domingo, 19 de marzo de 2017

Dates on my Fingers, in The Arab British Centre

MARCH 30 @ 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
The next Book Club meeting will be on Thursday 30th March 2017, 6:30-8 pm, in the library at The Arab British Centre, 1 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE. Next Banipal book club will discuss Dates on my Fingers by Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, translated by Luke Leafgren, which was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
“Dark and chilling genius.” The novel was reviewed in Banipal 52 and you can read the review on the Banipal website:
Dates on my Fingers is a powerful tale of revenge and bitterness, set between Iraq and Madrid. Its protagonist, Saleem, grows up in a strict and religious family village but later flees to Madrid to start a new life. But when he finds his father Noah in a Madrid nightclub, ten years after his last encounter with him, Saleem is forced to revisit his past and seek answers to some of the questions that haunt him. The novel is a tale of revenge and family honour, exploring the difficulties of escaping one’s home country, even in exile.
Although subtitled An Iraqi novel, much of the action occurs outside Iraq. Banipal described Dates on my Fingers as “first and foremost an exploration of exile in the modern world“, a subject close to the author’s heart. Muhsin Al-Ramli is a novelist, poet, translator and academic who writes in both Arabic and Spanish. He was born in Sudayra in northern Iraq in 1967 and went into exile in 1993 after the government’s persecution of his family, including the execution of his brother in 1990. He currently lives in Madrid.
You can read more about the novel here:
The novel is available to buy from Amazon and . There is also a copy in the Banipal library. You can also download an invitation to the book club from the library website here: Please do share this invitation.
The book club is informal and free to attend but spaces are limited so please RSVP to
For more information about Banipal and the book club please visit: and or email

The President’s Gardens – Muhsin Al-Ramli

By Epilepsy Teacher
I don’t know exactly where to start in trying to review this book. I am saddened to have finished it. I want to be able to go back to it and start again.
This is an absolutely beautiful read from start to finish. I cannot think of another modern novel I can compare it to that would fully do justice to this book. The obvious comparison is probably ‘The Kite Runner’ and while I enjoyed that book a great deal, this is far superior in depth and beauty. The only other comparisons I can draw are with the folk stories of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ but even here it is a comparison that falls short because this is just altogether faster paced and more interesting to read.
I cannot even begin to discuss the narrative as is here, it is too deep, too layered and has too many subtle touches to be reviewed without this turning into a full blown essay.
I have not bought into characters and their heartbreak and struggles to the extent I did here in a very long time, if ever. I want to go buy the hard copy now just so that I can read it again, close the cover and stare at it for a while in awe.
And…***SPOILER*** I have never been so horrified to be left with so many questions unanswered. I have read a review of this book which mentions it leaves without an ending, I expected an open ending, I did not anticipate a ‘to be continued’. I don’t know if I am relieved or devastated. Will I get to read more? I am willing to pay big to do so if it means I get to return to this stunningly crafted world though any wait will be agony. Just please don’t leave it open like this!
This is a certifiable 5 star classic. Astonishing. 

domingo, 5 de marzo de 2017

About: The President’s Gardens. By Valentina Viene

In The President’s Gardens, Refusing to Forget Iraqi History

This week, around the world, readings will commemorate the Mutanabbi Street bombing of 2007. Muhsin Al-Ramli’s acclaimed novel The President’s Gardens is also a refusal to forget. The novel chronicles the Saddam Hussein years, and it has moments when the reader needs to close the book and process. But it also has moments of great delight: 

By Valentina Viene
In 1990, Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli got a personal taste of Saddam Hussein’s iron grip: His brother, Hassan Mutlak, a celebrated poet, was hanged for attempting a coup d’état. Al-Ramli fled Iraq as soon as he could, although he first had to complete his military service, or else he risked imprisonment. After a period in Jordan, Al-Ramli settled in Spain in 1995. In 23 years of exile, every single piece of work he has produced has been about Iraq. At an event organized by Banipal magazine in London this January, Al-Ramli said he would continue writing about his homeland as long as it was riven by conflict.
Al-Ramli is adamant that Saddam Hussein is no hero, contrary to what some Iraqis currently believe, and that the country’s current situation in Iraq is part of Saddam’s legacy. Al-Ramli attributes the current idealization of Saddam to a destructive forgetfulness. That’s why he wrote The President’s Gardens, a novel published in Arabic in 2012 that will be available in English this April, thanks to Luke Leafgren’s seamless translation. The novel is an attempt to write the testimonies of life under Saddam’s dictatorship into posterity in a way the history books can’t—lest we forget. All the events described in this novel were either directly experienced by the author or related to him by others. He assures us they are all real.

