Alexandra Atiya talks with Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli about his Dates on My Fingers, trans. Luke Leafgren (2014), a novel that began in the wake of destruction:
Alexandra Atiya: As you wrote Dates on My Fingers, did you see yourself as building on any other literary work?
Muhsin al-Ramli: I began to write the novel after the US invasion in Iraq, which left devastation over everything: the places of my childhood, the museums, the libraries. I didn’t intend nor did I plan to write a novel, it was more like a kind of free writing to edit my being, my memory, and what was left in it from my first identity, the memories and traditions of a family and a country. It was like getting undressed in front of a mirror to face the reality of a being divided between a past and a present, between two cultures after so many years of living in Spain. Later I saw the characters, the stories, and the threads of the narrative were developing on their own to form this work. The novel in its entirety includes the period before the occupation and it finishes by signaling that it is at the end, which is to say that it covers the period of the dictatorship.
Obviously, I didn’t have in mind any prior Arabic literary model or Spanish literary model to follow, although this doesn’t negate the existence certain influences from other narrative works that appear unconsciously from my reading, above all those that deal with dichotomies in their essence, among them certainly the mother of all novels, Don Quixote.
My novel in its entirety is based in dualities. In fact, I wrote the first draft in both languages, Arabic and Spanish, and at times with some words from one language and some from the other in the same sentence.
My novel in its entirety is based in dualities. In fact, I wrote the first draft in both languages, Arabic and Spanish, and at times with some words from one language and some from the other in the same sentence. Once I had finished it, I started to translate the whole thing to both languages. The novel’s language and the process of writing it resembles myself.
AA: Is any part of the story autobiographical?
MR: Yes, about 80 percent is based on my own biography, my own personality, my family, people that I know, my memory, and the reality of what was in the moment of writing, in such a way that some of the places in Madrid that I mentioned, I wrote their descriptions while being in those places.
The majority of the characters come from people present in my life: for the character of the grandfather, for example, I was inspired by the personality of my father; for the character of the father, Noah, I was inspired by the personality of my older brother; as such, the personality of the narrator is in great measure me; Aliya’s character is that of my first love; the sister is that of my sister; and so on.
AA: Much of the book centers on father-son conflicts. Did you have in mind the final confrontation between Saleem and Noah when you first started writing the book? Was that confrontation the central reason for writing the book? Or did the idea of that confrontation develop later, after you had already established the main characters and plotlines?
MR: My first intention was to recognize the dichotomous conflicts which I was suffering inside, among them, my identity between East and West, secularism and religion, freedom and dictatorship, past and present, fatherland and adopted country, love and hostility, vengeance and forgiveness, among others. In the process of writing the novel, and after finishing it, I discovered that the origin of all these interior conflicts was in reality exterior, and that I was one of the grounds of the battle, which were not my own conflicts from the beginning but inherited ones, or the fruit of the influence of others and the circumstances of my life.
…after finishing the novel, I changed completely.
For this reason, after finishing the novel, I changed completely. I made peace with myself, and I cured many of my psychological sufferings. It was the conflict between different and successive generations, in my life and in the culture of my country, which I inherited and which transformed me into one of its products. I didn’t notice it anymore; I was relieved of its weights. For this reason, the conflict between the narrator Saleem and his father wasn’t as hard as the one between the father and the grandfather, and I ended with a kind of sincerity and reconciliation.
AA: What is the significance of the death of Aliya, Saleem’s first love, in this story? Is her death meant to represent the death of some kind of ideal Saleem has about love or family?
MR: Yes, Aliya is the first love. Often this is the one that remains longest in the memory, and the most influential in determining our emotional makeup. It contains something of idealism, innocence and dreaming, and it contributes to creating the image about which later we fall in love. For this character, I was inspired by the experience of my first love.
