Adnan leads a weary existence as a bookshop owner in modern-day, war-torn Baghdad, where bombings, corruption and assault are everyday occurrences and the struggle to survive has suffocated the joy out of life for most. But when he begins to clean out his bookshop of forty years to leave his city in search of somewhere safer, he comes across the story of Ali, the Gardener of Baghdad, Adnan rediscovers through a memoir handwritten by the gardener decades ago that beauty, love and hope can still exist, even in the darkest corners of the world.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The Daily pain of my Hometown, Baghdad, and role of love to inspire people to go on.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
From all the people, I have met all these years from different paths of Life.
Adnan brushed away the last shards of shattered window glass that was scattered all over the floor. It had taken six hours of effort, hard labor, to restore his bookstore to order, but finally, a new window was in place, and there was no dangerous glass shrapnel anywhere for any of his customers to step on.
Luckily for Adnan, he was in the back with a customer when the roadside bomb exploded, the third in two years. The thing exploded about 500 feet away from his store, aimed at a small gathering of workers, and it had taken its bitter toll: five casualties and dozens of injured workers in all.
Maybe everyone is right, Adnan considered. Maybe it’s time I close up my bookshop and leave the country like most everyone else has. Baghdad wasn’t safe anymore; it hadn’t been since day the regime had changed. Not a day went by without casualties anymore, and bombs, kidnappings, and shootings were rampant. It wasn’t the Iraq Adnan used to live in, the place where people could at least feel safe living with their families. The worst part about it was that the bombings and continuous conflict seemed to be for no reason, and things were just getting worse.
The questions tumbled in the disgruntled shop owner’s mind: How did this all happen? Who’s behind it all? What do they stand to gain from it? Like most Iraqis, Adnan didn’t care who the ruler was or who was in charge. He’d never been into politics. He’d only wished for a nice, safe place where he and his family and their future generations could live, a place of peaceful harmony, better education, work opportunities, and free of wars.
Adnan’s wife called again, understandably still worried about the bombing. She wanted to make sure everything was all right now, and before getting off the phone, she again urged him—as she’d done often in recent weeks—to consider leaving Iraq for good. As if he wasn’t already aware of it, she frantically reminded him that she couldn’t take it anymore, that she wanted to raise their family in a better place. “I just want to enjoy a peaceful night for once, Adnan. Baghdad isn’t safe,” she said, her final words before she hung up.
Adnan was torn apart by it all. If it wasn’t for his shop, he would have left a long time ago, as it was becoming painfully obvious that the tumultuous situation in Baghdad was going to require years, maybe even a decade, before it would calm down.
He walked around his shop, looking at it from left to right. While he recalled happy memories, they were far from the current reality. He had been working there for the past forty-one years. His father had started the business in 1944, and when Adnan turned six, his father began bringing him along to help him carry books and rearrange them. As the years passed, Adnan realized that he had as much passion for the work and the store as his father did. He eventually took over the shop, and it had been his second home ever since. Come to think of it, he spent more time there than at home, but he had a family of his own now, a beautiful wife and two young boys, and their safety was not negotiable. That’s it. This bomb was the last straw, he decided. He’d been thinking it over for several hours, in fact, and finally his mind was made up. “I’ll organize the bookshop and sell it so we can start a new life elsewhere, in a new and better place,” he said out loud, as if making a vow to no one in particular.
Adnan knew selling wouldn’t be difficult, as his store was in the path of much traffic and a bevy of loyal customers, and anyone willing to take the daily risks of life would make some good money with the place.
Around six p.m., Adnan asked his assistant to leave. He needed to be alone. He turned off the front lights, put the CLOSED sign on the door, locked the shop up, and began rearranging books and putting them in the right sections. The Arabic ones were arranged according to subjects, and the English and other foreign language books were on the other side. Adnan’s father was one of the first people to bring non-Arabic books to Baghdad. In addition to selling the books, Adnan’s store also loaned them out. In one small sitting corner, patrons could read the books right there in the shop; his mother used to call it “the elderly corner,” since the neighborhood elders dropped by daily to read and to have their morning tea with Adnan’s father while making small talk.
Adnan finished putting every book back in its place. Then, with his hands in his pockets and sadness and grief in his eyes, he stared around at the place. “Is this it? Am I really going to abandon you?” he mumbled to himself, looking at the books.