Secrets in the president’s gardens
The President’s Gardens revolves around three men whose friendship lasts until their death. Two of them, Abdullah and Ibrahim, are forced to join the army during the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait. The third, Tariq, is relieved of military service because of his studies and follows in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader. The idyllic village where they grew up is a remote place in Northern Iraq where life continues almost magically—the author fills village life with legends and stories from the past.
The little community has secrets the narrator reveals gradually, not just to the readers, but also to the characters, leaving scars on their souls. It is to this timeless, nostalgic place that Abdullah and Ibrahim dream of returning after the war, but things don’t go according to plan. Abdullah had hoped to marry Sameeha, Tariq’s sister and a woman who loves him, but during his absence she is betrothed to a man she does not love.
Ibrahim meanwhile moves to Baghdad to work and support his wife, who has cancer and needs treatment. Soon she dies, and he finds himself doing a job he both hates and has to keep secret: He’s a gravedigger in the president’s gardens. Ibrahim has information he could be killed for, and, as a consequence, he becomes increasingly withdrawn. He spends more time with the dead than with the living. He finds meaning in secretly cataloguing the corpses so that, if someone were ever to go and look for them, they could be identified.
When Abdullah and Ibrahim finally manage to return to Baiji, after the Kuwaiti invasion, they are so demoralized all they wish for is peace and safety. While struggling to rid themselves of the ghosts of the past, they reflect on how the wars have taken away the best years of their lives and, what’s worse, they can’t move on. Ibrahim finds a purpose in life, in secretly taking people to consult his catalogues of the dead in his Baghdad flat. For this, he is killed.

Untold stories
The novel explores the untold stories of those Iraqi soldiers who were made prisoners in the 80s, during the Iraq-Iran war, the last of whom were released in 2003. It also offers an insight into military life: hazing rituals, torture, the UN’s attempts to document the degradations of some prisons, the submission soldiers had to learn from very early on, the friendships amongst comrades, and upsetting scenes of death. There are moments when you need to close the book and allow yourself to process what you’re reading.
Luckily, to compensate, there are some absolutely delightful moments. Some are poignant images, as when Abdullah returns to his village after years away and his blind adoptive mother touches his beard, asking if it has become white. Some of these are moments of love, as when Ibrahim visits his wife in hospital wearing his wedding suit, and they forgive each other for their shortcomings. Or there are funny moments as, in the three friends’ youth, when they hide in the forest and pull their pants down to see who is the most “equipped.”
The reader senses the characters’ indissoluble relationship with the earth is a reflection of the author’s own ties to his homeland. He depicts the Iraqi soil as one with an ancient history, a place where, “People often found urns, bracelets, earrings, tablets, belts, swords, and armor made from brass, gold and silver” when they built their mud houses. By the end of the novel, this soil becomes ground for the deceptively luxurious presidential gardens, a symbol of Iraq’s flowering of carnage.

The perils of refusing to remember
A central theme to the novel is the tragedy of forgetting. After Ibrahim comes back from the war in Kuwait, adolescent Qisma, his daughter, looks at him with contempt. As she’s had no dialogue with her father, all she sees in him is a weak man who always accepted his fate, even the choice of a wife.
Qisma, which in fact means destiny, hates her father’s acceptance of fate so much so that she changes her name and rebels against everything her father represents. She marries a man who has a picture of the tyrant tattooed on his arm, who chooses Saddam as a name for their son. On the one hand, the older generation hates Saddam, as they barely manage to survive their tragic experiences. On the other, the new generation has completely lost touch with reality and has gone so far as to idolize the dictator. But no one is exempt from his oppression: Qisma’s husband is tortured to death, and she is raped by none other than Saddam himself.
The President’s Gardens is reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude in its effort to commit to memory the history of a country and, like Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, it is an intensely political book. We are presented, in the very first page, with the arrival in the village of nine banana crates, each containing a severed head. One of them is Ibrahim’s. This episode coincides with the American invasion of Iraq. Here, the author highlights how the banana boxes have come from abroad, as bananas are not native to Iraq. In this scene, Al-Ramli makes us question who the instigators are. It could be the Americans, or more likely Saddam’s henchmen, or even his opponents. The macabre scene suggests we are entering a new cycle of violence but, at the same time, Ibrahim’s small act of cataloguing has allowed some families to find the bodies of their relatives and, with them, some form of closure.
The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the IPAF in 2013 and won the PEN Translates award in 2016.
Muhsin Al-Ramli is a Professor at Saint Louis University, Madrid; he has published both novels and poetry. Two of his novel,s Scattered Clouds and Dates on my Fingers, have been translated into English. He is co-editor of Al-Wah, an Arab cultural magazine based in Spain, and he has also translated several Spanish classics to Arabic, including Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
 Valentina Viene ( is a translator from Arabic into English and Italian and a literary scout focusing on contemporary Arabic literature. A graduate of the Orientale, Naples, she has translated a number of Arab authors and her articles have appeared in Italian academic journals and blogs. She has lived in and around the MENA region for several years. 

