martes, 30 de mayo de 2017

Muhsin Al-Ramli / Interview/ The arts desk

Muhsin Al-Ramli'During Saddam’s regime at least we knew who the enemy was'
- interview
Iraqi author of the acclaimed novel The President’s Gardens on life under Saddam Hussein and after

by Rachel Halliburton 
'I wrote this book to speak to young Iraqis and help them understand their country'

Saddam Hussein’s name is never mentioned in The President’s Gardens, even though he haunts every page. The one time that the reader encounters him directly, he is referred to simply by his title. In a novel of vivid pictures, the almost hallucinogenic image of the President turning the ornamental gardens around him into a bloodbath is one of the most unforgettable. As a trembling musician plays his oud by a lake, Saddam systematically humiliates him with accusations and insults, casually shooting the ducks and fish around them, before taking up an AK47 and dispatching the man in a hail of bullets.
The author Muhsin Al-Ramli is well acquainted with the psychotic precision of Hussein’s brutality, and refuses to name him because he feels it would “dirty” the book. “At 8pm on 18 July, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s regime killed my brother [the poet Hassan Mutlak – known as the Lorca of Iraq],” he tells me. “He wasn’t in the army, but he had been plotting a coup with some of Saddam’s soldiers. The plot was discovered at the last moment. They were arrested and tortured – then the soldiers were killed with bullets, and my brother, because he was a civilian, was hanged. They didn’t return the bodies to the families of the military men till the families paid the cost of the bullets they had used to kill them.”
This is not the only tragedy that has marked the 50-year-old Al-Ramli’s life, yet the sleek well-preserved man I talk to in the vast darkened lounge of Russell Square’s President Hotel does not flaunt his emotional scars. On the contrary, he is distinguished by the fierce, almost relentless, humour I have encountered when interviewing other survivors from totalitarian regimes. Anger and laughter are closely intertwined in his conversation and prose – when challenged on this, he replies, “when situations reach their limit of tragedy and pain there is no other way of expressing this than through sarcasm and irony.” His great literary hero is Cervantes – he did his doctoral thesis on Don Quixote into Arabic – and he points out how the comic ebullience of the Spaniard’s masterpiece was, in essence, a response to “suffering so much under the Inquisition”.

The President’s Gardens – his third novel – has been ecstatically hailed since its translation into English by Luke Leafgren, not least by Robin Yassin-Kassab in the Guardian who describes it as an “epic account” of Iraq’s sufferings since 1980. It tells the story of modern Iraq through a portrait of three friends: Tariq the Befuddled, Abdullah Kafka, and Ibrahim the Fated. Deftly Al-Ramli sketches the joys and pains of growing up in a village (evocative of his own birthplace, Sudara, in northern Iraq), infusing tragedy with comedy, the epic with the intimate, and the real with the surreal.
It is Ibrahim who witnesses Saddam carrying out the execution in his Versailles-like gardens – an episode, Al-Ramli tells me, taken from a real-life account by one of his relatives. Amid the poisoned perfection of perfumed fountains and manicured flowerbeds, Ibrahim is employed – as a “reward” for loyal service in the army – to bury the corpses of Saddam’s torture victims. The lugubrious Abdullah, nicknamed “Kafka” because of his melancholic nature, does military service with Ibrahim, yet his fate is to be imprisoned in Iran where he witnesses Shiite oppression under Ayatollah Khomeini. Tariq the “Befuddled”, so-called because he is easily seduced by any new idea, is the most fortunate of the three. He becomes an imam, is spared military service and ultimately prospers, even as he witnesses the tragedies of those living in the village around him.
Though his family suffered much under Saddam Hussein – Al-Ramli remembers that the one time he saw Hussein, while on military service “I almost stopped breathing I was so afraid” – the novel is striking for its lack of partisanship. In the arresting opening image, nine severed heads are delivered to the village in banana crates. Al-Ramli points out that this echoes the fate that befell nine of his relatives in 2006, after Saddam had fallen from power. “During Saddam’s regime at least we knew who the enemy was,” he says. “Since he fell, we have encountered multiple enemies, both inside and out of the country. The Americans and the British left our borders vulnerable. I start my novel when I do, because that was the beginning of two of the most difficult years in Iraq’s history.”

