martes, 25 de julio de 2017

Review/The President’s Gardens/Iraq/Manal Shakir

‘The President’s Gardens’ tells a modern-day story of life amid war in Iraq
Manal Shakir
Published Friday 21 July 2017
“The President’s Gardens” is written by famed Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli. He has translated “Don Quixote” from Spanish into Arabic and is the author of two previous novels, “Scattered Crumbs” and “Fingers of Dates,” both of which were translated into English and received global acclaim. “The President’s Gardens” was first published in 2012 in Arabic and was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Translated into English by Luke Leafgren, “The President’s Gardens” is a glimpse into Iraq, opening a door into the literary world of friendship and brotherhood, love, war and all the tragedies and joys of life in the modern-day country.
The book begins as a violently tragic story when “in a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons.”
One of the heads belongs to Ibrahim Qisma — Ibrahim the Fated — who is the best friend of Abdullah Kafka, one of the first who hears of Ibrahim’s death. With the news, Abdullah’s grim outlook on life is only confirmed, emphasizing that “the heart of humanity was sunk in darkness” and there is nothing of meaning left in the world. Having lived through two wars, a dictator, occupation and mysteriously tragic origins, his life has little meaning except for when he is with Ibrahim and Tariq.
Next to hear about the death is Sheikh Tariq, the village imam, also known as Tariq the Befuddled, and the other best friend of Ibrahim and Abdullah. Reciting Qur’anic verses and crying until his tears have drenched his beard, the loss of his friend only adds to the horror of the crumbling world around him.
Despite the chaos and heartbreak, the three friends have, since childhood, always had each other for comfort; they are the “sons of the earth crack” and it is their stories that captivate the reader in “The President’s Gardens.”
Al-Ramli’s book is a modern-day story of life amid war in Iraq. And it is all too real, as Al-Ramli writes, “if every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalog.”
His story is both beautiful and tragic in its descriptions of lives interrupted by war, political struggle, a dictatorial president, threatening religious and ethnic affiliations and a world drowning in violence and misfortune. However, it is also about friendship, brotherhood and bonds that are stronger than war, with delightful scenes of the three boys swimming together in the Tigris on hot summer days, fighting with girls who are washing clothes, hunting sand grouse, and chasing jackals. They grow into young men, going through their own personal successes and failures as the country falls further and further apart. They, like most others, are victims of circumstance who have no say in any political decision yet are dragged into the chaos.
All born in 1959, the friends learn much from their fathers, Zahir, Salih and Suhayl the Damascene. The fathers are also friends whose relationship involves “an element of collusion and an acceptance of the need to coexist.” The three boys also learn from the lives, loves and tragedies of the other inhabitants of their village.
The boys continue their legacies, their ancestors and histories connected to the very earth and country that tests them, playing with their lives as if they were not their own. As Ibrahim says, “Everything is fate and decreed.”
Although the three boys are very different, they find comfort in one another. Tariq is the one who can be convinced one way or the other and he is a meticulous reader. Abdullah is nicknamed Kafka by Tariq as he is “attuned to the blackest side of any idea or situation” and Ibrahim was the fated, the one who accepted life as circumstance, “his parents’ firstborn son and the oldest brother to a crowd of siblings, a fact which demanded sacrifices that redirected the course of his entire life.”
The love they have for each other withstands time and warfare, from their first conscription to their first encounter with combat during the Iran-Iraq war where “love helped some find courage and survive the perils of war,” and, where at other times. “Love led some to place themselves in the line of fire when their beloved betrayed them or they quarreled.” Even when the three friends are apart, even when they wonder whether the others are alive during the Gulf War where delicate life is no match for tanks and air raids, to invasion and occupation as the world around them begins to change in unimaginable ways, they have each other. When the landscape becomes littered with secret alliances, weapons and bodies, they can still find relief in their friendship.
Al-Ramli is a masterful storyteller. His book is graphic in its violent depictions of war but it is picturesque in its portrayal of Abdullah, Tariq and Ibrahim’s homes and their families where some know more of the dead than the living. It is scattered with memorable characters, victims, and heroes. The portrayal of imperfect characters in an imperfect world moves the reader as each word calls up circumstances and events in ways that are heartbreaking and eye-opening. This story of friendship, of parenthood and marriage, and life during war takes a reader on a journey from Mosul to Hilla and from Basra to Baghdad.
The accounts of soldiers going back to war having survived one are painfully told, as each young boy and old man tries to distract themselves with song and laughter while their voices quiver with thoughts of what fate awaits them.
At the heart of this story is a tale of love and belonging, a story of coming home to people and places, no matter how much they change, no matter how much they age. It is about fighters and survivors, those who fight aloud and those who offer silent resistance when they are finally allowed to act for themselves and not for those in power. It is about circumstance and resilience, tragedy and fate.
Al-Ramli is an author who can sum up feelings in just a few words. His characters you may only meet for a moment but they will stay with you forever. He is an important and insightful storyteller and a writer whose work adds a unique dimension to the many stories that make up our literary world.
Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within,” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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