An Iraqi poet’s view of the merits of literature
Muhsin al-Ramli is an Iraqi poet, playwright, short-story writer, novelist and translator who has lived in Spain since 1995. He was born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq, in 1967, published his first work in 1985 and writes in Arabic and Spanish. He teaches Arabic at the Saint Louis University in Madrid.
He fled Iraq after the death of his brother, poet Hassan Mutlak, who was hanged in 1990 after six months of imprisonment during which he was tortured for his involvement in an attempted coup against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In 2006, nine of Ramli’s relatives were killed in Iraq and their severed heads were found in banana crates. He uses the incident in the opening of his novel “The President’s Gardens,” which recounts the effects of Iraq’s wars on ordinary people over the past 50 years and which was recently translated into English to glowing reviews. He spoke with The Arab Weekly via e-mail.
The Arab Weekly (TAW): You wrote your novel “The President’s Gardens” partly as a response to the killing of nine of your relatives. Have you achieved any peace, if that is possible?
Muhsin al-Ramli (MAR): “Yes, up to a point. I feel relieved because to express something helps the one who says it and the one who hears it. A human being has to express himself and everything he does in life is a form of expression.
“As for the book, I’ve received thousands of messages of thanks from relatives of victims in Iraq and that makes me feel that I’ve helped the many who are suffering to raise their voices further, something that allows them to be supported and heard.”
TAW: Is the killing of your brother still part of your motivation to write and in what way? How do you think he might have reacted to your work?
MAR: “I wish my brother were still alive and could read this and my other books, which I wrote to please him. Part of my task is to continue writing so that his name survives as long as I’m alive.
“He was my master and my idol. He confronted the [Saddam] dictatorship directly and lost his life when the dictator was at the height of his power, control and savagery.
“Many national Arabs see this dictator as a hero, a leader and a source of pride and I want to tell them who he was in reality, this tyrant, the murderer of my brother and my people, through a literary description of the disaster and destruction that he brought to Iraq and above all the great harm and pain he caused to families, lives and the souls of people.”
TAW: Do you feel the translation into English, Spanish and other languages of your novels and those of other contemporary Arabic writers is helping to bridge Western ignorance of the Middle East and in what way?
MAR: “Yes but very little up to now because this vacuum is too deep. There’s a general ignorance in the West about Arab culture, literature, people’s complex situation, history and modern reality.
“The press, which both manipulates and is manipulated, is not enough, nor is it the best medium for knowledge. For example, the press talks of victims in terms of numbers, while literature focuses on the human and on every victim, his circumstances, his thoughts, feelings and dreams.
“We have got to know other cultures better, among them the West and Latin America, more through literature than the press. It’s time for other people from other cultures to read us and know us better through our literature.”
TAW: Have you noticed any change in attitudes among your students towards the Middle East since you started to teach Arabic language, literature and culture?
MAR: “Without a doubt, many came to my classes out of curiosity and took them as a secondary option but they’ve ended up wanting to specialise in it for the rest of their lives. Others are living in Arab countries or have married Arabs.
“In general, people fear the unknown and tend to judge it badly or superficially but when they open themselves up and get closer, they get to know it better and, in some cases, fall in love with it. Knowledge is the key to everything.”
TAW: Your last trip to Iraq was in 2014. Are you planning any trips back? How do you feel about Iraq now? Do you feel optimistic about its future?
MAR: “I want to and must visit Iraq when I can, especially now that my people have been liberated from [the Islamic State] ISIS after four hard and savage years.
“I want to see my sisters and nephews, who were miraculously spared.
“As for the future of Iraq, it will continue to be difficult, complicated and hard. No one could yet say that Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis. It’s not a truly sovereign country and its running is in the hands of others, such as Iran, the US and other foreigners.”
TAW: Do you think that Arabic language literary prizes are helping to encourage more Arabs to read fiction?
MAR: “Yes, to a great extent, although these prizes often hurt the quality of the literature when they encourage writers and those who are not writers to produce too much too quickly in order to participate. They also sometimes give the prize to mediocre works for reasons that have nothing to do with quality.
“But the marvellous phenomenon these days of being able to read many novels in the Arab world is not thanks to prizes but because the young, who are a majority of the Arab population, are looking for a vision of the world, a form of understanding it and themselves and their identity, especially without the weight of ideology, philosophy and loss of faith in books of religion, politics, official education and even history books that contain so much manipulation.”