About her death by drowning in the river: a critic friend of mine surprised me with an interpretation that I agree with. He said to me: “Your first love died of burns while she was frying eggplant in the kitchen. The scene of her death continued to torment you, and for this reason, in the novel, you have made her die with the antithesis of fire, with water, and you have described the scene of her death in a beautiful way.” I believe that my friend is right, and I remember having cried while I was writing the scene of her death. About its relationship in the context of the novel, it’s possible to interpret it in a certain fashion as the death of whatever beauty there was in Saleem’s past and his fight with himself to cling to his ideal perception of it.
AA: In the novel, Saleem’s grandfather is fixated on establishing an “ideal village.” Was the idea of an “ideal village” based on an actual project, or was that an invention for the thematic purposes of the novel?
MR: The utopia of the “ideal city,” the model society, was conceived in accordance with a certain perception of the world. It exists in all times and cultures and it will continue existing in the future.
During certain circumstances, above all atypical circumstances, some people try to carry out the idea even though it’s illogical and incompatible with reality, because in the beginning it’s born as a dream in the minds of people unsatisfied with the reality of the world in which they live. For this reason, they try to create a particular world that they can imagine as better, and when the opportunity arises, some people try to put it into practice, even if it is an effort.
And yes, in both ancient and contemporary history, there have been many examples of this, most recently, what we are experiencing in Iraq now, when an individual calls himself the same Caliph and chief of a religious state that he has envisioned. Examples of utopias that become, in reality, dictatorships exist in various places, like what happened with the dream in certain communist countries or what is currently happening in North Korea.
What the grandfather did in the novel is similar to that — it is a form of reaction, a response, a rejection of the dictatorship that was ruling Iraq, creating a dictatorship of another kind.
AA: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way in which it creates parallels between the structure of a family and a government. It also creates parallels between paternal authority and religious authority. How do you see the relationship between family and government?
MR: That observation is correct and very important. It is the question of authority — paternal, hierarchical and patriarchal — which we continue to endure in the social, religious and political cultures of the East in general, and in Arab and Islamic culture in particular. All of our life is based in an authority structure, whether in religion or in the systems of government or tribes, up to the smallest social center, the family.
In an environment ruled by dictatorship, the image of the dictator is reflected in all the surrounding mirrors….
In an environment ruled by dictatorship, the image of the dictator is reflected in all the surrounding mirrors, the minister exercises his authority over his subordinates, the director general, reaching to the director of a high school, and then to the family where the grandfather becomes a dictator, followed by his father, his son, etc, by which means the image of the grandfather in the family becomes mixed with the image of the leader, and even with the image of God. In fact, in the Arabic language, we continue to call the father or the patriarch of the family “the god of the family.” In the novel, I describe that reality, explaining the difficulty of its pressures which cause social fights, external and internal, which influence in a great measure the psychology and destiny of people.
AA: The Tigris River features prominently in two scenes – when Aliya dies and when the grandfather orders the whole family to rid themselves of their possessions and government documents. What is the importance of the river within this story?
MR: The river is the symbol of purity, purification, Mother Nature, life and eternity, and related to the sacred in many cultures, such as India, for example. With regard to Iraq, all of its civilizations and time periods in its history are tied to the rivers, above all, the Tigris and Euphrates.
For me, one of the most beautiful names for Iraq, and one of the ones that is closest to my heart, is the name “the land between two rivers” (Mesopotamia). I was born and grew up in a town on the banks of the river Tigris. For this reason the river, especially the Tigris, appears in almost all my work. During the period in which I lived there, the river represented for us a refuge, security, the most beautiful in a country where everything was being destroyed daily. The river was the only thing in which we trusted and we believed in its eternity, which granted us home with its eternal flow.
About the death of Aliya in the river: It is a compassionate death that signifies the union and conjoining of purity and nature and eternal life.
Muhsin al-Ramli, born in Iraq in 1967, is a writer, poet, translator, and writes in Arabic and Spanish. Al-Ramli has lived in exile in Madrid since 1993, where he is a professor. He is the author of several books, including short story collections, plays, poetry, nonfiction, and novels, and has translated a number of Spanish classics into Arabic. Dates on my Fingers was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, and al-Ramli’s The President’s Gardens was longlisted in 2013.