sábado, 22 de abril de 2017

The President’s Gardens, in The guardian

Book of the day
The President’s Gardens review by Muhsin Al-Ramli – love, death and injustice in Iraq

An affirmation of the importance of friendship amid oppression, this vivid epic of life in a war zone is woven from the true stories of those who live there

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Saturday 22 April 2017 

Since 1980, the people of Iraq have suffered almost ceaseless war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions and conflict-related illness. The President’s Gardens, published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren, at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi perspective.
“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This novel belongs to Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose life is narrated in the most detail and the discovery of whose head in a banana crate opens and closes the novel in 2006. Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq “the Befuddled” and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, are also essential to the story.
Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed snappy dresser and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in his village, making necessary accommodations to the ruling system. Abdullah, a “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a PoW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those “penitents” who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.
There is no sectarianism in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunni Muslims, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”
If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, or “fate”. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title. In these secret expanses within Baghdad, studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.
Qisma is independent, upwardly mobile, a little ashamed of her father. The depiction of this relationship’s unspoken regrets – and of the love between Ibrahim and his cousin-wife, flowering at the very last moment – is sensitive and powerful.
A great deal is poured into these quickly flowing pages. The unnamed home village, where “every story reaches every ear eventually”, is a setting as intense as Marquez’s Macondo, its characters, from the mayor to the herdsman, as clearly imagined. A tale of hidden shame forms one of the subplots, domestic confinement mirroring state-organised imprisonment. The plotting is adroit, seasoned by well placed premonitions, secrets and revelations. Among the astounding set pieces are accounts of the conditions in occupied Kuwait, Iraqi conscripts either looting the city or burning in the desert, as well as vivid depictions of the carnage on the bombarded road to Basra, and the chaotic fall of Baghdad to the Americans in 2003. The hallucinatory realism, pricked with symbolic detail, reaches a pitch reminiscent of Vasily Grossman, as when a wounded Ibrahim lifts his eyes and sees a dog with a human face … but then the narrative corrects itself: no, it’s a dog carrying a severed head in its jaws.
Occasionally the writing is Tolstoyan too, in its focus on the interaction of characters with the river of time “which flowed through them and over them”, and in its sense of individual lives connecting with wider society. The senile ramblings of Ibrahim’s mother, for example, make him “feel that his entire life [was] just another ordinary drop amid a vast, enormous ocean of innumerable drops that comprised everything around him: people and their stories, being and possessions”.
The novel is woven from true stories experienced by, or recounted to, the author, now a Madrid-based academic and translator of Don Quixote as well as a star of contemporary Arabic literature. Muhsin Al-Ramli’s brother, the poet Hassan Mutlak, was executed by Saddam in 1990.
Though firmly rooted in its context, The President’s Gardens’ concerns are universal. It is a profoundly moving investigation of love, death and injustice, and an affirmation of the importance of dignity, friendship and meaning amid oppression. The novel is undoubtedly a tragedy, but its light touch and persistent humour make it an enormous pleasure to read. Fortunately, its last words are “to be continued”.
 The President’s Gardens is published by MacLehose. To order a copy for £10.20 (RRP £12) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.

jueves, 20 de abril de 2017

It’s Pub Day for Muhsin al-Ramli’s ‘The President’s Gardens’: Win a Copy

It’s Pub Day for Muhsin al-Ramli’s 
‘The President’s Gardens’: Win a Copy

It’s publication day for Muhsin al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens, and translator Luke Leafgren has offered to share one of his copies with an interested ArabLit reader:
If you would like a copy, throw your hat into the comments below, and we will choose (randomly) from among them.
While you wait, read a review of the book by ArabLit’s Valentine Viene, which opens:
In 1990, Iraqi author Muhsin al-Ramli got a personal taste of Saddam Hussein’s iron grip: His brother, Hassan Mutlak, a celebrated poet, was hanged for attempting a coup d’état. Al-Ramli fled Iraq as soon as he could, although he first had to complete his military service, or else he risked imprisonment. After a period in Jordan, al-Ramli settled in Spain in 1995. In 23 years of exile, every single piece of work he has produced has been about Iraq. At an event organized by Banipal magazine in London this January, al-Ramli said he would continue writing about his homeland as long as it was riven by conflict. Keep reading the review.
The characters in The President’s Gardens also come to know what it means to challenge Saddam Hussein. About his brother, assassinated in 1990, al-Ramli said in an Al Jazeera profile: “I have always been influenced by him, I am a student of Hassan Mutlak and I feel that I owe him everything I know, for when the Iraqi regime decided to take away his life, they deprived the world of a great voice, and I feel its my responsibility to bring out this voice again.”
The President’s Gardens is al-Ramli’s third novel translated into English. His first, Scattered Crumbs (2000), was translated into English by Yasmeen al-Hanoosh, and won the Arkansas Translation Award. (Read an excerpt on al-Ramli’s blog.) His second novel, Fingers of Dates (2008) met with wide acclaim and was longlisted for the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was also translated by Luke Leafgren and published by AUC Press; Alexandra Atiya previously interviewed him about this novel for ArabLit.
In the Al Jazeera profile, al-Ramli also spoke about translation:
With respect to the translations I have written, apart from my books, I would not be exaggerating if I said that I have translated hundreds, if not thousands of other short texts, and all of them were of the literary genre. Translation from one language to another for me is a second mission. I find it necessary, and at times I also find myself obliged to translate, because although my main mission and dream is to dedicate myself exclusively to creative writing and literature, I understand that part of my duty is to translate from Spanish to Arabic and vice versa because I am fluent in both, and I find it important for me to complete this service between the two languages and the two cultures.
Again, to enter the drawing, simply add any comment below, although preferably something to distinguish yourself from a bot. This is open to anyone worldwide.
Velentine Viene