martes, 14 de febrero de 2017

The incompatible and the inextricable/Clare Roberts

The incompatible and the inextricable

Clare Roberts - reviews
Dates on My Fingers
By Muhsin Al-Ramli
Translated by Luke Leafgren
AUC Press, Cairo, February 2014
ISBN:9789774166440. Pbk, 192 pp, £12.99/$16.95

When Saleem stumbles across his father by chance in a Madrid nightclub, he barely recognises him but for an old keychain made from a single copper bullet. This bullet has long acted as a potent reminder of an oath for 
revenge, made years earlier in their Iraqi homeland. The reunion of father and son in this radically different environment should bring only joy, but instead it unmasks a festering obsession.
Saleem comes from a large, conservative family living an isolated existence near Tikrit. The indisputable leader of this clan is Saleem’s grandfather Mutlaq, whose maxim, harkening back to a childhood experience, is: “If a dog barks at you, don’t bark at it; but if it bites you, bite it back!” This mantra lies at the core of the family’s mentality, and is put to the test when Saleem’s father, Noah, takes revenge on a man who has groped his young daughter by forcing two copper bullets up his anus. But this man is an important government official, and before long Noah is arrested and tortured, losing the function of his reproductive organs. A revenge attack, in which the men of his family storm the building in which Noah is being held, spurs his release, but this attack has brutal, bloody repercussions on the wider family, prompting Saleem’s decision to leave Iraq for good and Noah’s promise to take revenge on the official who first inflicted so much shame on his family. When Noah learns that this official has been posted to Spain, he too moves to Madrid. Noah’s plan for revenge is clear, the copper bullet on his keychain indicative of the way in which he intends to carry it out.
With a focus on Saleem’s own experiences, including his very first sexual encounters with his childhood sweetheart in their Iraqi village and his confusion regarding his impotent father’s passionate relationship, the date fruit takes on a somewhat curious significance. But the use of this sweet fruit in the lovemaking of all the characters is more than just an unusual preference shared by the men in Saleem’s family. Dates, a symbol of Iraq, also act as a constant reminder of their roots. Even in exile, their homeland clings to both men as the nectar of dates sticks to their fingers.
Any sweetness in the novel, however, only serves to exacerbate its underlying bitterness. When Noah announces his decision to move to Germany, supposedly to start a new life with Rosa, we learn that the very government official who prompted Noah’s move to Madrid has been posted to Berlin. This telling detail interrupts a euphoric final description of Saleem’s engagement to Fatima, family reconciliations and happy future plans. It is in this ending that the novel’s dark and chilling genius lies.
Dates on My Fingers is first and foremost an exploration of exile in the modern world, where the incompatible collides with the inextricable. When Noah hires Fatima, a pious Moroccan girl, to work in his nightclub – a veritable den of alcohol, lust and sin it is conditional on her memorising the Qur’anic Surah of the Cow rather than any display of aptitude. It is an intriguing detail: despite the extremes Noah goes to in his exile, he is nevertheless drawn to those who share his roots. Living in a modern European capital, a world away from their isolated community in Iraq, father and son cope with their exile in different ways: Saleem by papering over the walls of his apartment with newspaper cuttings about Iraq, and Noah by dyeing his hair, getting drunk, and groping women – another irony Saleem struggles to comprehend. When consumed by his lust for revenge, a wilder Noah is released. At first this facilitates lucid self-reflection, but ultimately exacerbates what he describes as the “entangled nature in my soul”.
Al-Ramli, himself an Iraqi who has lived in Madrid for many years, is all too aware that exile is not an escape. But the difficult questions raised in this novel are, no doubt, a way of making sense of his own entanglement.

