The President’s Gardens

Muhsin al-Ramli, Trans. by Luke Leafgren

May 2, 2018 
The following is from Muhsin al-Ramli's novel, The President's Gardens. On the third morning of Ramadan, nine banana crates appear in a village, each of them containing a severed head. One belongs to the infamous Ibrahim the Fated, lifelong friend of Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled. The President's Gardens was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013. Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, and translator living in Madrid.

Sons of the Earth Crack

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In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons. Along with each head was an ID card to identify the victim since some of the faces were completely disfigured, either by torture before the beheading or by something similar after the slaughter. The characteristic features by which they had been known through all the years of their bygone lives were no longer present to distinguish them.

The first person to notice these crates alongside the main street was the dull-witted herdsman, Isma’il. Curious, he approached without dismounting from his donkey. The donkey’s image was inextricably tied to Isma’il’s in the minds of the people because of how long he had ridden it—sidesaddle, both legs hanging down on the same side—as though the two of them shared one body. As soon as Isma’il saw the bloody heads inside the boxes, he slid off his donkey and bent close, poking at them with the end of his staff. He recognized some of the heads. All traces of sleep fled his eyes as he rubbed them to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then he looked around to confirm he was in his own village and not somewhere else.

The last silver light of dawn was filling the street. The shops on either side were closed. The sleeping village was calm and still, apart from the crowing of a rooster and the barking of a distant dog, responding to another dog in some yet more distant corner. In that moment, Isma’il felt liberated from the ancient sense of guilt that had pursued him in nightmares ever since, as a boy, he cut out the tongue of a goat that had annoyed him with its bleating when he was braiding a wool belt for Hamida amid the solitary silence of Hyena Valley.

In that same moment, Isma’il’s tongue recovered from its paralysis, and he began screaming at the top of his lungs, causing his donkey to jump, his flock of sheep to freeze, and the pigeons and sparrows to launch from the treetops and rooftops. He kept yelling without realizing what he was saying, and his cries seemed to resemble the bleating of that goat whose tongue he had cut out and grilled. He kept yelling until he saw people rushing toward him from some of the village houses—then all the people from all the houses, after the alarm was raised over the mosque loudspeakers.

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And if Abdullah Kafka had spoken about this incident, he would have said, “It was on the third day of the month of Ramadan, 2006. According to ancient history, that was when a strange amorphous blob with a giant body and a small head, called America, came from across the oceans and occupied a country named Iraq. Historians make clear in some footnotes that the people of that time had hearts that were primitive in their cruelty, savage hearts, like beasts of prey. As a result, among the injurious relations they had with each other were such dishonorable deeds as assault, terrorism, wars, invasions, and occupations. In those remote times, the heart of humanity was sunk in darkness. It wasn’t a darkness of intellect or vision, such that man was unable to cogitate upon the murder of his brother man. Rather, it was much worse, in that he might actually follow through with it.”

This is how Abdullah Kafka would see and speak about everything that happened, describing it all as ancient, lost, dead history. The present and the future didn’t exist at all for him. There was only the past, and all of it was black. Some of it died irrevocably and didn’t return, and the rest of it was repeated later, in a time that other people called the future.

Thus for all the years since his return from captivity in Iran, Abdullah Kafka, that prince of pessimists, had been content to sit on the same chair in the corner of the village café from the moment it opened its doors in the morning until it closed after midnight. Sipping cups of bitter coffee and glasses of tea black as ink, he would smoke a nargileh absentmindedly or just listen in silence. He returned greetings with a nod of his head or a gesture with a hand that still gripped the smoking nozzle of the water pipe. If he spoke, or rather, if he was forced to speak, he would go on speaking interminably, or he would be satisfied with a comment of no more than a few words.

So it was one spring when they informed him that the river had flooded. It overflowed its banks and covered the fields and gardens, carrying off the nearby huts and mud houses and unearthing the hillside cemetery to scatter the bones and skulls of the dearly departed. Abdullah Kafka didn’t say a thing. Ignoring the alarm of those bringing the news, he continued puffing on his water pipe as people ran in every direction before him. He said nothing until Isma’il the herdsman came in, petrified and howling, because the flood had swept away his animal pen and carried off ten sheep and one of his goats. He was sobbing as he described how his goat had floated on the surface of the water, brown with flotsam and mud. It was bleating and looking at him, as though in supplication, and Isma’il could do nothing to save it because he didn’t know how to swim.

