There’s no place like utopia: Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel addresses the agony of Iraq

In his latest novel, Muhsin Al-Ramli shows the deep roots and inescapable reach of Iraq’s agony.

Fallujah in 2003, after the fall of the Saddam government – the regime that provides the backdrop to parts of Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel. Stan Honda / AFP
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Peace is never allowed to reign long in fiction. Its readers are driven by negativity, transported by narrative tension. Its better practitioners are aware that permanent sunny vistas won’t do; we crave blots on the horizon, trouble in paradise, dystopias not utopias.

An attempt to build a viable, thriving utopia – "what might be called 'The Ideal City', or at least 'The Ideal Village'" – is one of several sources of tension in Dates on My Fingers, Muhsin Al-Ramli's latest novel to be translated into English. There is tension because we know the enterprise is destined for failure: the Iraqi tribal community that constructs it is cutting itself off from the despotic regime which it has recently fallen foul of. A lust for vengeance threatens stability until separate calamities and key departures shatter it. What begins as a novel about the need to preserve family foundations, values and honour in times of tyranny ends up a trenchant and occasionally poignant commentary on the immigrant's struggle to start anew while living with the past.

Al-Ramli opens with his narrator, Saleem, explaining how his father, Noah, encouraged him to write his family’s story and expose its shame. It doesn’t matter if Saleem makes a mess of it, for “nothing will happen worse than has already happened”. We are taken back to a day when Noah set out from his village with his sick daughter to seek medical treatment in Tikrit.

When she is groped in the street by the driver of a passing Mercedes, Noah hauls him out and viciously beats him. But the man has government connections. First Noah is thrown into jail and tortured and then, after a failed effort to break him out, all male members of his family suffer the same fate, including Saleem and his grandfather, Mutlaq.

We fast-forward to Madrid. Saleem, now a driver and a writer for Iraqi opposition newspapers in London, bumps into the father he hasn’t seen for more than 10 years in a packed nightclub. Noah, with his long dyed hair, shaved moustache and pierced ear, is virtually unrecognisable. Only a revolver bullet gives him away – a bullet he carried in Iraq and carries now in exile in Spain to use on the man, a diplomat here in Madrid, who grabbed his daughter and unleashed misfortune on his family.

The novel unfolds along two tracks. There is the Madrid section, in which Noah introduces his son to his new lover, Rosa, and his radically different lifestyle; and the other, in which Saleem falls for Fatima and tries to find a place for his father in his “bifurcated world”. Then there are the flashbacks to Saleem’s formative years in Iraq, particularly life in the utopian village his grandfather founded and ran as “absolute governor” – until a redoubled onslaught of government iron-fist force warped dream into nightmare and sent father and son fleeing.

Al-Ramli darts back and forth, using incidents in the present as triggers to activate Saleem’s recollections: the stink of rubbish bags in his Madrid apartment brings back the stench of rotten, unburied bodies in the Iraqi village; Fatima’s shower-wet hair reminds him of his childhood sweetheart Aliya “when she swam – or when she drowned”. Al-Ramli teases us with these snagged memories which often take the form of half-told tales, deft little cliffhangers, with Al-Ramli routinely breaking away at crucial moments and making us wait to hear critical fates and resolutions. Did Noah leave his homeland after murdering his father? What happened to the family left behind? What went so wrong?

Dates on My Fingers is subtitled “An Iraqi Novel”, despite being only half set there. It is understandable that Al-Ramli should utilise Spain: he writes and teaches in Madrid and has translated Don Quixote into Arabic. However, his lighter Spanish sections are easily eclipsed by his grainy snapshots of Iraq. Saleem’s past, both darkly exotic and bitterly realistic, is charged with that tension we need. It is there that we encounter mystic healers and tragic lovers and feel the full wrath of Grandfather Mutlaq, a commanding voice of reason who bites dogs and lops off fingers. It is also in Iraq where Al-Ramli is most playful with his descriptions: twin girls squirm in the cradle “like two rats drenched in milk”; Noah hates the English and their “yellow smiles”.

Al-Ramli builds to such a powerful war-of-words showdown that we end up overlooking both the novel’s chief flaw (a chance reunion between an Iraqi father and son in a Madrid nightclub) and its lesser one (the book’s title). We may grumble at the Jane Austen-style ending in which everyone lives a little too happily ever after, but Al-Ramli proves to be one step ahead with his crafty, game-changing last line.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.