*Published in Banipal 52 - New Fiction  

sábado, 4 de febrero de 2017

The President’s Gardens and Iraq+100/ Malu Halasa

Iraq’s Present and Future-Past in its Contemporary Literature

By Malu Halasa
Body parts are an essential component in Iraqi contemporary fiction. The soon-to-be published The President’s Garden, by Muhsin Al-Ramli, opens with the mysterious appearance of nine severed heads, each in its own banana crate, on the streets of an Iraqi village. InIraq + 100 a collection of sci-fi short stories about the country in a hundred years time, edited by Hassan Blasim, humans are butchered with gourmet finesse in playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak’s futuristic tale about Iraq’s new occupiers, aliens.
Muhsin Al-Ramli   and   Hassan Blasim

Blasim emerged as his country’s best young voice in exile with The Iraqi Christ and Corpse Exhibition. In the book’s forward, he reveals his own uneasiness with the brief for + 100, a collection commissioned by his publishers, Comma Press. He found it awkward convincing Iraqi writers to envision a future “when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories.” He might as well have been describing older generation Iraqi writer, poet and translator living in Spain, Al-Ramli, who was in London last month and described himself as “a historian.” The President’s Garden is dedicated to his relations massacred on the third day of Ramadan, 2006, the same day when the crates of heads are discovered in the novel.
The story centers on three childhood friends whose lives and military service mirror the pivotal events of Iraq. Abdullah Kafka, the intellectual, suffered as an Iraqi POW in Iran during the ill-fated Iran-Iraq War and spends his day chain-smoking. The peasant Ibrahim the Fated lost a foot during George Bush Sr’s bombing of the Iraqi army retreat in the desert from Kuwait. While Tariq the Befuddled avoids conscription because of his family’s religious and business contacts and rises socially and economically in the lead up to the 2003 American invasion.
Through Tariq’s connections, Ibrahim starts a new job as a gardener in a lavish garden belonging to the president who is unnamed through the novel. There, he encounters the president at close quarters. The president loves his gardens not for the flowers, trees and flocks of goats and sheep lovingly tended by shepherds but for the sylvan vistas that camouflage the murder and the burial of his adversaries.
Ibrahim, eventually promoted to gravedigger, starts a detailed archive of the killed and missing: evidence of their violent deaths and clues to their identities, the recording a distinguishing mark or even keeping a bit of nail or skin. His archive, written in code and smelling of rotten flesh, is kept secret in his bedroom until the Iraqi officer and husband of his daughter Qisma, goes missing. Ibrahim had also buried his son-in-law’s body but not before noting the flaying of his skin except on the arm with a presidential tattoo. He was buried in a mass grave, alongside other officers involved in a failed coup against the president. Surely the experience of Al-Ramli’s brother Hassan Mutlak, the Iraqi poet and writer hung in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état, provided some impetus for the story.
With levels of violence like this in the imagined creative space, where do Iraqis go to dream? Science fiction, a genre that has had a popular following among Middle Eastern kids and teenage boys, was elevated by the 2013 publication in Arabic, of Baghdad Frankenstein, by Ahmed Saadawi, a novel to be published by Penguin in English in 2018. The movement of sci-fi into the Arabic literary fiction is part of the breakdown between high and low culture that has been taking place in the region since the 2011 Arab Awakening or so–called Spring.
Blasim who has been described by the critic Boyd Tonkin as the Iraqi Irvine Welsh readily admits in + 100 that he is an outsider, “on the margins of the Iraqi literary scene” which “is populated by ‘official writers’ who belong to the Writers’ Union … It is a literary scene that depends … on corruption in the press and in the Ministry of Culture. Literary and other culture projects in Iraq usually come about through personal relations that are not entirely innocent.” Not only is sci-fi missing in modern Iraqi and Arabic canons. He believes there is a dearth of diverse genre writing in Middle Eastern fiction.
He explains the reasons for this: “We, by which I mean Arabs today, are subservient to form and to narrow-minded thinking because we have been dominated by religious discourse and by repressive practices over long periods, often by dictators who served the capitalist West well …” Despite this, he cites early examples of sci-fi and fantasy in A Thousand and One Nights and the Sumerians’ The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Some stories in + 100 turn on a neat conceit. Ali Bader’s one-eared Corporal Sobhan, killed by an African-American sniper’s bullet, made a deal in heaven and is sent back to Iraq. However the country he returns to no longer needs religion, which places him under suspicion at home as a terrorist and abroad as the anti-Christ – once news of his appearance reaches an ultra religious America that’s “become like Afghanistan was 100 years ago … ruled by the Taliban.”
Statutes too walk and talk in + 100. “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili reveals an Iraq ruled by a governor who cites massacres, famines and natural disasters from history to show that his country isn’t so bad, despite the corpses in the streets.
While in “Baghdad Syndrome” by Zhraa Alhaboby, an architect starts hallucinating and having nightmares – in his dreams a dismembered statue of Scheherazade yearns for her partner in stone Shahryar. It is the final stages of a mental condition, which will leave him blind. The story is as much about a memory of a city as it’s a well-crafted detective who-done-it.
In one hundred years time, politics doesn’t improve much. In “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki, a Chinese warlord takes over oil-rich Kirkuk, outlaws the old languages and songs and arrests the innocent. Iraq’s future still includes women seeking protection from religious freaks in “Kahramana” by Anoud. It also provides the setting for memorable characters like Abdulrazzak’s Kuszib, a tentacled hermaphrodite who offers aphrodisiac wine made from wild humans, killed the moment before they orgasm, as a cure for rekindling a failing alien love affair. In other stories the sci-fi feels disjointed; for some writers it remains a not altogether realized form.
In the masterful The President’s Garden Al-Ramli makes great use of the Iraqi tradition of Scheherazade’s stories within stories. The near-repetition of the first chapter much later in the book has an unexpected poetic effect as the narrative shifts. Stories that have the same beginnings can come to radically different conclusions. By the end, the tale is no longer Ibrahim’s but that of his ill-fated daughter. Qisma always considered her father a failure until he emerges as a hero to the thousands of distraught families looking for their missing relations, as he and his archive become better known. In The President’s Gardens, the dead have already suffered enough; it is the living who do not come away unscathed.
At a launch for Banipal 57 at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London, a twenty-something woman in the audience asked Al-Ramli a question about legitimacy and post-truth. Can his version of history be trusted? Fiction is a kind of truth, muttered both the author and audience. In today’s climate of “alternative” facts that are lies where does the truth of dictatorship and war as harsh as Iraq’s or Syria for that matter, lie? Somehow moral informed choices must be made.
For an author as compelling and important as Al-Ramli, the great heroes of Iraq are not intellectuals or sheikhs – nor are they alien hermaphrodites or the ghostly corporals of + 100. He leaves us with the severed head of a humble man of conscience in a region controlled by killers, religious extremists and crazy American presidents. We’re lucky to get that.
*The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli will be published by MacLehose in April 2017. 
**Malu Halasa is Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books ...
***This article was updated on February 2, 2017