Isma’il’s despair filled the café: “The water is rising. It’s creeping toward the rest of the village! It’s the end! It’s the Day of Judgment and the end of the world!”

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At this, Abdullah Kafka cleared his throat and asked him calmly, “And did the water rise so much that your goat’s back touched the sky above us?”

“No,” Isma’il said.

Abdullah said to him, “Then this is nothing. But would that the end had come and brought the heavens down to the earth.” And he turned deliberately back to his pipe and went on smoking.

As for this morning, when they informed him that the head of his lifelong companion Ibrahim was among the nine, Abdullah replied, “It is finished! He has attained his rest. For this time he has truly died, leaving us to the chaos of fate and the futility of waiting for our own deaths, we the living dead.”

Every one of these nine heads had a family and dreams and the horror of being slaughtered, just like the hundreds of thousands slain in a country stained with blood since its founding and until God inherits the earth and everyone in it.”

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Abdullah fell silent and remained motionless apart from the rise and fall of his chest with each breath. He sat frozen there for several moments. Then he began to smoke and smoke. And for the first time, the people saw tears stream from his unblinking eyes. He didn’t wipe them away, and he didn’t stop smoking.

When the news reached the third member of their lifelong brotherhood, Sheikh Tariq, he felt faint and all but collapsed. He sat down quickly, propping up his spirit—so as not to kill himself—by reciting the many religious sayings he had learned by heart and which were always on the tip of his tongue. He wept and asked God’s forgiveness; he wept and cursed the devil so as not to be driven to despair; he wept and wept until the tears wet the edges of his red, henna-dyed beard.

Questions from the onlookers saved Tariq from succumbing to an even longer bout of sobbing. “What do we do, O sheikh? Do we bury the heads on their own, or do we wait until we come across their bodies and bury them together? They were killed in Baghdad, or on the road to Baghdad, and now Baghdad is a chaos choking on anonymous corpses, buried explosives, car bombs, foreigners, and deceit. It might be impossible to find their bodies.”

Tariq said, “It’s best to bury the heads, and if their bodies are discovered later on, it’s not a problem for them to be buried with the heads, or separately, or in the place where they are found. Our sons and brothers are not better or more venerable than the prince of martyrs, Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, whose head they buried in Egypt or Syria while his body stayed in Iraq. Make haste to bury the heads, for the way to honor the dead is to bury them.”

Only Qisma, the widow who became an orphan that early morning, opposed them and wanted to keep the head of her father, Ibrahim, unburied until his body was found. But she resisted in vain when the men refused and rebuked her, saying, “Hold your tongue, woman, and cease this madness! What do you know about such things?”

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They pushed her away to where the women were gathered, many of whom were surprised at Qisma’s stance since they knew she hadn’t always seen eye to eye with her father. Nevertheless, as was her wont, Qisma refused to give in and began planning her next steps. Only her fat neighbor, Amira, supported her and wanted to do the same thing, to preserve her husband’s head in the freezer until they located his body.

Each head had a story. Every one of these nine heads had a family and dreams and the horror of being slaughtered, just like the hundreds of thousands slain in a country stained with blood since its founding and until God inherits the earth and everyone in it. And if every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalog.

Sheikh Tariq said, “Do not wash the heads, for they are martyrs. A martyr is not washed before being buried because he is purified just as he is. His wounds will exude the scent of musk on the Day of Resurrection.”

As the last rites were being performed for the heads, Tariq approached the head of Ibrahim and fell upon it, hugging it to his chest and kissing it so hard that his embrace scraped away the scabs formed by dirt and congealed blood that stopped up the wounds and the veins in the neck. The blood drained from it afresh and stained the front of the sheikh’s white robe, his hands, and his beard. They gently pulled him away and wrapped the head in a white burial shroud to match the others, which they buried together in a line. In the end, they dug complete graves the length of a normal man, not the size of a child’s, even though they lowered only the heads into their depths.

Abdullah Kafka did not attend the funeral but stayed at the café, smoking. No one blamed him, even though all the people of the village knew the strength of the bond that had existed between these three men since childhood, such that they were called by various epithets, all of which played on the idea of three—“the eternal triad,” “the happy threesome,” or even “the three butt cheeks in the same briefs” and “the triple balls” and so on—because they would almost never be seen apart until destiny separated them in the days of the Iraq-Iran War. But the most widely used name was “sons of the earth crack.” That name had a story, which was itself a testament to the strength of their early alliance.

