Robin Yassin-Kassab

The President’s Gardens

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president's gardensThis review was published first at the Guardian.

Since 1980, Iraq has suffered almost continuous war, as well as uprisings, repressions, sanctions, and war-related cancers. “The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli –published in Arabic in 2012 and now masterfully translated by Luke Leafgren – at last provides us with an epic account of this experience from an Iraqi, and deeply human, perspective.

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue.” This book must belong to Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘the Fated’, the discovery of whose head (in a banana crate) opens and closes the novel in 2006, and whose life until that decapitation is narrated in the most detail. Yet Ibrahim’s friends since childhood, Tariq ‘the Befuddled’ and Abdullah ‘Kafka’, are essential to the story.

Tariq is a schoolteacher, a perfumed, snappy dresser, and a grinning, earthy imam. As such he is spared military service, and prospers in the village, making necessary accomodations to the ruling system.

Abdullah, the “prince of pessimists” who describes contemporary events as “ancient, lost, dead history”, is already alienated by his illegitimacy when he is called up in 1988 for the war against Iran, captured, and incarcerated as a POW for the next 19 years, with almost 100,000 others. In Iran he is paraded, tortured, starved, and lectured on Khomeinism. Prisoners are separated by religious affiliation, but those ‘penitents’ who adopt the Islamic Republic’s ideology are raised up to rule over the unconverted.

There is no sectarianism at all in the narration. The main characters, from north of Baghdad, are probably Sunnis, but the reader must bring knowledge from beyond the text to make this assumption. Their travels through the country’s beautiful landscapes and terrible warscapes convey a clear sense of Iraqi nationhood alongside a sustained disdain for exclusionary and propagandistic nationalism. “When I look at the flag of any country,” says Abdullah on his release, “I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

If Abdullah’s chief mode is principled nihilism, Ibrahim’s is gentle resignation. “Everything is fate and decree” is his catchphrase, and he names his daughter Qisma, ‘fate’. Made sterile by poison gas in the Iran war, lamed during the invasion of Kuwait, he finds a job in the paradisal gardens of the title, secret expanses within Baghdad studded by Saddam Hussain’s palaces, where the fountain water is mixed with perfume, camels graze between rose beds, and crocodiles swim in the pools. Naturally, horrors lurk beneath this surface.

Qisma is independent, upwardly mobile, a little ashamed of her father. The depiction of this relationship’s unspoken regrets – and of the love between Ibrahim and his cousin-wife, flowering at the very last moment – is sensitive and powerful.

A great deal is packed in to these quickly-flowing pages. The unnamed home village, where “every story reaches every ear eventually”, is a setting as intense as Marquez’s Macondo, its characters, from the mayor to the herdsman, as clearly imagined. A tale of hidden shame forms one of the subplots, domestic confinement mirroring state-organised imprisonment. The plotting is adroit, seasoned by well-placed premonitions, secrets and revelations. Sometimes the characters themselves take over the narration, and there are some astounding set pieces, including an account of the conditions in occupied Kuwait, Iraqi conscripts either looting the city or burning in the desert, as well as the carnage on the bombarded road to Basra, and the chaotic fall of Baghdad to the Americans in 2003. The hallucinatory realism, pricked with symbolic detail, reaches a pitch reminiscent of Wasily Grossman, as when a wounded Ibrahim lifts his eyes and sees a dog with a human face… but then the narrative corrects itself: no, it’s a dog carrying a severed head in its jaws.

Occasionally the writing is Tolstoyan too, in its focus on the interplay of characters with the river of time “which flowed through them and over them”, and in its sense of individual lives connecting up with the social macrocosm. The senile ramblings of Ibrahim’s mother, for example, make him “feel that his entire life were just another ordinary drop amid a vast, enormous ocean of innumerable drops that comprised everything around him: people and their stories, being and possessions.”

The novel is woven from true stories experienced by or recounted to the author, a Madrid-based academic and translator of Don Quixote as well as a star of contemporary Arabic literature. Muhsin al-Ramli’s brother, the poet Hassan Mutlak, was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1990.

Though firmly rooted in its context, the novel’s concerns are universal. “The President’s Gardens” is a profoundly moving investigation of love, death and injustice, and an affirmation of the importance of dignity, friendship and meaning, even if only existentially contrived, amid oppression. The novel is undoubtedly a tragedy, but its light touch and persistent humour make it an enormous pleasure to read. Fortunately, its last words are “to be continued”.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 23, 2017 at 11:34 am

Posted in book review, Iraq

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