miércoles, 19 de abril de 2017

The President’s Gardens follows Iraq’s Twentieth

A touching and traumatic journey through Iraq’s troubled Twentieth Century. 

Spilt Ink Review
The President’s Gardens follows Iraq’s Twentieth Century through the story of three best friends, giving depth, humour and humanity to a country, the name of which is for so many synonymous with war and strife.
Ibrahim the Fated, Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled (the former for his resigned nature, the next for his melancholy and the latter for obvious reasons) are the three friends whose personalities dominate and entertain their tiny village. Between them they span Iraqi society from rich to poor, devout to cynical and their journey to adulthood is told with a delightfully twinkly eyed, distinctly earthy humour. From their childhood playground antics, adolescent forays into masturbation and sex and eventual coming of age through military service you feel and deep affection and attachment for them making their trials (and the trials of their country) all the more personally felt.
Their rustic and rural village is an isolated spot, the outside world only occasionally intruding in the form of illicit arms trading with neighbouring Kurds and news brought by camel by the Bedouin. However as the 20thCentury rolls on and war creeps closer to home, the elders rose tinted talk of the distant ’48 Palestinian war gives way to the full horrors of the Iran-Iraq War so often forgotten in the west with all its pointless death, chemical weapons, decades spent in prison camps and the endless hatred such experiences produce. For the three friends the war brings loss, heartbreak, disability and captivity, teaching them all to be cynical of and resigned to the horrors of the dictatorship that tightens its grip on Iraqi society throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. We meet this dictatorship when Ibrahim the Fated gets a job as a gardener for the president and he is first exposed, first to the opulence of the countries ruling caste and later their brutality, when he is ‘promoted,’ to the role of burying the bodies of the purged. This section of the novel outstrips any of the war scenes in its depiction of unbridled, functional brutality and horror, the bodies are at least buried however, unlike in the books closing pages as he vacuum left by the toppling of that dictatorship brings forth new horror as humanity crumbles as people lose their restraints and the most aggressive and unscrupulous of people are allowed to flourish.
This is the Iraq so many know from news footage of desolate and corpse strewn streets. Vicious militias rule in the absence of any central authority and have turned the cities into, “labyrinths of ghosts,” and Iraq in plundered from all sides but despite that Al-Ramli never stoops to finger pointing. Blame is apportioned to wrongdoers regardless of faith or nation and the central tenant of the book is upheld. That the common people are good, and the common people can survive whatever history and circumstance throws at them with at least some sense of decency intact.
Having never read any modern Arabic literature before the writing style is light as a feather and completely refreshing compared to the often deliberately complex writing of so many western authors. Weaving together modern language, humour and references with an older style of storytelling that allows each character to tell his or her story all in one go is relatively unusual in the modern novel and is as instinctively well absorbed as it is enjoyable. This never gets in the way of the terror of the present day however, the book closes in a disturbing, open ended fashion that reflects the danger Iraq’s current instability.
As an introduction to Iraqi writing and recent history, The President’s Gardens deserves recognition as a brilliant depiction of a nation’s transformation from garden, to gaol to graveyard and through it Muhsin Al-Ramli has given a voice to a people for so long crushed and buffeted by the forces of history that lie so far outside their control.

martes, 18 de abril de 2017

Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel exposes the horrors of war

English translation of 
Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel exposes the horrors of war
Ben East
April 18, 2017 The National 

Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli
It begins with a beheading. Then another, and another, until nine severed heads are found in a sleepy Iraqi village. It’s a shockingly vivid introduction to the ­violent, ­chaotic world of Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s ­Garden.
Asking where the Iraqi novelist got his inspiration seems an innocent enough question. Nothing prepares you for the answer.
"On the third day of Ramadan in 2006, I received news of the slaughter of nine of my relatives who were fasting," Al-Ramli says. "My village found their heads in banana crates, along with their ID cards, on the side of the main road near my ­family’s house.
"That news shocked and terrified me. I wept. I had childhood memories of playing with the owners of these heads."
Understandably, Al-Ramli had no idea what to do, other than to take refuge in something he knew: writing. Six years later, The President’s Gardens was published in Arabic, framing the stories of friends Abdullah, Tariq and Ibrahim around both their personal tragedy and the tragedy of Iraq in the years ­between the war with Iran and the aftermath of the American invasion.
It was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for ­Arabic Fiction, and this week an ­English translation, by Luke Leafgren, is finally published. It is a stunning achievement.
"I wanted to say that the ­victims were not just numbers to be tallied up in newspapers, but each was an entire world in themselves," he says of his aims for the book.
"They were people with families, memories and dreams, and it was the ugliest injustice to slaughter this entire world and forget it so nonchalantly in a matter of minutes."
For all that death is ever present in Al-Ramli’s book, his real achievement is to make the characters of Tariq, Ibrahim and Abdullah so full of life, believable and even relatable. Their relationships somehow endure despite the heavy toll of simply living in Iraq.
"That’s the relationship that victims have with each other," says Al-Ramli.
"They are examples of ­common, everyday people, the pattern for millions of Iraqis upon whom injustice has fallen. They pay a heavy price on account of the dictatorship, the customs, the traditions, the wars, the sanctions, and so on – all without having any guilt or any choice in the matter."
Abdullah’s journey gives the book its title: he ends up ­tending the Iraqi president’s sumptuous garden – but of course digging holes in the Earth is not as innocuous a task as it might seem under his rule.
It’s interesting that ­Saddam Hussein’s name is never ­mentioned, which has the ­effect of allowing The ­President’s Garden to work as a comment on any totalitarian regime.
"Yes, that’s right," Al-Ramli agrees.
"Except there is also a ­personal reason: I do not want to mention Saddam Hussein by name in any of my literary works, he being the one who killed my brother and many of my relatives.
"I feel that doing so would pollute my texts. In my works, you might find names for everything – even for a donkey – but you won’t find his."
Al-Ramli fled Iraq for Jordan after "three nightmarish years in the Iraqi army", then left for Spain in 1995, where he lives now.
There is a chilling line in the book that seems to sum up what it must have been like to live through that period in lraq, as Abdullah tells Ibrahim: "There’s no way that death could be worse than life".
"When the Iraq-Iran War ­began, I was 13 years old, and the corpses of the slain arrived every day," says Al-Ramli.
"Death has continued ­without a pause until today, for my ­village has been under the ­control of Daesh for two-and-a-half years.
"Because of the multitude of ugly ways to die in Iraq, most people longed for a natural death – indeed, I heard my mother pray to God that he would make her die.
"I myself longed for death ­numerous times."
While he has suffered more than most of us could imagine in our worst nightmares, somehow The President’s Gardens manages to celebrate the humanity of its protagonists.
"There’s no life without hope," Al-Ramli reminds me, and the possibility that Leafgren’s translation might now reach a much wider audience is a ­thrilling chink of light.
"It will bring the voices of my people, along with their sufferings, to the greatest number of people in the world," he says.
"The sense among victims that others know and feel their pain will ease that suffering and let them feel a kind of human solidarity."
The book also ends on a "to be continued", and Al-Ramli reveals he is halfway through a sequel. Its tone might surprise a few people.
"I believe the sequel will be more enjoyable, more ­suspenseful," he says.
"I will make the reader laugh more than cry this time, not ­because what happens is ­funny, but because when tragedy ­reaches its most painful climax, sometimes there is nothing we can do after the tears except laugh."
The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Luke Leafgren, published by MacLehose Press, is out April 19

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Luke Leafgren

domingo, 16 de abril de 2017

The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli

The President’s Gardens,
Muhsin Al-Ramli 

Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.

What’s it about?
Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:
On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? 
The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.
It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. 
It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. 
And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

The Story                                                                                               
The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.
The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.
The Review
There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.
Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.
Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.
The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.
The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.
Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.
Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.
The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.
The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.
Many thanks to Quercus Books / MacLehose Press and Net Galley for the ARC. 

About the Author
Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudera in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli / Financial Times

Short review
The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli
A multi-generational tale of Iraq with a magical tinge

By: Tom Gordon
APRIL 13, 2017 Financial Times

The President’s Gardens evokes the fantastical, small town feel of One Hundred Years of Solitude. During Ramadan in 2006, nine decapitated heads are delivered to an Iraqi village, setting in motion a narrative that spans generations. One of the heads belongs to Ibrahim, who is the spine of a story buffeted by the wider tides of history: the bloody churn of dictatorship, invasion and occupation.
At times the magical tinge is clear, as with the flayed corpse whose accusing eyes cannot be closed. At others, the lurid horror of reality needs no embellishment. “The skies rained down hell, the earth vomited it back up...the simple Iraqi soldiers who resisted fought in despair and died.” The President’s Gardens may feel familiar, but it still shocks and enchants.