It went back to the early years of their boyhood, the days when they would swim in the Tigris during the burning heat of July afternoons, quarrel with the girls bathing and washing clothes near the shore, hunt at night for the sand grouse sleeping in the nearby deserts, root out snakes and jerboa from their holes to break off their teeth, and drive off the wolves and jackals. When the Bedouin herdsman Jad’an spotted them near his tent, he didn’t recognize them, even though he knew nearly all the villagers on account of his living there with his family and his flock of sheep for one month each year, right after the harvest. He asked Abdullah, “Whose son are you?” And because Abdullah didn’t know his real father, he was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’m the son of the earth crack.” Jad’an turned to Ibrahim and Tariq with the same question, and they gave the same answer out of solidarity with Abdullah. At that, the Bedouin fell silent for a while, stroking his beard as if in thought, and said, “Yes, we are all sons of the earth crack. The earth is our mother, all of us. Out of her we are born, and to her we return.”

Jad’an ruffled their hair affectionately and invited them to his tent to taste “the best butter in the world,” as he called it, which was the butter of his wife, Umm Fahda, and to drink some of the milk from her village. The invitation pleased them to the same degree that it filled their souls with fear and trembling, for this was an unexpected opportunity for Tariq to see Fahda, daughter of Jad’an and Umm Fahda, inside her tent, instead of making secret rendezvous with her between the sacks of harvested wheat and barley or among the flock of resting ewes. Did her father know what had been going on between them, and was his invitation nothing more than an ambush to trap them and do God knows what to them? Stories of Bedouin cruelty and betrayals were notorious, especially when connected to questions of honor.

Jad’an later told the story to the village elders as they sat together, drinking their morning coffee. They all burst out laughing and praised the boys’ solidarity and fidelity to the ideal of true friendship. The story circulated widely, just as everything said in the village reached every ear, even when whispered in confidence. From that time the name “sons of the earth crack” became commonplace.

Everybody has a secret, maybe more than one, which they decide not to reveal to anyone . . . Sometimes because they don’t find the right opportunity to announce it: the secret’s time hasn’t yet come, or else it has passed, and its revelation no longer carries any meaning or importance.”

Abdullah wasn’t lying when he said that he was the son of the earth crack, for that is what he knew at the time, as did everyone else. But now, nearly fifty years old, he was the only one who knew the origin of the story. The mayor’s wife Zaynab, who had tarried in life until he returned from the long years of his captivity in Iran, had told him the truth of the matter.

He alone knew that she was his grandmother, and that the dull-witted herdsman, Isma’il, was his maternal uncle. His story was like something out of the old melodramas from India, so it was no surprise that he was known for defining life as “a Hindi movie.”

About himself he would say, “I am a victim and the son of victims. I am the son of the murdered going back to Abel, and I’m surprised not to have been killed yet.” Then he would add, “The logic of my ancestors’ history stipulates that my death be connected with love. Perhaps my failure to bind myself to the one I loved is what has come between me and my death. Or else that failure itself is my true downfall . . . Perhaps I am the final sentence in this volume containing the family tree of the murdered.”

Abdullah did not clarify to anyone the true secret behind his allusions. And no one asked him for any explanation since they were used to such pronouncements, which they called his “philosophizing.” The inscrutability of these sayings usually baffled them, and people would interpret them as they pleased or else forget about them entirely. Abdullah didn’t disclose the secret even to his lifelong friends despite their implicit mutual pledge to secrecy. In turn, they too carried secrets in their breasts that they resolved would remain confined unto death. Everybody has a secret, maybe more than one, which they decide not to reveal to anyone. Sometimes because it is shameful, embarrassing, or painful. Sometimes because they don’t find the right opportunity to announce it: the secret’s time hasn’t yet come, or else it has passed, and its revelation no longer carries any meaning or importance.

Abdullah was raised at the hands of good parents who loved him as though he were the fruit of their loins. If he had been a girl, they would have named him Hadiya, “gift,” because they believed he was “a gift from above.” Abdullah’s parents said that repeatedly throughout their lives.

Salih and Maryam’s small mud house was at the very edge of the village, on the side of the hill by the river. One spring dawn, when the white of the first approaching light scattered the last remnants of the retreating darkness, Maryam awoke as usual and went out to the square mud stall that rose as high as the shoulder of someone standing beside it. At a distance of sixty steps from the door, it was situated in the farthest part of the dwelling’s courtyard, right above a deep crack in the side of the hill. This crack had been made by a torrential rain many long years before, and Salih had put it to good use as a toilet, which they called “the pit.”

Previously, Salih and Maryam, like everyone living on the outskirts of the village, used to do their business in the river valley, the thickets, or out in the open after nightfall. With the crack, Salih did nothing more than construct the mud wall, and since it cost him nothing, he chalked it up to his own ingenuity. You only had to spread your legs to either side of the crack and squat down, then expel your excretions into the mouth of the dark opening, waiting to hear the sound of its fall, hidden in the depths far below.

Some suggested this crack was an old well, reopened by the rain. Others said that perhaps the hill contained ancient ruins, for when digging wells or kneading mud to build their houses or make a bread oven, people often found urns, bracelets, earrings, tablets, belts, swords, and armor made from brass, gold, and silver. They would give anything made for women as gifts to their own wives and keep anything made for men as ornaments to put on the walls of their reception rooms. They used the urns—after dumping out the bones and washing them—to cool water or pickle vegetables. As for the ceramic tablets, which had drawings and inscriptions scratched upon them, these they used as doorsteps, or to reinforce doorframes, or as part of a window, or under the legs of beds or wardrobes to fix their balance.

That morning, before Maryam went inside “the pit,” she saw a bundle of cloth propped up against the wall next to the entrance, near the outer opening of the crack. She was startled and put her hand to her mouth, then to her breast. As she calmed down and took a deep breath, she reached her hand out cautiously to the top of the bundle and slowly drew back the edges of the cloth. She was terrified to see the face of a newborn baby, asleep. She ran back to the house and shook Salih until the entire bed shook with him. He woke up and asked what was wrong. Maryam stuttered as she pointed outside, “A baby—a baby—the pit—a baby!” And if it were not the case that Salih had never before seen his wife in such a state of bewilderment, he wouldn’t have hurried out barefoot and in his pajamas.

They carried the bundle inside and set it down. They kept looking at each other in silence, their unspoken thoughts hanging in the air. “Salih,” Maryam said at last, “do you think it is a gift from God in return for our patience? Is it an answer to our prayers?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But what could have brought it here? I’ll go to dawn prayers at the mosque and ask if anyone has lost a baby.”

He got up and made his way to “the pit” in order to perform the ritual purification. He walked around the structure twice as though looking for something—perhaps another baby. He squatted inside and strained but only gas came out. He washed and went back to put on his clean robe. He stared at the face of the child and said, “Please check—is it a boy or a girl?”

Maryam uncovered the infant with trembling fingers and burst into tears. “It’s a boy!”

Salih went out as though a wind were at his back—and a second wind pulling him from the front. As soon as he arrived at the mosque, he told Sheikh Zahir, the imam, what had happened so that he could inform the congregation. Contrary to Salih’s expectations, Zahir wasn’t surprised, a response Salih put down to the sheikh’s sophistication, the breadth of his knowledge, his equanimity, and the firmness of his faith.

After the prayers, the imam addressed the people, asking them about the matter. Given that no one there had lost a baby or heard about anyone losing a baby, Zahir said, “Let those who are present inform those who are absent. Tell all the people of the village. And if no one claims the child and establishes his paternity within three days, then the infant belongs to Salih and Maryam. It is undoubtedly a gift from the Lord of Creation for their patience, their goodness, and their faith.”

Everyone agreed, and indeed, it warmed their hearts on account of their affection for Salih. At first they hoped, then they said, and in the end they believed that the matter truly was a miracle, God’s recompense to the good and patient couple.

Salih couldn’t hide the tears gleaming in his eyes. And as soon as he found himself outside, he hurried home, carried along by the same gale at his back. Beaming, he came in to where Maryam was waiting and said, “It really is a gift, Maryam, just as you said! And if it had been a girl, we would have named her that, ‘Hadiya.’ But now, we’ll name him . . . we’ll name him Abdullah, after my father, who died dreaming of a grandson to carry his name.”

Maryam was about to trill with joy, but Salih stopped her, even though the force of his own exultation would have made him trill had he known how. “Not now,” he said. “Wait another two days, and at that time we’ll slaughter our bull and hold a huge feast for everyone. A party with dancing, just like a wedding. Then you can trill all you want.” And so it was.


From The President’s Gardens. Used with permission of Quercus Books. Copyright © 2018 by Muhsin al-Ramli.

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