martes, 14 de febrero de 2017

The incompatible and the inextricable/Clare Roberts

The incompatible and the inextricable

Clare Roberts - reviews
Dates on My Fingers
By Muhsin Al-Ramli
Translated by Luke Leafgren
AUC Press, Cairo, February 2014
ISBN:9789774166440. Pbk, 192 pp, £12.99/$16.95

When Saleem stumbles across his father by chance in a Madrid nightclub, he barely recognises him but for an old keychain made from a single copper bullet. This bullet has long acted as a potent reminder of an oath for 
revenge, made years earlier in their Iraqi homeland. The reunion of father and son in this radically different environment should bring only joy, but instead it unmasks a festering obsession.
Saleem comes from a large, conservative family living an isolated existence near Tikrit. The indisputable leader of this clan is Saleem’s grandfather Mutlaq, whose maxim, harkening back to a childhood experience, is: “If a dog barks at you, don’t bark at it; but if it bites you, bite it back!” This mantra lies at the core of the family’s mentality, and is put to the test when Saleem’s father, Noah, takes revenge on a man who has groped his young daughter by forcing two copper bullets up his anus. But this man is an important government official, and before long Noah is arrested and tortured, losing the function of his reproductive organs. A revenge attack, in which the men of his family storm the building in which Noah is being held, spurs his release, but this attack has brutal, bloody repercussions on the wider family, prompting Saleem’s decision to leave Iraq for good and Noah’s promise to take revenge on the official who first inflicted so much shame on his family. When Noah learns that this official has been posted to Spain, he too moves to Madrid. Noah’s plan for revenge is clear, the copper bullet on his keychain indicative of the way in which he intends to carry it out.
With a focus on Saleem’s own experiences, including his very first sexual encounters with his childhood sweetheart in their Iraqi village and his confusion regarding his impotent father’s passionate relationship, the date fruit takes on a somewhat curious significance. But the use of this sweet fruit in the lovemaking of all the characters is more than just an unusual preference shared by the men in Saleem’s family. Dates, a symbol of Iraq, also act as a constant reminder of their roots. Even in exile, their homeland clings to both men as the nectar of dates sticks to their fingers.
Any sweetness in the novel, however, only serves to exacerbate its underlying bitterness. When Noah announces his decision to move to Germany, supposedly to start a new life with Rosa, we learn that the very government official who prompted Noah’s move to Madrid has been posted to Berlin. This telling detail interrupts a euphoric final description of Saleem’s engagement to Fatima, family reconciliations and happy future plans. It is in this ending that the novel’s dark and chilling genius lies.
Dates on My Fingers is first and foremost an exploration of exile in the modern world, where the incompatible collides with the inextricable. When Noah hires Fatima, a pious Moroccan girl, to work in his nightclub – a veritable den of alcohol, lust and sin it is conditional on her memorising the Qur’anic Surah of the Cow rather than any display of aptitude. It is an intriguing detail: despite the extremes Noah goes to in his exile, he is nevertheless drawn to those who share his roots. Living in a modern European capital, a world away from their isolated community in Iraq, father and son cope with their exile in different ways: Saleem by papering over the walls of his apartment with newspaper cuttings about Iraq, and Noah by dyeing his hair, getting drunk, and groping women – another irony Saleem struggles to comprehend. When consumed by his lust for revenge, a wilder Noah is released. At first this facilitates lucid self-reflection, but ultimately exacerbates what he describes as the “entangled nature in my soul”.
Al-Ramli, himself an Iraqi who has lived in Madrid for many years, is all too aware that exile is not an escape. But the difficult questions raised in this novel are, no doubt, a way of making sense of his own entanglement.

*Published in Banipal 52 - New Fiction  

sábado, 4 de febrero de 2017

The President’s Gardens and Iraq+100/ Malu Halasa

Iraq’s Present and Future-Past in its Contemporary Literature

By Malu Halasa
Body parts are an essential component in Iraqi contemporary fiction. The soon-to-be published The President’s Garden, by Muhsin Al-Ramli, opens with the mysterious appearance of nine severed heads, each in its own banana crate, on the streets of an Iraqi village. InIraq + 100 a collection of sci-fi short stories about the country in a hundred years time, edited by Hassan Blasim, humans are butchered with gourmet finesse in playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s futuristic tale about Iraq’s new occupiers, aliens.
Muhsin Al-Ramli   and   Hassan Blasim