Then, as if an answer to his question, reality struck him again. He recalled the ominous BOOM! of the last bomb, the image of people running and glass flying everywhere while he stood there in the chaos, surrounded by books.
“Right. There’s no other way,” he said in a louder voice, forming the words with his brain while his heart was crying out in agony.
Adnan thought about what life might have in store for him and his family if they left. Will I be able to open a new shop somewhere, or will I have to start from scratch? Will the children be able to adjust? Will my wife love our new home? There were questions, questions, and more questions flooding his mind, but Adnan had few answers.
What made things worse was that there were laws in place that forbade the shipping of large quantities of books from one country to another. Many approvals and permits had to be filed, and that meant Adnan would have to buy a new supply of books if he wanted to continue doing what he loved to do—the only job he knew. Buying new books and arranging them wouldn’t be much of a hassle, since he’d have plenty of money from selling his store. It would only take some effort for that problem to be solved. What really pained Adnan, the toughest part, was having to let go of the books in the far right corner of his shop, the masterpieces. Those tomes were all rare, unique books, most more than fifty years old. They weren’t even for sale because they were his treasures, and he considered them priceless. That private collection was very close to his heart, just as they had been to his father’s. Anyone who wanted to read them had to ask days ahead of time and could only read them in the store; none of those books ever left the four walls of his bookstore, not even in the hands of his closest, most trusted friends or relatives. Unfortunately, the modern generation didn’t seem to appreciate Adnan’s treasures, so the corner hadn’t seen much action for a long time, and the 300-plus books or so were all dusty.
Adnan had read more than half of them, but even he had neglected them for the last three or four years. Of course, this was not out of his own will, but because daily problems had impacted his life and eaten up all his spare time. Adnan moved to the corner where they sat, stood in front of them, and took a whiff, enjoying the ancient, almost musty aroma of those old pages. He moved closer and picked each book up and carefully cleaned their covers and bindings. He knew he could make a good fortune off of those books by selling them to some curator or collector, but those who would truly value the books had either left the country or were dealing with other priorities that left them little spending money for anything as frivolous as rare and beautiful books. Nevertheless, they deserved to be dusted, for they were hidden gems.
After nearly two hours of dusting and thumbing through some of his inventory, Adnan was in the third row when a book fell. He quickly picked it up, and he could tell from the title that it was French. Funny. I don’t remember seeing this one before. Out of curiosity, he opened the book. As is usually the case for books, the first page contained the name of the publisher and the copyright information. It was clearly mentioned that the work had been published in 1931. Intrigued, Adnan turned a few pages. Suddenly, something fell out of the book. When he carefully placed the book back on the shelf and bent down to see what it was, Adnan realized it was a small, leaf-shaped, locket. The pendant was dark golden in color, and two green stones, emeralds in the shape of eyes, were embedded in it.
With the most delicate of touches, Adnan opened the locket. On one side were the letters M&A, clearly engraved, but what caught Adnan’s attention at once was what was on the other side: a black and white photograph of a woman behind a small glass. He quickly dusted it off. Although the photo wasn’t that clear, the woman in the picture looked like a foreigner; she had light hair and features far different from most Arabic women. Still, her eyes were very beautiful and big, and her smile was innocent. In fact, Adnan had never seen such beautiful, wide eyes. She was indeed a very nice-looking woman, but something told Adnan she harbored some sadness beneath that pretty grin. “Who was this woman?” Adnan asked himself.
He continued staring at the photo, studying it for a few minutes. He brought it very close to his eyes, then held it a bit further away, as if to see if there was more to it, something he’d missed. At the same time, he kept on asking himself the same question: “Who are you? Do I know you?
When the locket returned no answers, he put it in his pocket and picked up the French book from the shelf. In spite of his efforts to handle it with care and turn the pages gently, the entire inside of the book fell out of its cover, as if it wasn’t attached to the binding at all. Adnan stopped, surprised to see that the original inside pages of the book had been replaced with paper of a very different color. Everything was handwritten in English, not printed from a press, in spite of the publisher’s name in the front. Adnan’s heart began to beat faster as he flipped through the pages. The words were scribed in black ink, all English, with the exception of a few Arabic words scattered throughout here and there.
A sudden rush of adrenaline ran through Adnan. His face began to sweat, and, full of excitement, he took the pendant out of his pocket. He held it in his right hand and kept the book in his left. Then, with fast feet, he made his way to his desk. He removed everything from his desk and carefully placing his new discoveries in front of him. He looked at his watch and impatiently dialed his wife; fortunately, she answered after a couple of rings. “I won’t be home tonight,” he said. “Don’t worry. I just have some extra work to do in the shop and a few things to fix if I’m going to have to sell the place.”