The scene where the Americans are the main destroyers – set during the first rather than the second Gulf War – is the most apocalyptic. Ibrahim the Fated – whose philosophical acceptance of suffering means, according to Al-Ramli, that he represents Iraq – is fighting in Kuwait. When the allied forces begin their attack on Saddam’s forces, the desert is quickly turned into “a sea of fire and iron”. Ibrahim and his friend Ahmad try to escape, fleeing as far as the international highway connecting Kuwait and Basra before the American B-52s arrive. “What they saw was a true hell in all its horrors… The road was transmogrified into an explosion of fire, smoke, limbs, blood, destruction, ashes, death.”
Al-Ramli himself was on forced military service during the Kuwait war and witnessed the immediate aftermath of the scene. In a moment in the novel that evokes the magical realism of another of his literary heroes, Gabriel García Márquez, he describes a dog with a human face approaching Ibrahim as he lies amid the corpses left by the bombers. “[The] monstrosity of the sight terrified him. When the dog turned away, Ibrahim realised it did not have human features, but rather it was carrying someone’s severed head in its jaws, the face turned forward.”
The President’s Gardens represents a significant maturation of style for Al-Ramli. Its virtuosity and breadth makes it different from the acclaimed yet more obviously raw and angry Dates on My Fingers. By showing the universality of evil – refusing to ascribe it more to one side than another – Al-Ramli has made this nothing less than a great novel about life and death. The intense joys of love for a child, the complex pleasures of friendship, or the simple delights of swimming in the Tigris are evoked every bit as vividly as the terrors of destruction.
Yet this same refusal to embrace partisanship also means that Al-Ramli can no longer go home to visit his family.  The bookish child of a village cleric – “my mother wanted to burn my books because she thought I would go mad,” he laughs – he fled to Spain in 1995. Now he teaches at the Saint Louis University in Madrid. But his family still lives in the village where he was born, which – at the time we meet – is under the control of Daesh.
“They killed one of my beloved nieces because she had been a monitor for an election – they killed her with a sword in the town square,” he says, eyes glistening. It’s not just Daesh he fears – “because I’ve spoken so much about Iran, [Shiites] want to kill me too. Then there are those who still believe in Saddam’s legacy – “A lot of Arab people, Palestinians, Moroccans, continue to think of Saddam Hussein as a hero. They hate me and reject me for the way I’ve portrayed him.”
His eyes glitter. “But I wrote this book to speak to young Iraqis and help them understand their country. Even now, every day some atrocity is taking place in Iraq. They are robbing museums, destroying archaeology, breaking civil society and the links that bring the community together. One of the most important jobs that literature has is to explain the memories that are being wiped away every day.” 
 The President's Gardens is published by Quercus Books (£12.99

martes, 9 de mayo de 2017

The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli /Literary Flits

The President's Gardens
                                            by Muhsin Al-Ramli

The President's Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli
First published in Arabic as Had a'iq ar-ra'ays in 2013. English language translation by Luke Leafgren published in the UK by 
MacLehose Press in April 2017.

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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By: Stephanie Jane

Literary Flits
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. 
I found The President's Gardens to be a traumatic book to read both in its emotional impact and, especially, in its graphic depictions of wartime violence and the aftermath of torture. This is definitely not a novel for the squeamish or faint-hearted. That said, I feel rewarded by the read and appreciated the opportunity to discover an Iraqi perspective on the years of warfare instead of American and British views. Al-Ramli has a beautiful prose style, meandering at times, with emphasis on character and motivation over action and pace. I was often swept up into deep philosophical discussions or portrayals of everyday village life or descriptions of the stunning eponymous gardens. These gentle scenes are then shattered on the turn of a page to reveal the true horrors of life under Saddam's regime or as a prisoner of war in Iran.
It was this duality of life that I found most difficult initially to grasp and I think this is why it took me a good quarter of the book to really get into the story. The first scene, of nine heads delivered in banana crates, is incredibly powerful. Al-Ramli then drops down several gears to begin a story of childhood friendship and I struggled to reconcile these and other threads, attempting to do so too soon instead of allowing the writing to lead me. The President's Gardens is harrowing and shocking, but also surprisingly humble and understated. I liked that we get to know the characters well and I could always understand their reasons for particular actions and choices. Ordinary people living through extreme times makes for fascinating literature, particularly so in this novel as so much of the background is essentially true and so recent.