jueves, 26 de enero de 2017

“Dates on my Fingers” in a doctoral thesis by Assmaa Naguib/University of Éxeter

About Dates on my Fingers in a doctoral thesis 
by Assmaa Naguib
University of Éxeter

jueves, 19 de enero de 2017

IRAK.Tras el informe 'Chilcot' / EL MUNDO

IRAK .Tras la publicación del informe 'Chilcot'

"No nos trajeron libertad, sólo dejaron destrucción"


"Son tantas penas que he dejado de contarlas", reconoce el novelista iraquí Muhsin Al-Ramli. El informe 'Chilcot' apenas concitó ayer atención en un Irak sumido en el duelo desde el coche bomba que el pasado domingo arrasó una de las principales calles del barrio bagdadí de Al Karrada. Las autoridades elevaron ayer la cifra de víctimas a 250 convirtiendo la carnicería, reivindicada por el autodenominado Estado Islámico, en el ataque más mortífero desde la invasión que hundió al país en un laberinto de muerte y destrucción. El baño de sangre segó la vida de decenas de jóvenes que disfrutaban de una de las últimas veladas del ramadán en una concurrida zona comercial de la capital iraquí.

"Hemos sufrido siempre la injusticia interna y externa. Aunque resulte escaso, el informe es un pequeño rayo de reconocimiento a nuestro dolor. Ojalá sirva de aviso a los corruptos que gobiernan Irak", apunta Al-Ramli desde su refugio madrileño. Su familia no ha escapado al sino trágico que ha desangrado la mayoría de los hogares iraquíes. "Fui vigilado en la época de Sadam. Mi hermano fue ahorcado y mis parientes fueron despojados de sus empleos. Mi pueblo está hoy controlado por el daesh. No sé nada de mi hermano y mi sobrina fue asesinada en la plaza del pueblo. Es un tragedia sin fin".
*Publicado en el diario (EL MUNDO), Madrid 2016