Looking at the 2013 Longlist: Muhsin al-Ramli’s ‘The President’s Gardens’

Muhsin al-Ramli is one of two Iraqis on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist. Many of you will already know his work, but:

MuhsinElRamliAl-Ramli was born in 1967 in northern Iraq, into a family of nine children.

He initially dreamed of becoming an actor, but his conservative father forbade it. So instead, al-Ramli chose journalism. A friend told him that journalism required a second language. And — in part because he couldn’t bear English and in part to read authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and  Mario Vargas Llosa in the original–  he chose Spanish.

Al-Ramli’s brother, Hasan Mutlak, was also a prominent writer. But Mutlak was assassinated while still a young man, 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.”

Al-Ramli moved to Spain in 1995, where he did his PhD and continues to make his home. As well as being a novelist, he is also a translator, and has brought Don Quixote, among other texts, from Spanish into Arabic.

With the Spanish edition, "Dedos de Detilos."
Author with the Spanish edition, Dedos de Datiles.

Al-Ramli has written three novels, in addition to writing poetry and short stories. His first novel, 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 released in Spanish as Dedos de Datiles.

About al-Ramli’s Fingers of Dates, fellow Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim said: “This novel is free from the exaggerated poetic language sometimes found in Arab narratives. And it’s an Iraqi novel that doesn’t use the language of melancholy and melodrama, as happens in Iraqi novels. It’s a clever novel — it explores with a sense of fun the depths of tragicomedy in Iraq during the dictatorship.”

presidentsgardensAl-Ramli’s third novel, The President’s Gardens (2012), was again longlisted for the 2013 IPAF. It also traces the impact of Iraqi history — war, embargo, dictatorship, occupation — on the lives of ordinary people.

Iraqi novelist Ali Badr, who chose the book as one of his favorites of 2012, said that The President’s Gardens “has strong political themes drawn from Iraqi social history, and gives a hard critical examination of the power held by the Saddam Hussein, and after, the epoch of American occupation: the civil strife, unlawful killing, torture and ill-treatment, kidnapping and hostages…and sheds some specific reflection, albeit in fictional guise, on the nature of the authoritarianism. It also analyzes the economics, politics, and rule of the régime as a history book might.”

In the Al-Jazeera profile, al-Ramli also spoke about the importance of 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.

Note: I had heard late last year that Fingers of Dates was being translated into English, although I’m not sure I was ever told who was doing it or for which publisher.

Part 1 of a 2009 profile of al-Ramli that ran on Al-Jazeera:

Selections of al-Ramli’s poetry in English, trans. Samantha Lewis:

“Creature,” “Birthday,” “Pronouns and Words,” “Statues,” “After the Rain”

Al-Ramli’s Blog: