The follow-up to the internationally acclaimed The President's Gardens
"Al-Ramli is a remarkable storyteller, and in Daughter of the Tigris he creates a dynamic, intricately plotted narrative, brimming with stories and a host of memorable characters" Susannah Tarbush, Banipal
On the sixth day of Ramadan, in a land without bananas, Qisma leaves for Baghdad with her husband-to-be to find the body of her father. But in the bloodiest year of a bloody war, how will she find one body among thousands?
For Tariq, this is more than just a marriage of convenience: the beautiful, urbane Qisma must be his, body and soul. But can a sheikh steeped in genteel tradition share a tranquil bed with a modern Iraqi woman?
The President has been deposed, and the garden of Iraq is full of presidents who will stop at nothing to take his place. Qisma is afraid - afraid for her son, afraid that it is only a matter of time before her father's murderers come for her.
The only way to survive is to take a slice of Iraq for herself. But ambition is the most dangerous drug of all, and it could just seal Qisma's fate.
Translated from the Arabic by Luke Leafgren
REVIEWS FOR THE PRESIDENT'S GARDENS
'Though firmly rooted in its context, The President's Gardens' concerns are universal. It is a profoundly moving investigation of love, death and injustice, and an affirmation of the importance of dignity, friendship and meaning amid oppression. Its light touch and persistent humour make it an enormous pleasure to read' Robin Yassin-Kassab, Guardian.
The President's Gardens evokes the fantastical, small town feel of One Hundred Years of Solitude Tom Gordon, Financial Times
'No author is better placed than Muhsin Al-Ramli, already a star in the Arabic literary scene, to tell this story. I read it in one sitting' Hassan Blasim, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Release date: November 14, 2019
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 384
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Daughter of the Tigris
After vomiting by the side of the road on the way to Baghdad, Qisma felt hungry and decided to eat Iraq.
That was what she resolved after the farcical scene with the Americans. When Tariq the Befuddled, who had become her husband the day before, stopped his car on the side of the road, she had leaped out quickly, leaving her infant child in the back seat. Qisma knelt on the ground and disgorged her breakfast onto the rocks. That was when she saw a thicket of military boots crowding her on all sides. She lifted her head and found herself surrounded by American soldiers, their rifles trained upon her.
Qisma turned towards the car before trying to stand up, and even before she had wiped the last traces of vomit from around her mouth. She saw other soldiers pointing their guns at Tariq, who was still sitting in the driver’s seat with his hands above his head. The soldiers had blocked him off with two Hummer jeeps, while an intimidating military column continued down the highway. When she saw one of them point his gun at her child too, she made a sudden, terrified motion to rise, but the heavy hands of the soldiers on her shoulders prevented her from doing so, and she screamed at the top of her voice, “I’m just throwing up. You pigs!”
The circle of boots around her took a step back, but the hands of the two soldiers on either side of her were still pressing her into the ground. She heard one of them speaking into his radio above her, and among what she could understand with her basic English was the question “What should we do with them?” and a curt “O.K.” Her neck remained twisted uncomfortably, and her heart was breaking at the sight of her child crying silently while he looked at her in terror. Two other soldiers forced Tariq roughly out of the car and brought him round to the boot. He opened it, took out some of the things and put them back. Then they led him forward. He opened the bonnet, and they looked inside before closing it and ordering Tariq to bend over with his arms braced against it. He tried to resist, but they forced him to comply. He looked at Qisma, utterly humiliated, hoping that she might forget this scene and never once recall it, especially during the nights of passion to come when he would ask her to assume this same position for him.
The child’s cries rose up when he saw one of the soldiers put his head and shoulders through the window to continue the inspection. This time Qisma screamed, “Let me go!” Such was the power of her cry that she felt as though she were in the middle of a square full of pigeons that had suddenly taken flight. It seemed to her that the entire column of armoured military vehicles flew up into the air, recoiling in panic. What actually happened was that her scream coincided with the passage of a flight of helicopters above the military column, even as one of the jeeps detached itself and braked to a halt only a few metres from where she knelt. Three solders got out and came directly towards her.
She knew one of them was the commanding officer because, when he directed his words at the others, they let her go at once. She stood up and hurled herself towards the car, snatching an abaya that she draped over her head. Then she picked up her child and raised him to her bosom. She turned to face the group of soldiers, or, to be more precise, their commanding officer. She stood directly in front of him, and, although he was a tall man, she somehow felt she was taller. She looked him hard in the eyes, as though to bore twin holes into them with her gaze. In clear English – for even if she had forgotten everything else she had learned of the language at the institute, she would never forget how to swear – she yelled, “What is this fucking shit? Why are you doing this? What right do you have?”
She spat the words out of her mouth as if they were flying nails that would tear at his ears. But something changed in an instant when the commanding officer replied in clear, eloquent Arabic. “I beg your pardon, sister,” he said. “Peace be upon you. I am General Adam.”
The tone of his voice was like cool water that doused the fire within. Her sight returned, and she saw that he was blond, with captivating green eyes. He was wearing an elegant military uniform and gave off a pleasing scent of cologne. He held himself upright in a way that she liked. For a moment she felt the desire to throw herself against his chest and wrap her arms around him. Their eyes remained locked, and he added in a kind voice, “Everyone knows the instructions – they’re written on all our vehicles: ‘Caution: Stay 100 metres back or you will be shot.’ Didn’t you see them? But it’s O.K. Thank God the matter turned out this way. Is this the first time you’ve seen us?”
“Yes,” she said calmly. “You only passed briefly through our village.”
“Where are you going?”
“O.K. Go in peace. But please, remember these instructions! One hundred metres, at least.” Then he reached out his hand to caress the child’s head with a smile. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “What is your name, little one?”
The child turned its face away, and, after a moment’s thought, Qisma replied, “Ibrahim.”
This was the first time she had called her son by that name, her father’s name, which she had decided to bestow upon her son in place of the name of the deposed president, the name given by the child’s executed father.
“He is your son?”
“O.K., Umm Ibrahim. Do you need anything from us?”
“No. Just stay away and leave us in peace.”
“Fine,” he said with a smile. “Go in peace.”
The soldiers turned away, but Qisma stood watching the general as he strode towards his vehicle. He waved at her and got inside, and the jeep swung around to rejoin the column, which immediately drove away. Qisma remembered what she had heard about the gang rape inflicted by four American soldiers on a young woman, Abeer al-Janabi, in the village of Mahmudiyah. They had killed her father – who worked as a guard at a vegetable warehouse – her mother, and her five-year-old sister. Then they raped Abeer and killed her. Afterwards, they burned the bodies. Qisma spat in disgust in the direction of the departing convoy. She returned to the car, where she found Tariq opening a case of water bottles. He took one out, opened it, and offered it to her, saying in a subdued voice, “These are from them.”
All three drank from the bottle. They washed their hands and faces with the cold water, feeling a measure of calm and composure return to them. Qisma settled Ibrahim in the back seat, and the three of them continued their journey in despondent silence.
After about ten minutes, Tariq said, “Thank God it turned out like that and nothing worse! I’ve heard about them killing people on the road on the pretext that they’d got too close.”
Qisma did not reply. In the renewed quiet that followed, both she and Tariq wondered what Abdullah Kafka would have done in that situation had he continued with them on this journey instead of changing his mind and asking to get out of the car shortly after leaving the village.
At that moment, Abdullah was alone, as usual, smoking a cigarette in the cemetery, uncertain and angry. He walked back and forth between the grave of the severed head of Ibrahim, Qisma’s father, and the grave of Zaynab, his own grandmother, asking them what he ought to do with the man who had fathered him by raping his poor mother.
He addressed the grave of the old lady. “Your son, Jalal the runaway, has come back bearing the name of Sayyid Jalal al-Din. Here he is, Zaynab, one of the new rulers and rapists of Iraq. What am I to do, Grandmother?”
Then Abdullah went over to the grave of Ibrahim’s head and said, “Your daughter, my dear Ibrahim, has married our oldest friend. She has gone with him to seek your body with the help of the man who raped my mother. What am I to do, my friend?”
He stood between the two graves, asking himself, “What if he comes with them to the village?” He turned in a circle, scratching his dishevelled hair with a hand that still held a cigarette, nearly setting it on fire. Then he had the answer: “I will kill him. I will tear him into small pieces and feed him to the dogs so that he won’t have a grave for people to remember him by. I will kill him. I will kill him. I have endured nearly twenty years of torture in Iranian prison camps in defence of this country, and then this runaway, this man who raped my mother, returns to become master over it. I will kill him.”
Abdullah squatted down. He got back up. He turned in a circle. He wandered between the two graves, smoking as he repeated, “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.” Then he passed by all the other graves, one by one, informing each: “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.” He carried on in this way until he grew tired of addressing the graves, and decided he would go and talk to Anwar, the young man who worked in his field, or Hamid the Snorer, his friend who spent his days dozing in the village café.
After another half-hour of silence, Tariq said to Qisma, “I’m thinking we shouldn’t go straight to Baghdad today, but rather we should pass by one of the villages on the outskirts of Samarra. The village sheikh has been a friend of mine since childhood, and his father was a friend of my father’s. You could say he is more like a brother to me than a friend. We could spend the night there, hear their news, and ask whether they’ve heard of anyone around here coming across any decapitated corpses.”
When Tariq did not receive a reply, he turned to look at Qisma. She indicated her agreement with a nod. Tariq went on speaking, eager to demonstrate his importance and his connections after the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of the Americans, and to introduce her to people who were in a position to help them. “The sheikh’s name is Tafir al-Shakhabiti. He is the head of the famous Shakhabit tribe. It is said that this tribe numbers more than a million people, spread throughout almost every corner of Iraq. His father was my father’s friend, and they would visit each other once a year. When my mother was pregnant with me, Tafir’s father asked mine what name he would give me, and my father said, ‘Tariq.’ The old sheikh decided to give his next son the same name, but when he returned to his village, he couldn’t remember what it was, just that it began with the letter ‘T’. So he called his son Tafir. We were born in the same year, just a month apart, and our fathers would bring us along on all the visits they paid one another, so we became friends from a young age. Of course, stories of strange names are nothing new in this family – they go back a century, to the days of the Ottoman empire.
“The first sheikh of the Shakhabit worked as a groom in the stables of a pasha who sometimes entrusted him to prepare coffee and serve it to his guests. The pasha was very fond of this groom. After the Ottoman empire was defeated in the First World War and the British occupation began, he chose to give all his lands to his beloved servant. He departed for Istanbul, and the groom became a feudal lord, taking the place of his master by ruling over the peasants and giving positions of power to his brothers, nephews and other relatives. Now, when the British occupied Iraq, they were different from the Ottomans in one crucial respect: they were far more eager to document, demarcate, organise and record, and they required agencies to be set up in the cities to record births, marriages, divorces and other administrative matters that the Ottomans had not cared about in the slightest. This servant-who-had-become-a-sheikh did not know how to read or write. When his first son was born and he wanted to enter the boy’s name in the registry of births at one of the new government offices, he was too ashamed to admit before the British officials or his new subjects that he was illiterate, so he scribbled a few messy lines on a piece of paper and gave it to one of his servants, together with gifts of food and money. He ordered him to go to the city to register the infant and acquire an identity card for him. When the official in the registry office saw the paper he stood up angrily. ‘What is this scibble?’ he asked. The servant was at a loss – he had not presumed to read the name on the paper till then, and it seemed it was up to him to interpret the sheikh’s impenetrable scrawl. He set the bag of gifts down on the official’s desk, and thought hard about how to record the name without incurring the sheikh’s displeasure. Then, at last, it struck him, and he solemnly wrote in the official ledger the word Shakhbata – ‘Scribble’!”
Qisma laughed. Tariq was delighted and laughed along with her. He felt a sudden frisson of desire when he saw in the rear-view mirror how her breasts shook when she laughed. He thought about taking the car off-road to drive down through the trees and fields. There, by means of Qisma’s body, he would regain his wounded male dignity, which the American soldiers had taken from him before her very eyes. He would repair his manhood by inscribing it on her body. But he put aside this audacious idea; far better for now to keep calming her down and making her laugh – and watching the movement of her breasts.
“But there’s more to the story than that!” he announced once their laughter had subsided. “The sheikh kept calling his son by the name of his Ottoman master, Dawud Pasha, a name he had given him orally, out of gratitude and affection for his former master. And so it was that everyone knew him by this name. But when the boy grew up and went to enrol in school, carrying his official papers, he discovered that his real name was entirely different, and he was known legally as Shakhbata. He could not have been more upset. He returned to his father in tears, for his name ended in the feminine letter ‘A’, just like all the girls’ names. The father was surprised, then angry and finally enraged, to the point that he decided to kill the servant he had sent to register the birth. But fortunately the imam of the village was present in the sheikh’s reception hall at that very moment and, using his tact and intelligence, he was able to cool the man’s blood and turn the situation around. He announced to them that this was a beautiful name, rare and special, and that no-one apart from his son possessed it. It was not to be supposed that he would have a normal name like the sons of servants and peasants. What’s more, many of the preeminent companions of the Prophet and the first heroes of Islamic history had names along these lines. He began to rattle them off, recounting the stories he knew from his historical and religious studies: Talha, Ikrima, Hanzala, Abu Abida and the Prophet’s uncle Hamza, among others.
“After that, the boy and his father grew to like the name very much, and they ordered everyone to use it whenever they addressed him. As for the son, he liked it even more when he grew up, and after he finished his education he renounced the name Dawud Pasha, as a way of rejecting the period of Ottoman occupation and accepting the yoke of the British – their civilised enemies, as he referred to them. And so, when he became sheikh upon the death of his father, he decided that the name of the tribe would be tied to his own, and they became the Shakhabit. Actually, it was he who secured for the tribe its power and standing, thanks to his close relationship with the British. He opened the first school in the village, and he spoke English. Over the years, his own status grew in the region, since he resolved many of the difficulties that arose between the native population and the British, and he collected money from both sides. Many of his relatives and members of his tribe named their children, both male and female, with variations on his name: Shakbut, Shakbuta, Mushakhbat, Mushakhbata, Shakhabit, Shakhabita, Shakhbat, Shakhbata, and so on. And thus, the tribe began to take pride in being known as the Shakhabit.”
Tariq had reached the place where he had to take a left turn for the familiar dirt road that would bring him to the village of his friend, Sheikh Tafir al-Shakhbati, on the banks of the river, after passing by a number of small villages and scattered houses belonging to the tribe. But he was surprised to find, for the first time, a checkpoint set up at the junction. Several armed young men, some in military uniforms and others in city clothes or traditional peasant robes, all wearing ammunition belts, called for him to stop. They asked who he was and where he was going and why. He told them he was Sheikh Tariq, a friend of Sheikh Tafir, who had come to visit him. They asked for his I.D. card, and those of the people with him, and he handed them over. They asked about the woman and the child, and he told them, “My wife,” adding, after a brief pause, “And my son.” The young man stared at their I.D. cards, and it seemed as though he did not understand or could not read well, for he kept looking back and forth from the pictures on the cards to the faces of the owners. Tariq feared they would demand to see a document confirming that the woman was his wife, for their marriage had not been officially confirmed and was sanctified only by a verbal contract, announced before guests at a small banquet in his village the previous night.
The young guard did not say anything. He just went inside the guardhouse and came out with another young man, who was apparently in charge. He recognised Tariq immediately, and Tariq him. He was the son of one of Sheikh Tafir’s brothers, someone Tariq had seen a number of times in Tafir’s reception hall during his previous visits. Tariq got out of the car and embraced him. After the initial greetings, the young man invited Tariq to come sit and drink tea with them.
They had a corpse with them, one of the corpses that people had become accustomed to discovering in the fields beside main roads. Qisma insisted on getting out to examine it despite Tariq’s attempts to prevent her. How could she not, when she had resolved to search for the corpse of her father and had married Tariq and set off on this journey precisely for that reason?
Even though the corpse by the road was intact, including its head, and could not be supposed to be the body of her father, of which nothing but its head had been discovered and buried, Qisma nevertheless stood staring at it for a long time, studying the holes in its chest and neck, and the patches of dried blood on its clothes. She would actually have touched it had Tariq not pulled her away. Then he thanked the young man for his invitation, explaining that they were tired from the journey, and that the child was hungry. They wanted to reach Sheikh Tafir’s home before nightfall.
As they resumed their journey, Tariq was surprised to find workmen with tools and machines labouring to pave the old farming road and set up electrical poles alongside it, something that would further delay their arrival, however much it might shorten the journey in the future. When Qisma asked him how long it would take, he estimated an hour and a half. “Are you hungry?” he asked.
“What do you want to eat?”
Confused, he fell silent and did not ask for an explanation, preferring not to reveal that he did not know what she meant. He guessed that something had annoyed her early on, and that he would be wise to avoid provoking her further. Nonetheless, she did, after a pause, enlarge on her declaration, saying that she would eat this country that was eating its children, that had eaten her father, her husband, her childhood and her future, that had eaten all her dreams. She had decided, therefore, that she would take it as fodder for a new dream. She had no idea how, but she would search for a way. Many were now gnawing at it, now that the era of the president, who had had it all to himself, was no more, that man who had raped her, though she still did not know, and did not wish to know, whether this child of hers was the product of that rape, or if he was the son of her late husband, who had disappeared after taking part in an attempted coup. In any case, she would do whatever was possible – and more – to protect her son from everything that had happened to her and to her relatives, and from everything that was going to come their way.
The silence between them stretched out. Tariq did not dare to break it until she surprised him by asking, “Then what happened?”
“What happened when?”
“What happened next in the story of your friends, the Shakhabit tribe?”
Her interest delighted him, and he thought how she was not all that different from other women and children, for she too liked stories, and that could only work to his advantage given that he was full of stories he had experienced himself or heard from others or read in books. Indeed, he was even prepared to make them up, if they served his purpose. Stories would be one of his means of winning her heart and mind so he might get from her what would make her forget the sight of him bent over the bonnet of his car, humiliated in front of her by the foreign troops, submitting without a fight or a word. Likewise, he would make her forget the stark difference in their ages, and he would tame with his tongue, not his hand, her notorious recalcitrance. He would tame her as he had tamed his first wife, and she would become putty in his hands, obedient to him in all things.
The Great Reception
It was not just a surprise to Tariq but a true shock when he arrived at the gates of his friend Sheikh Tafir’s compound and found an armed checkpoint whose guards prevented his car from entering.
“Have you informed the sheikh that it’s his friend Sheikh Tariq?” he asked them.
“Yes,” they said. “And it was he who ordered us not to open the gates to you.”
His distress, indeed his agony, was only increased by Qisma’s comment: “Didn’t you say that he was your friend and brother?”
“Yes, of course. I don’t know what has come over him! What has happened? There is no power nor strength but with God alone!”
Agitated, he began getting out of the car and climbing back in. He spoke with the guards and sat back down, clapping one hand into the other. He got out and then back in yet again. Surrounding the sheikh’s house was a high concrete wall that had not been there before, with its flags and guards by the entrance and at each distant corner. The house had not been an imposing, colourful palace like this before, with three flags fluttering above it – the flag of the tribe, being the largest, with the Iraqi and American flags alongside it. A quarter of an hour passed as Tariq climbed in and out of the car, confused, at a loss. He asked the guard for perhaps the tenth time, “Are you sure you told the sheikh who I am?”
“What did he say?”
“He ordered us not to open the gate to you.”
“Fine, don’t open the gate for my car, but open it for me alone, so that I may go inside to talk with him. Or else tell him to come himself so I can talk to him in person. For I don’t believe what you’re saying. I don’t believe it! It’s impossible!”
“Forgive us, but we cannot go against our orders. If you want, sir, take a seat and have a rest. Would you like coffee or tea?”
“I don’t want anything. I just want to be sure of what you’re saying and know what’s happening. To understand.”
Tariq went back to the car. He sat behind the wheel and continued clapping his palms together, invoking God’s protection against the evil one, and repeating the formula about God’s power and strength. After another ten minutes had passed, Qisma said, “We have to leave now if we want to make it to Baghdad before nightfall.”
Tariq resisted at first, saying he would never leave that place, even if he were forced to take up residence there, until he had seen his friend. But after thinking it through, he sighed, whistled and said, “Glory to God! God decides and we abide.”
He turned the key in the ignition and started to turn the car in order to leave. The guards ran over to stop them. “The sheikh also ordered us not to permit you to leave.”