For many of us, Iraq as an entity is summed up by the images of air strikes on the news and by the rhetoric of politicians and military leaders. It is a place that for all my life has seemed profoundly ‘other’: my earliest memories of seeing war on television are of the Gulf War, when I was five years old. So I came to this book with curiosity, hoping to learn more about the people who have suffered such an existence. Written by the expatriate Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, it’s a haunting, often horrific tale of three close friends in a rural community, whose lives intersect with the tragedy and chaos of their country.
The opening sentence is worth quoting, because it sums up the flavour of the book: its matter of fact style hiding the horror within. It is 2006 and, ‘In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons.’ One of these heads belongs to Ibrahim, one of a close-knit trio of friends who have been inseparable ever since boyhood. Now, as his two companions Tariq and Abdullah come to terms with their friend’s murder, each in his own way, we look back into the past to follow the paths that these three young men took, which led them from their happy boyhoods to this bleak morning in the village square.
I should note, at this point, that while Al-Ramli’s story is not autobiographical, it is woven together from real events told to him by various people, while his own brother – a celebrated poet – was murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1990. This is a land where fiction is simply a plaster covering the raw, unhealed agony of brutalisation which every family has experienced. In that sense alone, this is a book that should be read.
From childhood, each of the three boys has had a very distinct personality. Tariq, the beloved son of the local imam, has always been relaxed and charming; Abdullah, whose ‘parents’ found him as an abandoned baby on their doorstep, has an innate melancholy which has led to his nickname ‘Kafka’; while Ibrahim, the son of a self-professed war hero, is gentle and resigned to his fate or qisma (a name he gives to his own daughter). Ibrahim and Abdullah go off to do their military service while Tariq, as an imam and teacher, is exempt; and, at first, they simply enjoy the chance to get away from home and see the world. But that world is changing and, as these three young men grow to adulthood, the international situation becomes ever more fraught. Their President enters into war against Kuwait, a war that expands to encompass the entire region and which brings foreigner powers in with their air strikes and their bombs. Suddenly these young men are no longer playing at war, but caught up in a terrifyingly brutal reality.
The descriptions of war in this book are harrowing. Columns of refugees – women and children – are gunned down from the skies; mines blow men to pieces; and in one scene, almost hallucinogenic, Ibrahim comes round from unconsciousness to see a dog with a man’s head beside him – realising, then, as dream comes back to reality, that it’s a dog carrying a severed head. When, in peacetime, Ibrahim is rewarded for his war service with a coveted job in the President’s own gardens, he thinks at first that he is in paradise, a world of roses and wonders. But gradually he comes to realise that this is only horror by another name, hiding behind a mask.
Yet this is also a story of a community carrying on despite its circumstances: an extended family of villagers who share each other’s hopes and secrets, who care for one another and offer much-needed comfort in dark times. It’s a tale of fathers and sons, and the desire to do well by one’s family; a tale of mothers, grandmothers and daughters; a picture of a group of simple yet resilient people struggling to understand their times and, perhaps, to change with them. And it’s for that picture of community that Al-Ramli’s story resonates so powerfully with me. Here is a village which might have been transplanted from any country (with a few cultural tweaks), and in getting to know the people of this little settlement, we grow to care about them. Thanks to Luke Leafgren’s elegant translation, the prose has a dignity and poise which, as I’ve said, makes the tragic moments all that more affecting.
Powerful and thought-provoking, this novel gives a clearer picture of the recent history of the countries in the Gulf, and helps us to look beyond the simplistic propaganda of ‘liberation’ peddled by our Western governments. It is not an easy book to read. It should not be. Yet it is never polemical. Highly recommended as a rare chance to see the recent conflicts from another perspective; as a way to comprehend the full nature of the tragedy inflicted on the Iraqi people; and an insight into the comparable experiences of refugees in our own time.

The President's Gardens, in the SOCIALIST REVIEW


The President's Gardens

By: Sally Kincaid

On the third day of Ramadan 2006, nine decapitated heads are delivered in banana boxes to an Iraqi village. One of the heads belongs to Ibrahim, a quiet, gentle, humble soul. The President’s Gardens unravels through a story involving three generations under the backdrop of the invasion of Kuwait, the first Gulf War and the lead up to the US invasion.
The book intertwines the life-long friendship between Ibrahim the Fated, Abdullah Katfa and Tariq the Befuddle known collectively as the sons of the earth crack.
Muhsin describes the complicated village relationships beautifully. As you read the book you feel like you are sitting chain smoking with Abdullah, who spent 20 years of the story in an Iranian prison.
The book takes you on the journey of how residents of a remote village live and survive through the period between the 1980s Iran-Iraq war right through the 2003 invasion. The relationship between different generations, from the woman elder, the mayor’s wife who holds the family secrets in her head until she is able to tell the truth to Ibrahim’s daughter Qisma who becomes estranged emotionally from her father.
There is a chilling description of the road of the hell that was the road to Basra in 1996 at the end of the first Gulf War. He contrasts the hardship of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis with the disgusting luxury and splendur of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and the lives of the Iraqi elite. This is the life of the 1 percent who own 99 percent of the world’s wealth.
The description of preparations before Saddam Hussein boarded his $50 million yacht in the port of Umm Qasr with the bay becoming a hive of activity, reminded me of sitting on a beach in Greece watching the preparation for Prince Charles visiting his own; hour upon hour smaller boats would unload. The parasite was there 24 hours, before moving on to another holiday destination.
I recommend this book, as a reminder of the brutality of imperialism and dictatorship but also the love and humanity of ordinary people who despite everything survive to tell the tale. Once you start it is hard to put down.
Muhsin dedicates his book to the souls of his nine relatives and to all the oppressed in Iraq:
“May the deceased forgive our bitter grief and rest in peace. May the living do their utmost for the sake of peace and tolerance.”
I echo that and also add to all those who have had to flee their country for whatever reason because of this war and others.

