Book Reviews

The President’s Garden – Muhsin Al Ramli

“Everything is fate and decree.”

What is the book about?

Abdullah, Ibrahim and Tariq are three inseparable friends living in rural Iraq. As they are at the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, Abdullah and Ibrahim are called for duty in the National Army as Iraq enters a period of turmoil stepping into decades of war, first with Iran and then with Kuwait followed by the American invasion of Iraq. Tariq is spared this since he is a religious teacher.

As years pass by, Tariq remains a happy-go-lucky teacher Abdullah and Ibrahim fight for Iraq, even though they are both not convinced by the reasons for the war, and hence their loyalty to their nation and their flag is not unquestioned. Abdullah is held as a prisoner of war in Iran and Ibrahim loses a leg. Having seen the horrors of war first hand, Abdullah is disillusioned with life to a point where he doesn’t see a difference between being alive and dying. Contrary to him, Ibrahim faces everything with equanimity and resignation as he believes that everything is fate and decree.

The novel draws heavily from the personal experiences of the author, whose brother was tortured by the regime. The narration is more like a folklore, and this has been kept intact by translation. The portions where the author describes carnage and torture in the aftermath of wars and in the service of the President are astounding pieces of writing which would invoke emotions of hatred and disgust in the readers.To say I enjoyed reading this is not a proper use of the word, but it was a gripping read till the last page. I am looking forward to its sequel.

 

My thoughts on the book:

I have always been very interested in stories from the middle east and this was the first and a very good insight for me into Iraq. What we know about this country is usually through the New York Times and CNN. To get a personal account was an eye-opener. And since the writer is an Iraqi, who witnessed the horrors of the wars first hand, the narrative is guaranteed to be authentic.

On a personal level, the various relationships are penned down beautifully. It is often tricky to make people and relations stand out in novels which are based in oppressed societies, because more often than not they just come out as victims and not regular human beings. The friendship between Abdullah, Ibrahim and Tariq is beautiful; it’s actually heartening to see that such relationships blossom in the land of distrust and paranoia. When Abdullah’s parentage is questioned, is his defence they say;

“Yes, we are all sons of the earth crack. The earth is our mother, all of us. Out of her we are born, and to her we return.”

At the same time, the conflict between Ibrahim and his daughter Qisma is portrayed beautifully. Qisma didn’t see her father much in early childhood, and when he came back home after the wars without a leg, she didn’t see the hero in him that daughters usually expect fathers to be. Despite Ibrahim’s constant efforts, she never warmed up to him, and they just settled into a routine of peaceful co existence until much later when Qisma acknowledged him to be the hero that he was for just surviving all that life threw at him;

“She now sam him as a hero, even if heroism was no longer esteemed in this country where heroes and traitors, humanity and savagery, sacrifice and exploitation were intertwined, and everything mixed together amid battle smoke, chaos, blood and destruction. True heroism lay hidden in self-denial, and that is primarily what her father Ibrahim had practised throughout his life with a remarkable patience and submissions”

The overall tone of the book is not black and white and that is, in my opinion, an ideal way to depict such a situation. Th situation in Iraq is grey and that’s how it needs to be portrayed for the narrative to be believable. For example, the people are genuinely disillusioned with the government and the patriotism is not heroic or sycophantic. Even when there is revolution, it lack direction. Abdullah had been seen so much atrocities, that he was completely disillusioned with humanity and life in general.

“When I look at the flag of any country, I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

“Later I realised that the cruelty of man is more barbaric than any other creature”

“I have become convinced, however, that man’s evil, bestial nature far outweighs his humanity.”

The perils of a dictatorship and consequently the importance of a democracy are highlighted in the book in bold letters. To say the regime is suppressive is an understatement. People are tortured and killed, countries go to war, lives are destroyed just at the whims of a lunatic. To even think what might be going through the mind of a man who liked to see people suffer causes me to shudder. Ibrahim aptly put this dilemma in words,

“How is it that a person is not satisfied with what occupies his own head, such that he strives to take possession of others?”

Overall, this books leaves a lot to think over. It surely reminds us to be thankful of what we have and be mindful of the sufferings of others.

Overall rating: 4.5/5

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