This week, around the world, readings will commemorate the Mutanabbi Street bombing of 2007. Muhsin al-Ramli’s acclaimed novel The President’s Gardens is also a refusal to forget. The novel chronicles the Saddam Hussein years, and it has moments when the reader needs to close the book and process. But it also has moments of great delight:
By Valentina Viene
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.
Al-Ramli is adamant that Saddam Hussein is no hero, contrary to what some Iraqis currently believe, and that the country’s current situation in Iraq is part of Saddam’s legacy. Al-Ramli attributes the current idealization of Saddam to a destructive forgetfulness. That’s why he wrote The President’s Gardens, a novel published in Arabic in 2012 that will be available in English this April, thanks to Luke Leafgren’s seamless translation. The novel is an attempt to write the testimonies of life under Saddam’s dictatorship into posterity in a way the history books can’t—lest we forget. All the events described in this novel were either directly experienced by the author or related to him by others. He assures us they are all real.
Secrets in the president’s gardens
The President’s Gardens revolves around three men whose friendship lasts until their death. Two of them, Abdullah and Ibrahim, are forced to join the army during the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait. The third, Tariq, is relieved of military service because of his studies and follows in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader. The idyllic village where they grew up is a remote place in Northern Iraq where life continues almost magically—the author fills village life with legends and stories from the past.
The little community has secrets the narrator reveals gradually, not just to the readers, but also to the characters, leaving scars on their souls. It is to this timeless, nostalgic place that Abdullah and Ibrahim dream of returning after the war, but things don’t go according to plan. Abdullah had hoped to marry Sameeha, Tariq’s sister and a woman who loves him, but during his absence she is betrothed to a man she does not love.
Ibrahim meanwhile moves to Baghdad to work and support his wife, who has cancer and needs treatment. Soon she dies, and he finds himself doing a job he both hates and has to keep secret: He’s a gravedigger in the president’s gardens. Ibrahim has information he could be killed for, and, as a consequence, he becomes increasingly withdrawn. He spends more time with the dead than with the living. He finds meaning in secretly cataloguing the corpses so that, if someone were ever to go and look for them, they could be identified.
When Abdullah and Ibrahim finally manage to return to Baiji, after the Kuwaiti invasion, they are so demoralized all they wish for is peace and safety. While struggling to rid themselves of the ghosts of the past, they reflect on how the wars have taken away the best years of their lives and, what’s worse, they can’t move on. Ibrahim finds a purpose in life, in secretly taking people to consult his catalogues of the dead in his Baghdad flat. For this, he is killed.
The novel explores the untold stories of those Iraqi soldiers who were made prisoners in the 80s, during the Iraq-Iran war, the last of whom were released in 2003. It also offers an insight into military life: hazing rituals, torture, the UN’s attempts to document the degradations of some prisons, the submission soldiers had to learn from very early on, the friendships amongst comrades, and upsetting scenes of death. There are moments when you need to close the book and allow yourself to process what you’re reading.
Luckily, to compensate, there are some absolutely delightful moments. Some are poignant images, as when Abdullah returns to his village after years away and his blind adoptive mother touches his beard, asking if it has become white. Some of these are moments of love, as when Ibrahim visits his wife in hospital wearing his wedding suit, and they forgive each other for their shortcomings. Or there are funny moments as, in the three friends’ youth, when they hide in the forest and pull their pants down to see who is the most “equipped.”
The reader senses the characters’ indissoluble relationship with the earth is a reflection of the author’s own ties to his homeland. He depicts the Iraqi soil as one with an ancient history, a place where, “People often found urns, bracelets, earrings, tablets, belts, swords, and armor made from brass, gold and silver” when they built their mud houses. By the end of the novel, this soil becomes ground for the deceptively luxurious presidential gardens, a symbol of Iraq’s flowering of carnage.
The perils of refusing to remember
A central theme to the novel is the tragedy of forgetting. After Ibrahim comes back from the war in Kuwait, adolescent Qisma, his daughter, looks at him with contempt. As she’s had no dialogue with her father, all she sees in him is a weak man who always accepted his fate, even the choice of a wife.
Qisma, which in fact means destiny, hates her father’s acceptance of fate so much so that she changes her name and rebels against everything her father represents. She marries a man who has a picture of the tyrant tattooed on his arm, who chooses Saddam as a name for their son. On the one hand, the older generation hates Saddam, as they barely manage to survive their tragic experiences. On the other, the new generation has completely lost touch with reality and has gone so far as to idolize the dictator. But no one is exempt from his oppression: Qisma’s husband is tortured to death, and she is raped by none other than Saddam himself.
The President’s Gardens is reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude in its effort to commit to memory the history of a country and, like Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, it is an intensely political book. We are presented, in the very first page, with the arrival in the village of nine banana crates, each containing a severed head. One of them is Ibrahim’s. This episode coincides with the American invasion of Iraq. Here, the author highlights how the banana boxes have come from abroad, as bananas are not native to Iraq. In this scene, al-Ramli makes us question who the instigators are. It could be the Americans, or more likely Saddam’s henchmen, or even his opponents. The macabre scene suggests we are entering a new cycle of violence but, at the same time, Ibrahim’s small act of cataloguing has allowed some families to find the bodies of their relatives and, with them, some form of closure.
The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the IPAF in 2013 and won the PEN Translates award in 2016.
Muhsin Al-Ramli is a Professor at Saint Louis University, Madrid; he has published both novels and poetry. Two of his novel,s Scattered Clouds and Dates on my Fingers, have been translated into English. He is co-editor of Al-Wah, an Arab cultural magazine based in Spain, and he has also translated several Spanish classics to Arabic, including Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Valentina Viene (valeviene.wixsite.com/kashafa) is a translator from Arabic into English and Italian and a literary scout focusing on contemporary Arabic literature. A graduate of the Orientale, Naples, she has translated a number of Arab authors and her articles have appeared in Italian academic journals and blogs. She has lived in and around the MENA region for several years.