Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli. Courtesy Muhsin Al-Ramli
Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli. Courtesy Muhsin Al-Ramli

English translation of Muhsin Al-Ramli’s novel exposes the horrors of war



It begins with a beheading. Then another, and another, until nine severed heads are found in a sleepy Iraqi village. It's a shockingly vivid introduction to the ­violent, ­chaotic world of Muhsin Al-Ramli's The President's ­Garden.

Asking where the Iraqi novelist got his inspiration seems an innocent enough question. Nothing prepares you for the answer.

“On the third day of Ramadan in 2006, I received news of the slaughter of nine of my relatives who were fasting,” Al-Ramli says. “My village found their heads in banana crates, along with their ID cards, on the side of the main road near my ­family’s house.

“That news shocked and terrified me. I wept. I had childhood memories of playing with the owners of these heads.”

Understandably, Al-Ramli had no idea what to do, other than to take refuge in something he knew: writing. Six years later, The President's Gardens was published in Arabic, framing the stories of friends Abdullah, Tariq and Ibrahim around both their personal tragedy and the tragedy of Iraq in the years ­between the war with Iran and the aftermath of the American invasion.

It was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for ­Arabic Fiction, and this week an ­English translation, by Luke Leafgren, is finally published. It is a stunning achievement.

“I wanted to say that the ­victims were not just numbers to be tallied up in newspapers, but each was an entire world in themselves,” he says of his aims for the book.

“They were people with families, memories and dreams, and it was the ugliest injustice to slaughter this entire world and forget it so nonchalantly in a matter of minutes.”

For all that death is ever present in Al-Ramli’s book, his real achievement is to make the characters of Tariq, Ibrahim and Abdullah so full of life, believable and even relatable. Their relationships somehow endure despite the heavy toll of simply living in Iraq.

“That’s the relationship that victims have with each other,” says Al-Ramli.

“They are examples of ­common, everyday people, the pattern for millions of Iraqis upon whom injustice has fallen. They pay a heavy price on account of the dictatorship, the customs, the traditions, the wars, the sanctions, and so on – all without having any guilt or any choice in the matter.”

Abdullah’s journey gives the book its title: he ends up ­tending the Iraqi president’s sumptuous garden – but of course digging holes in the Earth is not as innocuous a task as it might seem under his rule.

It's interesting that ­Saddam Hussein's name is never ­mentioned, which has the ­effect of allowing The ­President's Garden to work as a comment on any totalitarian regime.

“Yes, that’s right,” Al-Ramli agrees.

“Except there is also a ­personal reason: I do not want to mention Saddam Hussein by name in any of my literary works, he being the one who killed my brother and many of my relatives.

“I feel that doing so would pollute my texts. In my works, you might find names for everything – even for a donkey – but you won’t find his.”

Al-Ramli fled Iraq for Jordan after “three nightmarish years in the Iraqi army”, then left for Spain in 1995, where he lives now.

There is a chilling line in the book that seems to sum up what it must have been like to live through that period in lraq, as Abdullah tells Ibrahim: “There’s no way that death could be worse than life”.

“When the Iraq-Iran War ­began, I was 13 years old, and the corpses of the slain arrived every day,” says Al-Ramli.

“Death has continued ­without a pause until today, for my ­village has been under the ­control of Daesh for two-and-a-half years.

“Because of the multitude of ugly ways to die in Iraq, most people longed for a natural death – indeed, I heard my mother pray to God that he would make her die.

“I myself longed for death ­numerous times.”

While he has suffered more than most of us could imagine in our worst nightmares, somehow The President's Gardens manages to celebrate the humanity of its protagonists.

“There’s no life without hope,” Al-Ramli reminds me, and the possibility that Leafgren’s translation might now reach a much wider audience is a ­thrilling chink of light.

“It will bring the voices of my people, along with their sufferings, to the greatest number of people in the world,” he says.

“The sense among victims that others know and feel their pain will ease that suffering and let them feel a kind of human solidarity.”

The book also ends on a “to be continued”, and Al-Ramli reveals he is halfway through a sequel. Its tone might surprise a few people.

“I believe the sequel will be more enjoyable, more ­suspenseful,” he says.

“I will make the reader laugh more than cry this time, not ­because what happens is ­funny, but because when tragedy ­reaches its most painful climax, sometimes there is nothing we can do after the tears except laugh.”

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Luke Leafgren, published by MacLehose Press, is out April 19

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COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
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ROUTE TO TITLE

Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
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Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.

