Our story starts where it ends; with beheadings. Tariq, Abdullah and Ibrahim are brothers in all but flesh. Born in the same year, they face life’s various milestones and paths together as one, until the day they don’t. Ibrahim and Abdullah drop out of school, leaving Tariq to study while they are enlisted in the army. The time in service brings Abdullah and Ibrahim closer together, until it doesn’t. Abdullah is captured and kept as prisoner while Ibrahim returns to his village and to Tariq. Fate, it conspires, seems to keep the trio apart, until it doesn’t. Abdullah returns, after 20 years away.
Finally reunited, the three men attempt to come to terms with all they have missed in each other’s lives, and to make the most of what is left. Yet apart from the horrors and barbarism witnessed during the war, there are other horrors at home, which almost go unnoticed. Ibrahim’s wife is in the grip of cancer, and in order to provide for their daughter and his wife’s treatment, he takes a job in Baghdad, tending the President’s gardens.
Growing among the pristine flowerbeds and immaculate lawns, Ibrahim discovers also that other things have taken root; massacres sprout about his feet, and he must tend to them, silent and obeying.
Memory can be inspiring or foreboding. As we retrace the steps of this trio of men from childhood to their separation, we need to overcome the obstacles of war. Brutalities and barbarism abound, in the words of the author, ‘madness incarnate’. While the work is one of fiction, it encompasses whispers of atrocities faced by real people, the tearing apart of real limbs and families, making it all the more powerful and macabre.
The narrative is steeped in melancholy and stirred by outrage. Al-Ramli surrounds the reader with discomfort; forcing them to see the cruelty of which their brethren are capable, and to question what can be done about it. The President’s Gardens is deeply distressing and equally beautiful, making it a powerful and vital read.
The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli is published by Hachette and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.