While his wife didn’t like to hear that he wouldn’t be home, she was very glad to hear that he’d finally made his mind up. She knew better than to bicker with him about not coming home, as she didn’t want him to change his mind again, after all the time it had taken her to convince him to leave. She took it as good news, more than enough, and quickly told him goodnight and got off the phone.
Adnan opened the locket again and placed it on its side so the lady’s face was toward him. He then opened the first page of the book.
The date was written on the top in Arabic, July 12, 1958. Adnan took a deep breath and started reading the book: “I have a feeling things won’t go well when we return to Baghdad tomorrow…”
I am writing this so my beautiful daughter knows the sacrifices her mother and I have made in the name of our love. If I’m not there to tell my daughter who her father is, this will help her a lot—or at least I hope so.
I was born in 1934 in Diyala, an only child to my parents and the light and joy in their lives. My father, along with my two uncles, had inherited a large plot from their late father. It was beautiful agricultural land, with soil so rich that everything they planted turned into gold. My father and uncles were fond of their work and took care of the land very well, and our farms supplied fruits and vegetables to many areas across the country.
I had a happy childhood. I enjoyed watching my father and uncles do their daily work at the farm, and my mother and my uncles’ wives laughed as they went about their daily chores, whether it was cooking or helping the men with some farm work. I loved running around those green farms, collecting dates, oranges, and grapes and playing with my younger cousins. I was particularly close to Sinan, who was only four months younger.
I will never forget the good times we had. Every day, just before sunrise, Sinan and I used to run to the end of the farm, to a little hut my late grandfather had built years earlier. We’d climb up on top of it and watch the sunflowers open up while the sun was rising. How beautiful a sight it was! We just watched and watched, and everything in life seemed so simple, so perfect. I remember racing him all the way back. We played games like hide-and-seek and football, but the thing Sinan loves most was climbing that high palm tree next to the house. He loved playing up there, and he never lost to me once when we raced to climb it. He was quick as a bullet, and I’d bet my life that nobody in Iraq could climb it faster than him. With several moves, he was up the tree, picking the sweetest date, while I was still struggling halfway through. It was a lovely, peaceful life till, out of nowhere, a tragedy hit.
On a rainy day in February of 1943, we received shocking news. My father and one of my uncles were on their way to Baghdad via public transportation, a small, twelve-passenger local bus, the only one in the province that went to Baghdad daily at that time, always at seven a.m. sharp. That day, the roads were muddy and dangerous. It had rained all night before, and the rain continued even after they’d left home. They were urged by my mother and my aunt to delay their visit, but they insisted that they go, stating that they had urgent meetings to attend. In the end, that decision would prove to be a fatal one, but I learned early in life that you can’t fight fate. That day was to be their calling day, that bus ride their last.
Witnesses recalled that a commuting van slid from one on of the bridges just outside Baghdad and dropped, headfirst, into the Tigris River. The incident resulted in seven casualties, and my father and uncle were among them. They passed away instantly.
The shock hit us hard. My mother was hurt the most, as she was an orphan herself and had no brothers or sisters. My father was her everything, so she was devastated. She’d finally found someone to love in life, but he was taken away from her in a heartbeat. Before that, she’d always worn the most beautiful smile, but I never saw it again after that day.
After the tragedy, my youngest uncle was in charge of all of us. It wasn’t easy for such a young man to take care of three families and manage all the farms by himself, so my cousin Sinan and I tried to help. After all, we were the oldest of the children, both a ripe, old age of ten. I always told Sinan we had a short-lived childhood, and we were men before our time.
I loved working on the farm and helping out, but Sinan only did it because he felt obliged to. Nevertheless, once school was out, we both helped with everything from seeding and irrigation to driving the tractors, the best part of all. At that age, I had four things in my life: my mother, Sinan, the rest of the family, and the farm.
Ten months later, life struck me with another harsh blow, when my mother passed away from pneumonia. The doctors tried to help, but they were of little use. She hadn’t been the same since my father’s untimely death, and she didn’t seem to have the will to live anymore.
