The Middle East in translation

Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli channels personal experience of wartime horrors in The President's Gardens

Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli and Turkish writer Hasan Ali Toptas mine their experiences for their books

Now based in Spain, author Muhsin Al-Ramli fled Iraq after the death of his poet-brother, who was hanged in 1990 for his involvement in an attempted coup against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. PHOTO: KHALED KAKI

On the third day of Ramadan in 2006, Iraqi writer Muhsin Al-Ramli learnt that nine of his relatives had been murdered. Their severed heads had been found in banana crates, along with their identity cards, in a village street near his family's house.

There was nothing that a grieving Al-Ramli, who has lived in Spain since 1995, could do, except pick up a pen and begin writing. This was how he commenced The President's Gardens, an epic account of how the many wars of Iraq have destroyed the lives of ordinary men and women over the past 50 years.

The 50-year-old's third novel, which was published in 2012, was translated into English for the first time by Luke Leafgren in April. It was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013 and last year won the PEN Translates Award, a Britain-based award for translated works.

It retraces the lives of three childhood friends in a small Iraqi town, as they are separated by war and the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein.

In an e-mail interview in Arabic, Al-Ramli tells The Straits Times that while his novel may be filled with scenes of extraordinary violence, nearly all of it is written from what he knows in life.

Some are based on stories he heard as a child, such as that of an orphan girl who was raped by the son of her foster parents, who then killed her to preserve her honour.

This was the hardest part of the book to write, says Al-Ramli, who worked on those chapters in a public park instead of indoors because he felt "suffocated, as if I were living in the script".

Other episodes are based on his own experiences, such as when a soldier witnesses his friend faking an injury so he can be sent home to be with his family.

Al-Ramli, who served as a tank commander in the Iraqi army for three years, recalls how he watched his friend shoot himself in the hand.

"I tried to convince him not to do it. But the next afternoon, he did it in front of me - drops of blood and small pieces of the nerves and flesh of his palm flew into my face."

They both ended up in jail anyway, his friend for deliberately shooting himself and Al-Ramli for lying that it was an accident.

Al-Ramli, who is married with a 10-year-old daughter, fled Iraq for Jordan, then Spain after the death of his brother, poet Hassan Mutlak, who was hanged in 1990 after six months of imprisonment, but not before being tortured for his involvement in an attempted coup against Saddam.

"It was the biggest and most shocking loss in my life, such that I thought of suicide or revenge," says Al-Ramli. "But I decided on the opposite - to live doubly, for myself and for him."

The figure of Saddam, who was deposed following the American invasion of Iraq and executed in 2006, looms large over the narrative, though he is never named.

Human Rights Watch estimates that his government murdered or made "disappear" at least a quarter of a million Iraqis.

The gardens of the title are those of Saddam's palaces, of which there were nearly 80 throughout Iraq. Al-Ramli drew on descriptions of them from several of his relatives and friends, who were employed as gardeners, drivers, construction workers or security guards, until they were all fired after his brother's arrest.

In these luxurious gardens, he writes, were buried thousands of the regime's victims. In one scene, Saddam taunts a famous musician by forcing him to sing a nursery rhyme while the President shoots pigeons over his head, before finally gunning him down with an AK-47 rifle.

Al-Ramli is now working on a sequel to the novel which, against the odds, may turn out more enjoyable, he hints.

He misses Iraq every day, but cannot return as the country does not offer him freedom and security.

"I hope this translation helps readers learn about the suffering of people in Iraq and their culture, not just that we have oil and wars," he says. "Human pain is the same everywhere and at any time."


Horrors relived

A man moves to Baghdad to become a gardener for the President. The gardens are beautiful, but they are fertilised by the corpses buried among the exotic trees and delicate waterfalls.

Years later, after the fall of Iraq to the United States, the gardener's severed head is found with eight others in banana crates next to the bus stop in his village. This is where The President's Gardens, by Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli and skilfully translated into English by Luke Leafgren, begins and ends.

Al-Ramli's novel is a remarkable depiction of the atrocities the ordinary Iraqi has endured for the past half-century, through an unending series of wars and under the regime of Saddam Hussein, referred to throughout the book only as The President.

It traces this awful history through the lives of three childhood friends - Tariq the Befuddled, Abdullah Kafka and Ibrahim the Fated, whose fate is to become Saddam's gardener and lose his head.

The trio, dubbed "the sons of the earth crack" thanks to an inside joke about Abdullah's orphan status, are inseparable as boys, but adulthood and war force them to part ways.

Tariq becomes an imam, like his father before him, and so escapes the war draft. Ibrahim becomes a foot soldier in the Kuwait war while Abdullah is taken prisoner in Iran and not heard from for years.



    By Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Luke Leafgren

    MacLehose Press/Paperback/ 349 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/4.5/5 stars

While the journey of each man is an absorbing one, it is humble Ibrahim, who moves through life's horrors in a state of constant resignation, who buoys the narrative. It follows him from the inferno of Kuwait, in which "the skies rained down hell, and the earth vomited it back up", to the terrible opulence of Saddam's gardens, where, against his will, he becomes chief gravedigger for thousands of the regime's victims.

Al-Ramli writes with a cold fury that never boils over into bombast. His most unnerving scenes capture that feeling of being frozen as a bystander to something horrible, a paralysis of complicity.

Yet he is also adept at quiet domestic sadness, such as a scene when Ibrahim buys a bouquet and some oranges and goes to the hospital to visit his wife, who has cancer. Her bed is empty. He puts the oranges on it as a surprise and waits for her to return. She does not. He keeps waiting.

Al-Ramli takes a fractured people most readers will know only as fragments of the news and shows us their full, rounded lives. In his text, he buries his dead with their dignity intact.

If you liked this, read: The Corpse Exhibition And Other Stories Of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (Penguin, 2014, $19.21, Books Kinokuniya). In this groundbreaking collection of short stories of the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective, Blasim blends the reality of soldiers, hostages and car bombs with touches of fantasy.

A history of disappearances

Fun read for non-fantasy fans

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline Front-row seat to pain, suffering and violence. Subscribe