At that, Tariq lost what little composure he had left. “Why?” he yelled. “And what do we do in that case?”
“Please, sheikh, calm down. Just wait a few more minutes. Do you want tea or coffee?”
“I told you I want nothing from you! I want to be done with this whole affair!”
At that moment the large gates swung open and Sheikh Tafir came out to greet them in all his traditional finery: a dark gilded cloak over a gleaming white robe, the agal placed meticulously upon his head. He was flanked by a group of men, and behind them came the women and children. Tafir approached Tariq with a wide smile and opened his arms, calling out the most elaborate words of greeting, and Tariq at last relaxed. He tried to get out of the car, but the guards prevented him from opening his door until Sheikh Tafir arrived to open it himself. Then Tariq got out, and they folded into a long, hard embrace. Each one kissed the nose and beard of the other. Sheikh Tafir apologised for the delay, explaining that he could not possibly have been satisfied to receive his dear friend like any other guest, but rather had wanted to prepare for him the most sublime demonstration of welcome, one that would match Tariq’s position in his eyes. “You are my brother, O sheikh. I love you like my own self.”
Finely dressed women, both young and old, opened the passenger door for Qisma and carried her bag and her child for her. The wide-open gates revealed a red carpet spread as far as the palace-like house, a distance of some two hundred metres, and each side of the rug was lined by men, women and children. The sheikh led his friend courteously by the arm towards the entrance, and as soon as their feet touched the rug the women broke out in trills and the sound of automatic weapons fired in celebratory abandon roared through the air. When they had covered half the distance, a group of children presented them with bouquets of flowers and silver dishes of water, dates and milk.
Tariq turned back, seeking the eyes of Qisma to know how she saw him now. He found her smiling at him, an astonished, almost befuddled look on her face, and he said to himself with an inward laugh of delight, “Now she is ready to be the wife of Sheikh Tariq the Befuddled.”
The children drew back on either side to allow the sheikhs to pass, and the two of them walked forward, continuing the journey hand in hand, sometimes shooing away with their feet the wandering ducks and chickens that passed in front of them on the carpet.
“What is all this munificence, my sheikh?” Tariq asked Tafir. “What is all this beneficence, all these blessings? Now I truly am befuddled.” They both laughed.
“It is the blessing of democracy, which our Marian brothers have brought.”
“Our Marian brothers? Who are they?”
“The Christian foreigners – the Americans. I’ll tell you all about it, for you too need to take your share of these blessings.”
As they approached the reception hall, Tariq saw, off to one side, two bulls that had been brought down upon the grass of the garden, restrained by a knot of young men, no doubt in the process of being slaughtered. After the first bull was dispatched, a powerfully built dwarf directed one of the youths to carry over to Tariq a vessel filled with blood, which he smeared with his palms onto the shoes of the guest in a gesture of honour. As soon as they entered the hall, Tariq was brought up short in surprise at the changes that had been made to this spacious room, which he had known well since childhood. It had been enlarged, and its furnishings were no longer limited to a few carpets and cushions on the floor, with a stove to brew coffee in the middle. Now there were luxurious couches and chairs and tapestries embroidered with gold thread running along the walls. Each of the couches had a low marble table in front of it with flower vases and microphones set on top. The floor was covered with a soft velvet carpet, and huge chandeliers of gilded glass hung from the ceiling. In pride of place on the far wall was a large photograph of Sheikh Tafir surrounded by smaller photographs of the rest of the line of Shakhabit sheikhs. The tribe’s flag was displayed above it, framed by two swords. On the other walls there were massive paintings depicting sword fights or riders on horseback, or framed examples of the finest Arabic calligraphy – poetry, verses from the Qur’an and phrases such as “All this from the grace of our Lord”, “The eye that envies goes blind”, “God holds all”, “Councils are schools”, “Our tribe is our security”, and so on.
The two sheikhs sat side by side beneath the portrait of Tafir, with the men of the tribe spread out before them down the sides of the room. Glasses of milk and tea, as well as cups of coffee, were circulated to everyone, and one of Sheikh Tafir’s small sons, just nine years old, came up and whispered to him, “Mr Rahib the cook asks how he should distribute the two hearts and four testicles from the bulls.”
. . .
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