Muhsin al-Ramli: حدائق الرئيةة (The President’s Gardens)
This novel is essentially about three (male) Iraqi friends, all of about the same age and how they grew up and remained friends. There was Tariq, nicknamed the Befuddled because he would always show childlike amazement upon encountering any new thing or idea. He was the son of Zahir, the imam of the mosque. He will later become a teacher and imam himself. Ibrahim was the strongest and the kindest. He was nicknamed The Fated because he accepted every report and every accident with an astonishing equanimity. He was the son of Suhayl the Damascene who had no nose. Zahir and Suhayl had gone to fight for Palestine in the 1948 war. When an artillery shell exploded near them, Zahir wet himself. Suhayl later got a boil on his nose which got infected and, as it was not treated he lost his nose. They agreed not to tell what really happened and that Suhayl lost his nose bravely defending Damascus, hence his nickname.
The third one is Abdullah Kafka. Tariq gave him the nickname, after reading Kafka because Abdullah was typically attuned to the blackest side of any idea or situation, and even when he laughed, a deep and firmly rooted sadness appeared in his eyes. Abdullah was a foundling and had been adopted by the childless couple who found him, Salih and Maryam. We know that there are some people who know who his biological parents were but we and Abdullah only find out much later in the book, and a very complex but sad tale it turns out to be. In the meantime, as well as being called Kafka, he calls himself son of the earth crack as that is where his adoptive father found him.
The three boys grow up together and are inseparable. When Ibrahim is fifteen, he does well at school but his father makes him leave school so he can work in the fields. Abdullah also drops out in sympathy. Tariq continues at school but plays truant to be with his friends.
At eighteen Abdullah and Ibrahim are called up to do military service. Tariq is still studying so he is exempt. He will later be exempt as a teacher and imam. Ibrahim’s parents find a bride for him while he is on military service. Abdullah and Sameetha, Tariq’s sister, fall in love but Tariq’s father rejects Abdullah. We know but Abdullah does not that Tariq had told his father that Abdullah would not be a suitable husband for his sister.
National service is coming to an end for the two young men but Iraq and Iran went to war with each other and the pair had to continue to serve. It was a grim war and we are given all the gory details. Abdullah disappears and nobody knows if he is alive or a prisoner. Ibrahim does well, becoming a master sergeant but he sees many men killed and wounded, including some self-inflicted wounds to escape further service.
After the war Ibrahim goes back to the fields an will eventually learn that Abdullah is a prisoner in Iran. Ibrahim is now married with a daughter, Qisma (= kismet, i.e. fate). Sadly, for him, he will have no further children. He does get a letter from the Red Cross, saying that Abdullah is a prisoner of the Iranians. (We had met Abdullah at a much later date at beginning of the book so we knew he had survived.)
Ibrahim is just settling down when Iraq invades Kuwait. Again he is conscripted. He serves in the desert near the Saudi border, with his friend, Ahmad, whom he had met in the Iraq-Iran war. But, as we know, the Gulf War happens and Ibrahim and Ahmad and more destruction and death rain down on Iraq and our hapless heroes. Ibrahim,as we know from the beginning, survives, though he is wounded. Once again, we are spared none of the grisly details, as Iraq descends into chaos. They’re still bombing everything—military camps, bridges, communication stations and towers, power plants, water treatment facilities, government buildings, police stations, businesses, houses—everything, just everything. To make matters worse, once the coalition troops withdraw, the Republican Guard launches devastating raids against all the cities and villages that revolted. They’re bombing schools, houses, mosques, and mausoleums, killing without mercy. Ibrahim gets home and struggles along.
There are three mysteries in this book, I have mentioned the first, namely Abdullah’s origns, which are explained to him at this point after his return from the horrors of being a prisoner in Iran (you know the drill – no details spared).
The second mystery occurs at the very beginning of the book. Someone finds nine banana crates in the village. (Iraq does not grow bananas.) Each crate contains a severed head, with the ID of the owner of the head. The bodies are nowhere to be seen. One of the heads belongs to Ibrahim. What happened and why? We only learn why towards the end of the book.
The third mystery concerns the title. For most of the book the president has, of course, been Saddam Hussein. Though he is very much a key player in this book, he is never mentioned by name. However, to this point his gardens have not been relevant. This is about to change. Things are not going well for Ibrahim. His wife has cancer and his daughter is being rebellious. Getting treatment for his wife is expensive and difficult. With his connections, Tariq gets him a job in Baghdad. The job involves tending the president’s gardens, which is a fairly easy and very well-paid job. He gets treatment for his wife and Qisma can go to college and he can even buy her a car.
Things are looking better but then, as he has done so well, he is promoted. The new job involves better pay, shorter hours and a free taxi service to and from work. The job, however, is definitely not as pleasant and easy (… grisly details…). And then the US-led coalition invades.
More than once in recent times I have commented on a book I have reviewed that it is grim but this one definitely comes at or near the top on the grisly scale. The 1948 war, the Iran-Iraq War, the the Gulf War, the interim period when Saddam sees enemies everywhere, the Iraq War and the aftermath of that war all have their horrific stories to tell as seen through the eyes of our heroes and al-Ramli spares us none of the details of the horrors.
However, what is interesting is seeing these wars not from the perspective Westerners have seen them in the past, namely Iraq was all bad but seeing them from the perspective of the ordinary Iraqi. Our heroes do not like these wars any more than we do, Indeed, they like them a lot less, as they get wounded and killed or their loved ones do and their lives are completely disrupted. Like most of us they just want to live their lives in peace. Al-Ramli moved to Madrid in 1995 and many other Iraqis went into exile to escape both the wars and Saddam Hussein. You certainly cannot blame them. This book clearly shows why.
First published in 2012 by Thaqāfah lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʻ, Beirut
First published in English 2017 by MacLehose Press
Translated by Luke Leafgren