lunes, 8 de mayo de 2017

The President’s Gardens, in The Herald

Brutal but beautiful

'Consistently compelling' – Review: 

President’s Gardens

by Muhsin Al-Ramli

 Review by: Alastair Mabbott

FOR such a beautiful novel, The President’s Gardens begins on a gruesome note. A village in Iraq awakens to find nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of the villagers, some disfigured by torture. To explain how they eventually came to be there, Muhsin Al-Ramli (in a fine translation from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren) tells us the story of three boyhood friends, “the sons of the earth crack”, and of how they fared in the period encompassing the Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait, the purges which re-established Saddam Hussein’s authority after his military misadventuring and the occupation of Iraq by America and her allies. In writing about ordinary Iraqis who pay the cost of wars waged by remote, autocratic leaders, Al-Ramli touches on deep and timeless themes. The human capacity for both nobility and wanton destruction. Pain and healing. The different shades of love. The capriciousness of fate.
The sons of the earth crack were born in 1959, comprising Tariq, who carefully manoeuvres his way through life to attain modest wealth and influence, Ibrahim, who loses his foot in the war and is regarded by his daughter as a pathetic loser, and Abdullah, “the prince of pessimists”, who was held prisoner in Iran for 20 years and learned that “the cruelty of man is more barbaric than any other creature”. Tariq doesn’t actually feature that heavily, but his two comrades are substantial, well-realised creations. The marvellously implacable Abdullah, nicknamed Kafka by his friends, is detached and withdrawn, but is more decent than he realises and needs love and tenderness more than he would ever admit. One strongly sympathises with Ibrahim too, especially after he gets a job in the titular garden and is forced to participate in acts that would freeze the blood.
Death is the enemy here. Not death as the natural conclusion to a life well-lived, but as a symptom of the cruelty and barbarity of the human race. To defy and resist it, people turn to each other, enjoying the “rare and special pleasure” of gathering together over tea, providing support for each other and basking in the warmth of feeling a part of something greater. Both Abdullah and Ibrahim, in their separate ways, retreat into the world of the dead and forget their obligations to the living, but even the last meetings of the sons of the earth crack “would end with a sense of catharsis, the feeling of a man meeting himself”. Similar sentiments are expressed by Ibrahim while working in Saddam’s garden: “He wished there was some way to tenderly embrace one’s soul as though it were another human being.”
By emphasising the dark side of humanity, Al-Ramli celebrates the best of us. Within this awful morass of violence and hatred, there are acts of compassion going on all the time, everywhere. As uplifting as it is grim, The President’s Garden is a consistently compelling novel, and it’s a shock to the system to reach, with no warning, the words “to be continued …” on the final page.
Alastair Mabbott

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli 

by: The Last Word Book Review
Make no mistake this is a very powerful novel. The President’s Gardens written by Muhsin Al-Ramli and translated by Luke Leafgren is a book not to be taken lightly and is an incredibly beautiful novel that has passion running through its heart. An outstanding achievement in Iraqi literature.
Haunting is the word I would use here, the opening gives the reader a lot to absorb and through the remaining pages the is more detail and along with more detailed descriptions of life in Iraq. The one aspect of this novel that pours out of the pages is ‘war’ it is ever present through the lives of the people of this country. Some of the descriptions of the ravages of war on villages and people are detailed at upsetting and the author does not shy away from writing this into the storyline. It is the horror of war that you cannot escape from. Some may find this disturbing but there are some very moving and beautiful moments in the story that bring joy and emotion to a deeply powerful novel. The three friends despite knowing each other for nearly all their life are uniquely different shaped by the events that have engulfed their country this is their story and there is tragedy waiting for one of them while the other has seen enough and longs for peace while the remaining friend has escaped the worst but things he does will have significant ramifications.
To quote from the book “The skies rained down hell, the earth vomited it back up...the simple Iraqi soldiers who resisted fought in despair and died. The writing is just incredible how the author tells a story of love, death war and more war. There is no escape. Although first published in Arabic in 2012 this is a book that needs to be read and should be read widely. It is an incredible read if upsetting at times. The story ends with “To be continued” Does this mean that we can expect a follow story. I for one earnestly hope that this is the case. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Thank you to Paul Engles and MacLehose Press for the advanced review copy of The President’s Gardens.

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli is published by MacLehouse Press and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.