraq telling him that they had discovered nine banana crates, each containing a severed head, left near the family house. “It felt like a nightmare,” he said, “but it was real. My house … was close to the main road where the banana crates were left. Most of them were my relatives, killed on the third day of Ramadan 2006.” This episode is recounted in The President’s Gardens
'The dictatorship and the wars didn’t leave one place safe in Iraq; death and destruction affected every human being, tree or stone there'
There was a massive increase in the number of American troops in Iraq that year. This exacerbated an already complex sectarian divide. “Bananas are not native to Iraq,” Ramli explained, “the incident was strange, new and foreign …it occurred in conjunction with the invasion of foreign forces and with the introduction of many ideas, goods, interests and other foreign things.
By this point even remote villages that had remained largely peaceful throughout the turbulent years could not be protected, he explained. "The dictatorship and the wars didn’t leave one place safe in Iraq; death and destruction affected every human being, tree or stone there."
From the poem 'No to liberating Iraq from me' 

Ay you, gentlemen of the war
Listen to me:
No to the party of military men on the roof of my house.
No to the executioner that you have proposed
or are going to propose.

No to the bombs of your liberty falling over the heads of my people
No to liberating Iraq from me or me from him.
I am Iraq. 

It’s easy to lose the plot

With all the turmoil that followed the US invasion, many questioned, and still do, whether life was better under Saddam, and if the bloodshed was necessary after all.

Young Iraqi students look at a fighter from the Popular Mobilisation unit, fighting alongside Iraqi forces against the Islamic State (IS) group, on the first day of the new term outside a primary school in Al-Mazraa village in Iraq's Baiji area (AFP)
“During the war, it was impossible to write, scrutinise facts, and with the sanctions on Iraq, things got worse," he said.
“What happens in Iraq changes its history day by day, so it’s easy to lose the plot. Many of those young Iraqis who join ISIS ignore how we came to this situation." 
Ramli said he felt he needed to emphasise that it is easy to forget that Saddam was a criminal and question whether Iraq has learned from its suffering. This is how The President’s Gardens was conceived, as a narrative covering the past 50 years of Iraqi history.
'What happens in Iraq changes its history day by day, so it’s easy to lose the plot'
In his latest book, Ramli sheds light on the untold history of Iraqi prisoners of war in the Iraq-Iran war. “I dedicated two or three chapters to them,” the author said. “I talked about my meetings with the prisoners who came back from Iran. They shared information about their suffering. Not many books have highlighted the situation of the prisoners in the Iraq-Iran war in Arabic literature and the Iraqi novel,” he said.
in Erbil - Iraq 2014
Ties to the homeland
Ramli keeps writing about Iraq from a distance that is purely geographical, because his heart is still in Iraq. As a man who has experienced and seen war more than peace in his country, he is not optimistic about Iraq’s future.
If there is one aspect that is missing in his writing, it is a discussion about sectarianism. “I personally never experienced sectarianism in my life. …My first teacher at primary school was a Yazidi from Sinjar and he was my dad’s friend, a religious man, and my teacher’s son was my friend … We had a Kurdish goat-herder in our household, and we used to love him very much," he said.
"The sectarianism exploded and was exploited first by the dictator and then with the arrival of the Americans, and it has now pervaded the whole region. This is unfortunate, backward and silly, and a dirty game I refuse to play because it’s been put in place for greedy interests at the expense of human beings,” Ramli explained.
'This is Iraq: it was and will be troubled, hot, suffering, beautiful, astounding and vibrant for ever'
While recording crimes and brutality, The President’s Gardens also includes humour, love and deeply touching moments. “I believe that Iraq was always like that and will remain riotous and unstable and radical changes will always happen. These are characteristics that have become part of its nature and of its being throughout history," he said.
"This is Iraq: it was and will be troubled, hot, suffering, beautiful, astounding and vibrant forever," he added.