Blasim emerged as his country’s best young voice in exile with The Iraqi Christ and Corpse Exhibition. In the book’s forward, he reveals his own uneasiness with the brief for + 100, a collection commissioned by his publishers, Comma Press. He found it awkward convincing Iraqi writers to envision a future “when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories.” He might as well have been describing older generation Iraqi writer, poet and translator living in Spain, Al-Ramli, who was in London last month and described himself as “a historian.” The President’s Garden is dedicated to his relations massacred on the third day of Ramadan, 2006, the same day when the crates of heads are discovered in the novel.
The story centers on three childhood friends whose lives and military service mirror the pivotal events of Iraq. Abdullah Kafka, the intellectual, suffered as an Iraqi POW in Iran during the ill-fated Iran-Iraq War and spends his day chain-smoking. The peasant Ibrahim the Fated lost a foot during George Bush Sr’s bombing of the Iraqi army retreat in the desert from Kuwait. While Tariq the Befuddled avoids conscription because of his family’s religious and business contacts and rises socially and economically in the lead up to the 2003 American invasion.
Through Tariq’s connections, Ibrahim starts a new job as a gardener in a lavish garden belonging to the president who is unnamed through the novel. There, he encounters the president at close quarters. The president loves his gardens not for the flowers, trees and flocks of goats and sheep lovingly tended by shepherds but for the sylvan vistas that camouflage the murder and the burial of his adversaries.
Ibrahim, eventually promoted to gravedigger, starts a detailed archive of the killed and missing: evidence of their violent deaths and clues to their identities, the recording a distinguishing mark or even keeping a bit of nail or skin. His archive, written in code and smelling of rotten flesh, is kept secret in his bedroom until the Iraqi officer and husband of his daughter Qisma, goes missing. Ibrahim had also buried his son-in-law’s body but not before noting the flaying of his skin except on the arm with a presidential tattoo. He was buried in a mass grave, alongside other officers involved in a failed coup against the president. Surely the experience of Al-Ramli’s brother Hassan Mutlak, the Iraqi poet and writer hung in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état, provided some impetus for the story.
With levels of violence like this in the imagined creative space, where do Iraqis go to dream? Science fiction, a genre that has had a popular following among Middle Eastern kids and teenage boys, was elevated by the 2013 publication in Arabic, of Baghdad Frankenstein, by Ahmed Saadawi, a novel to be published by Penguin in English in 2018. The movement of sci-fi into the Arabic literary fiction is part of the breakdown between high and low culture that has been taking place in the region since the 2011 Arab Awakening or so–called Spring.
Blasim who has been described by the critic Boyd Tonkin as the Iraqi Irvine Welsh readily admits in + 100 that he is an outsider, “on the margins of the Iraqi literary scene” which “is populated by ‘official writers’ who belong to the Writers’ Union … It is a literary scene that depends … on corruption in the press and in the Ministry of Culture. Literary and other culture projects in Iraq usually come about through personal relations that are not entirely innocent.” Not only is sci-fi missing in modern Iraqi and Arabic canons. He believes there is a dearth of diverse genre writing in Middle Eastern fiction.
He explains the reasons for this: “We, by which I mean Arabs today, are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods, often by dictators who served the capitalist West well …” Despite this, he cites early examples of sci-fi and fantasy in A Thousand and One Nights and the Sumerians’ The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Some stories in + 100 turn on a neat conceit. Ali Bader’s one-eared Corporal Sobhan, killed by an African-American sniper’s bullet, made a deal in heaven and is sent back to Iraq. However the country he returns to no longer needs religion, which places him under suspicion at home as a terrorist and abroad as the anti-Christ – once news of his appearance reaches an ultra religious America that’s “become like Afghanistan was 100 years ago … ruled by the Taliban.”
Statutes too walk and talk in + 100. “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili reveals an Iraq ruled by a governor who cites massacres, famines and natural disasters from history to show that his country isn’t so bad, despite the corpses in the streets.
While in “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhaboby, an architect starts hallucinating and having nightmares – in his dreams a dismembered statue of Scheherazade yearns for her partner in stone Shahryar. It is the final stages of a mental condition, which will leave him blind. The story is as much about a memory of a city as it’s a well-crafted detective who-done-it.
In one hundred years time, politics doesn’t improve much. In “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki, a Chinese warlord takes over oil-rich Kirkuk, outlaws the old languages and songs and arrests the innocent. Iraq’s future still includes women seeking protection from religious freaks in “Kahramana” by Anoud. It also provides the setting for memorable characters like Abdulrazzak’s Kuszib, a tentacled hermaphrodite who offers aphrodisiac wine made from wild humans, killed the moment before they orgasm, as a cure for rekindling a failing alien love affair. In other stories the sci-fi feels disjointed; for some writers it remains a not altogether realized form.
In the masterful The President’s Garden Al-Ramli makes great use of the Iraqi tradition of Scheherazade’s stories within stories. The near-repetition of the first chapter much later in the book has an unexpected poetic effect as the narrative shifts. Stories that have the same beginnings can come to radically different conclusions. By the end, the tale is no longer Ibrahim’s but that of his ill-fated daughter. Qisma always considered her father a failure until he emerges as a hero to the thousands of distraught families looking for their missing relations, as he and his archive become better known. In The President’s Gardens, the dead have already suffered enough; it is the living who do not come away unscathed.
At a launch for Banipal 57 at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London, a twenty-something woman in the audience asked Al-Ramli a question about legitimacy and post-truth. Can his version of history be trusted? Fiction is a kind of truth, muttered both the author and audience. In today’s climate of “alternative” facts that are lies where does the truth of dictatorship and war as harsh as Iraq’s or Syria for that matter, lie? Somehow moral informed choices must be made.
For an author as compelling and important as Al-Ramli, the great heroes of Iraq are not intellectuals or sheikhs – nor are they alien hermaphrodites or the ghostly corporals of + 100. He leaves us with the severed head of a humble man of conscience in a region controlled by killers, religious extremists and crazy American presidents. We’re lucky to get that.
*The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli will be published by MacLehose in April 2017. 
**Malu Halasa is Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books ...
***This article was updated on February 2, 2017