Muhsin Al-Ramli: why I wrote THE PRESIDENT'S GARDENS

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Muhsin Al-Ramli describes the terrible events that inspired, and the remarkable reception of, The President's Gardens

"I began writing The President’s Gardens in 2006 after receiving the news of the murder of nine of my relatives, who were fasting on the third day of Ramadan. The people of the village found only their heads in banana crates, along with their identity cards. I dedicated the novel to their souls. It was a huge shock to me. It horrified me, and, to start with, the novel was a reaction to this event undertaken without planning or a clear vision. So I put it aside in the hope of achieving an old ambition of writing a novel encompassing what ordinary people have suffered through the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history, a novel like The Bridge over the Drina by the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić, which relates the history of his country over generations and in which the bridge is the focal point unifying the different events and periods of the book.

Another motivation was that when I have taken part in cultural activities and events in many countries, I have seen the difficulty people have in understanding the complexity of the Iraqi situation, and I have felt extremely sad and angry when the world press reports Iraqi victims as though they were merely numbers. I began to gather information systematically. I travelled to Syria to meet my brother and his son there to ask them for more details. I did not start writing again until the end of 2008, after reading an old, short news story about someone whose work was to bury anonymous executed people in Iraq and who secretly kept something belonging to them, whether it was a card, a bill, a watch or a ring. He would record some of their personal characteristics and information about where they were buried. After the fall of the regime, he helped many families to find the remains of corpses of their lost ones.

It took about four years to write, but the work was not continuous. I would write and then stop to write other things, then return to the novel, search for more information and go back to it, asking advice from friends, and so on. It was written in four places: I began in Madrid and carried on in Granada and Iraq where I went for a short time and did more research. I finished the first draft in Asturias, in northern Spain. After that, I did various revisions in Madrid, so it was begun and finished there, where I live.

The novel has been received far better than I expected. The critical views expressed reassured me that it was technically solid. Readers' views, which are the most important, made me feel that this novel had conveyed the message I intended. I received calls and letters from readers who follow my writings, who said that “this is the novel we have been waiting for you to write”. Others said: “We now understand what was going on in Iraq and the reasons for what is happening now.” Some confessed that their view had completely changed – they had previously been sympathetic towards the ousted dictator of Iraq and supported him against his enemies. Some on social networks wrote about their hope that rulers of the people they rule would read it, so that the whirlpool of violence in this Arab world of ours would become calmer. And there was someone from Iraq thanking me because I had managed to express their pain."

Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President's Gardens was longlisted for the IPAF, known as the "Arabic Booker", in 2013.

YOARElise Williams