So, I was an orphan before I even turned eleven. From that day on, I dedicated everything to my work. I put my heart and soul into it and was my uncle’s right arm. He taught me everything, and as years passed, I began to take on many responsibilities of the farm, lightening his load a great deal.
As difficult as it was to study, since there were only a few schools within a thirty-miles radius, my father had always insisted that learning was a priority. I finished primary school, but I dropped out after that. With my parents gone, I had no desire to continue my education. Besides, I poured all my attention and energy into our farm, taking care of the land that belonged to my uncle and used to belong to my father.
One day, when I was fourteen, I was in Baghdad, waiting for my uncle near a busy market. I saw a well-dressed Iraqi gentleman in a black suit and shiny black shoes. He looked to be in his early forties, with fairly dark skin; big, dark brown eyes; an impeccably trimmed mustache; and a medium build and height. He was speaking English, talking to a British gentleman, and both of them laughed heartily every once in a while. I watched them for several moments, as I was mesmerized by the man’s personality, looks, and manner of speaking. He was so elegant, so confident. I was impressed, and I felt something I still can’t explain. At that moment, I wished I was like him, elegant and able to talk articulately and confidently, just enjoying myself.
I gave in to my strong urge to approach him. I greeted the men and shook their hands. I made sure to tell the Iraqi that I admired him because he looked so elegant, and I asked him where he’d learned to speak English so well.
With a warm smile I won’t forget, he tapped me on the back and asked for my name. “And what brings you to this market today, my boy?” he said.
“I am Ali. We have several farms in Diyala, and my relatives and I take care of them. My uncle and I come here from time to time for our business,” I replied.
“That’s nice, Ali. I’m Radhi, an engineer. I know English because I studied in the United Kingdom,” he said, with warmth oozing from his voice. He’d answered me, a random kid on the street, even though he didn’t have to, and I was amazed how kind he was to me, right from the start.
After his answer, I was still curious, and he seemed to sense that. Radhi took me aside, bent down to my eye level, and asked me if I would like to learn English. I nodded excitedly. I’d never thought about it before, but I desired to be able to speak like him with people from other lands.
He smiled and pulled me closer and said, “To learn English, you must first know how to read and write Arabic, young Ali”
I told him I’d finished primary school and that I knew how to read and write Arabic and that my uncle and his wife wrote and read it very well. He told me that was a good start, and then he let go of my hand, straightened himself up, and asked me to meet him the very next day, same time and place. He assured me I wouldn’t be disappointed.
When my uncle came back, I told him about my encounter with Mr. Radhi and begged him to let me stay for another day in Baghdad to meet him again. Much to my delight, he allowed me to stay.
At precisely the same time the following day, in the exact same spot, Mr. Radhi showed up, as promised. He was carrying a small box of books, which he handed to me. “Ali, four of these books will help you learn English. Read them little by little. The last book, the bigger one with the green leather cover, is an encyclopedia about plants, gardening, and farming. You will need to study them well, but before you take this step, before you embark on the new language, you have to promise me that you will master Arabic, that your uncle and aunt will teach you well.”
I was extremely happy. I thanked him so many times, with tears in my eyes.
He took out his handkerchief wiped my tears and told me that if I needed more books, I could look for them in the Al Aadhamiya area, there was a good shop there. He also told me that if I ever needed any help, I could ask anyone in the Safina area about him.
My life suddenly had more meaning. I continued helping on the farms, and at the same time, I read as much as I could. As the years passed, my younger cousins grew and got more involved.
Sinan, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more distanced. His passion wasn’t farming, and the only thing he liked about nature and the outdoors was climbing that palm tree. He wanted to travel, to go as far away as possible. He was always telling me that he wanted to go to Basra, to the port to be more specific, where he could get involved in trading and learn from the best there. His desire was to travel away with the vessels and discover new places, and a few years later, he finally left. He was only sixteen, so his father wasn’t so keen on the idea, but as painful as it was for him to let his son go, he didn’t want to get in the way of his desire.
My uncle had a friend in Basra who would serve as an excellent guide for Sinan in the beginning. He also gave him some money that would help him settle in. For the first few weeks after my cousin and friend left for Basra, I felt lonely. He was, after all, my best friend. Suddenly, the person I shared almost everything with wasn’t there anymore. To comfort myself, I took solace in my books, and I dug deeper and deeper into reading.
Whenever I went to Baghdad, I returned with a book or two. I became fluent in English by reading the books over and over again. For hours at night, I read in the warm glow of the candle next to my bed, and waking up every morning with a book in my hand became normal.
