The President’s Gardens

Muhsin Al-Ramli

MacLehose Press, £12.99

FOR such a beautiful novel, The President’s Gardens begins on a gruesome note. A village in Iraq awakens to find nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of the villagers, some disfigured by torture. To explain how they eventually came to be there, Muhsin Al-Ramli (in a fine translation from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren) tells us the story of three boyhood friends, “the sons of the earth crack”, and of how they fared in the period encompassing the Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait, the purges which re-established Saddam Hussein’s authority after his military misadventuring and the occupation of Iraq by America and her allies. In writing about ordinary Iraqis who pay the cost of wars waged by remote, autocratic leaders, Al-Ramli touches on deep and timeless themes. The human capacity for both nobility and wanton destruction. Pain and healing. The different shades of love. The capriciousness of fate.

The sons of the earth crack were born in 1959, comprising Tariq, who carefully manoeuvres his way through life to attain modest wealth and influence, Ibrahim, who loses his foot in the war and is regarded by his daughter as a pathetic loser, and Abdullah, “the prince of pessimists”, who was held prisoner in Iran for 20 years and learned that “the cruelty of man is more barbaric than any other creature”. Tariq doesn’t actually feature that heavily, but his two comrades are substantial, well-realised creations. The marvellously implacable Abdullah, nicknamed Kafka by his friends, is detached and withdrawn, but is more decent than he realises and needs love and tenderness more than he would ever admit. One strongly sympathises with Ibrahim too, especially after he gets a job in the titular garden and is forced to participate in acts that would freeze the blood.

Death is the enemy here. Not death as the natural conclusion to a life well-lived, but as a symptom of the cruelty and barbarity of the human race. To defy and resist it, people turn to each other, enjoying the “rare and special pleasure” of gathering together over tea, providing support for each other and basking in the warmth of feeling a part of something greater. Both Abdullah and Ibrahim, in their separate ways, retreat into the world of the dead and forget their obligations to the living, but even the last meetings of the sons of the earth crack “would end with a sense of catharsis, the feeling of a man meeting himself”. Similar sentiments are expressed by Ibrahim while working in Saddam’s garden: “He wished there was some way to tenderly embrace one’s soul as though it were another human being.”

By emphasising the dark side of humanity, Al-Ramli celebrates the best of us. Within this awful morass of violence and hatred, there are acts of compassion going on all the time, everywhere. As uplifting as it is grim, The President’s Garden is a consistently compelling novel, and it’s a shock to the system to reach, with no warning, the words “to be continued …” on the final page.

Alastair Mabbott