Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.
What’s it about?
Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:
On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death?
The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.
It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle.
It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter.
And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.
The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.
The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.
There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.
Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.
Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.
The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.
The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.
Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.
Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.
The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.
The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.
About the Author
Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.