The President’s Gardens follows Iraq’s Twentieth Century through the story of three best friends, giving depth, humour and humanity to a country, the name of which is for so many synonymous with war and strife.
Ibrahim the Fated, Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled (the former for his resigned nature, the next for his melancholy and the latter for obvious reasons) are the three friends whose personalities dominate and entertain their tiny village. Between them they span Iraqi society from rich to poor, devout to cynical and their journey to adulthood is told with a delightfully twinkly eyed, distinctly earthy humour. From their childhood playground antics, adolescent forays into masturbation and sex and eventual coming of age through military service you feel and deep affection and attachment for them making their trials (and the trials of their country) all the more personally felt.
Their rustic and rural village is an isolated spot, the outside world only occasionally intruding in the form of illicit arms trading with neighbouring Kurds and news brought by camel by the Bedouin. However as the 20th Century rolls on and war creeps closer to home, the elders rose tinted talk of the distant ’48 Palestinian war gives way to the full horrors of the Iran-Iraq War so often forgotten in the west with all its pointless death, chemical weapons, decades spent in prison camps and the endless hatred such experiences produce. For the three friends the war brings loss, heartbreak, disability and captivity, teaching them all to be cynical of and resigned to the horrors of the dictatorship that tightens its grip on Iraqi society throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. We meet this dictatorship when Ibrahim the Fated gets a job as a gardener for the president and he is first exposed, first to the opulence of the countries ruling caste and later their brutality, when he is ‘promoted,’ to the role of burying the bodies of the purged. This section of the novel outstrips any of the war scenes in its depiction of unbridled, functional brutality and horror, the bodies are at least buried however, unlike in the books closing pages as he vacuum left by the toppling of that dictatorship brings forth new horror as humanity crumbles as people lose their restraints and the most aggressive and unscrupulous of people are allowed to flourish.
This is the Iraq so many know from news footage of desolate and corpse strewn streets. Vicious militias rule in the absence of any central authority and have turned the cities into, “labyrinths of ghosts,” and Iraq in plundered from all sides but despite that Al-Ramli never stoops to finger pointing. Blame is apportioned to wrongdoers regardless of faith or nation and the central tenant of the book is upheld. That the common people are good, and the common people can survive whatever history and circumstance throws at them with at least some sense of decency intact.
Having never read any modern Arabic literature before the writing style is light as a feather and completely refreshing compared to the often deliberately complex writing of so many western authors. Weaving together modern language, humour and references with an older style of storytelling that allows each character to tell his or her story all in one go is relatively unusual in the modern novel and is as instinctively well absorbed as it is enjoyable. This never gets in the way of the terror of the present day however, the book closes in a disturbing, open ended fashion that reflects the danger Iraq’s current instability.
As an introduction to Iraqi writing and recent history, The President’s Gardens deserves recognition as a brilliant depiction of a nation’s transformation from garden, to gaol to graveyard and through it Muhsin Al-Ramli has given a voice to a people for so long crushed and buffeted by the forces of history that lie so far outside their control.