KEY DATES IN AMAZON'S HISTORY

July 5, 1994: Jeff Bezos founds Cadabra Inc, which would later be renamed to Amazon.com, because his lawyer misheard the name as 'cadaver'. In its earliest days, the bookstore operated out of a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington

July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

1997: Amazon goes public at $18 a share, which has grown about 1,000 per cent at present. Its highest closing price was $197.85 on June 27, 2024

1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

2000: Amazon Marketplace opens, allowing people to sell items on the website

2002: Amazon forms what would become Amazon Web Services, opening the Amazon.com platform to all developers. The cloud unit would follow in 2006

2003: Amazon turns in an annual profit of $75 million, the first time it ended a year in the black

2005: Amazon Prime is introduced, its first-ever subscription service that offered US customers free two-day shipping for $79 a year

2006: Amazon Unbox is unveiled, the company's video service that would later morph into Amazon Instant Video and, ultimately, Amazon Video

2007: Amazon's first hardware product, the Kindle e-reader, is introduced; the Fire TV and Fire Phone would come in 2014. Grocery service Amazon Fresh is also started

2009: Amazon introduces Amazon Basics, its in-house label for a variety of products

2010: The foundations for Amazon Studios were laid. Its first original streaming content debuted in 2013

2011: The Amazon Appstore for Google's Android is launched. It is still unavailable on Apple's iOS

2014: The Amazon Echo is launched, a speaker that acts as a personal digital assistant powered by Alexa

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, its biggest acquisition

2018: Amazon's market cap briefly crosses the $1 trillion mark, making it, at the time, only the third company to achieve that milestone

The specs

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On sale: now

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MATCH INFO

What: 2006 World Cup quarter-final
When: July 1
Where: Gelsenkirchen Stadium, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

Result:
England 0 Portugal 0
(Portugal win 3-1 on penalties)

Russia's Muslim Heartlands

Dominic Rubin, Oxford

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RESULTS

6.30pm Al Maktoum Challenge Round-1 Group One (PA) US$65,000 (Dirt) 1,600m

Winner RB Money To Burn, Fabrice Veron (jockey), Eric Lemartinel (trainer).

7.05pm Handicap (TB) $175,000 (Turf) 1,200m

Winner Ekhtiyaar, Jim Crowley, Doug Watson.

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Winner Commanding, Richard Mullen, Satish Seemar.

8.15pm Singspiel Stakes Group Two (TB) $250,000 (T) 1,800m

Winner Benbatl, Christophe Soumillon, Saeed bin Suroor.

8.50pm Handicap (TB) $135,000 (T) 1,600m

Winner Zakouski, William Buick, Charlie Appleby.

9.25pm Al Maktoum Challenge Round-1 Group Two (TB) $350,000 (D) 1,600m

Winner Kimbear, Pat Dobbs, Doug Watson.

10pm Dubai Trophy Conditions (TB) $100,000 (T) 1,200m

Winner Platinum Star, Christophe Soumillon, Saeed bin Suroor.

10.35pm Handicap (TB) $135,000 (T) 1,600m

Winner Key Victory, James Doyle, Charlie Appleby.

Who are the Sacklers?

The Sackler family is a transatlantic dynasty that owns Purdue Pharma, which manufactures and markets OxyContin, one of the drugs at the centre of America's opioids crisis. The family is well known for their generous philanthropy towards the world's top cultural institutions, including Guggenheim Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate in Britain, Yale University and the Serpentine Gallery, to name a few. Two branches of the family control Purdue Pharma.

Isaac Sackler and Sophie Greenberg were Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York before the First World War. They had three sons. The first, Arthur, died before OxyContin was invented. The second, Mortimer, who died aged 93 in 2010, was a former chief executive of Purdue Pharma. The third, Raymond, died aged 97 in 2017 and was also a former chief executive of Purdue Pharma. 

It was Arthur, a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical marketeer, who started the family business dynasty. He and his brothers bought a small company called Purdue Frederick; among their first products were laxatives and prescription earwax remover.

Arthur's branch of the family has not been involved in Purdue for many years and his daughter, Elizabeth, has spoken out against it, saying the company's role in America's drugs crisis is "morally abhorrent".

The lawsuits that were brought by the attorneys general of New York and Massachussetts named eight Sacklers. This includes Kathe, Mortimer, Richard, Jonathan and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, who are all the children of either Mortimer or Raymond. Then there's Theresa Sackler, who is Mortimer senior's widow; Beverly, Raymond's widow; and David Sackler, Raymond's grandson.

Members of the Sackler family are rarely seen in public.


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