After I gained a decent command of the language, I decided to study the encyclopedia about plants, the big green book Mr. Radhi had given me. Within a short period of time, I decided to put the advice in that book into practice. I made a small garden for myself, just outside my home, and began experimenting with whatever seeds I could get from my Baghdad acquaintances.
The more trials I did in my little garden, the better it became, and I gained so much experience along the way. I learned what to plant and when, and my continuous visits to Baghdad broadened my horizons even more. It was the perfect learning process, one that mingled with my imagination.
I loved Baghdad and found it to be a beautiful place full of kind people. There were newer, wider streets than any I’d seen anywhere else in Iraq, but there were also beautiful, narrow, old streets that seemed to transport me back through decades of time, revealing the city’s heritage. There were palm trees everywhere, and I loved the bridges that linked the two sides of Baghdad together, over the beautiful Tigris River. Just walking beside the Tigris anytime of the day was rewarding for my mind and soul, each breath of air along it a lovely, invigorating treat for my nostrils.
The city was full of busy markets, and several vendors sold goods out of their wooden carriages. I learned quickly that whatever my heart desired could be found in Baghdad—everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cattle, poultry, fish, spices, garments, clothes, antique furniture, and musical instruments. There was even a vast animal market where people could purchase pets or even weird, exotic animals like snakes and monkeys. The city was constantly buzzing with life, and I felt more alive each time I visited it.
It was quite the social scene. The city was bursting with cafés and restaurants, where elegantly dressed musicians, poets, journalists, and pedestrians gathered. Baghdad was Iraq’s city that never slept. As late-night parties were wrapping up, some were preparing for their morning prayers in the hundreds or more beautiful mosques. The streets were never quiet.
I’d seen a lot of beautiful places over the years, but one was unforgettable—a particular spot along the Tigris River on the north side of the city. I’d first noticed it while walking along the river on a cold night in February. It was a large, empty area surrounded by an eight-foot-high fence of green-painted wood. There were no buildings on it, and the place seemed abandoned, as if it was unknown or forgotten by the rest of the vibrant city. After I saw it, I visited it every time I went to Baghdad, and not once did I see another soul there.
I wanted to learn more about the strange, alluring place. One day, I decided to climb the fence and check it out for myself. I knew it was wrong to trespass on land that wasn’t mine and didn’t necessarily belong to the public, but it was as if a strange voice was beckoning me, as if the land itself was crying out, complaining about the neglect it had suffered. Deep inside, I knew that the land deserved more attention than it was getting. I walked around the whole place, admiring its beautiful, untouched soil that felt moist when I picked it up and carried a rich, earthy aroma. I just sat there for an hour, lost deep in my thoughts. I planned what I would do with that land if it was mine, if I had the chance to use it for anything, and somehow, I knew I’d have an opportunity to put those plans into action someday.
On my following visits to Baghdad, I made some inquiries about the place. As it turned out, the land belonged to a Jewish Iraqi family that had left Iraq. Their only living relative in Baghdad wasn’t at all interested in it and was ready to sell it. I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to purchase the land from them, but I wanted to be sure I was making the right decision. I had to be certain, as well, that if I did decide to take on that new experience, to make that my true future and passion, my uncle would be all right with that. After all he’d done for me, I did not want to leave him shorthanded on my family’s farms.
I was eighteen at that time, and for the past thirteen months, I’d worked very hard to teach my younger cousins everything I knew about farm work. We’d gone over every detail, no matter how small, and only after I felt sure and confident that they had learned all there was to know, I approached my uncle about my desire to leave and told him what I had in mind. I told him I wanted to sell my share of the land to the family and that I would gladly accept any price he came up with. After all, we were all from the same bloodline.
Naturally, my uncle was sad to hear that I was ready to leave, but he had watched me grow over the years, and he’d seen a change in me. All along, he’d been waiting for that day to come, the day when I’d be ready to venture out on my own. He’d seen the excitement in my eyes whenever I went with him to Baghdad, and he knew I was destined for something other than working on our family farms. Thus, when I broke the news to him, it didn’t come as much as a surprise. He told me he knew it was only a matter of time and said he was sure I’d succeed in whatever I planned to do. He generously offered to pay more than my share of the family land was worth, stating that without me and all my hard work, the farms wouldn’t have been so prosperous. He hugged me tightly and said, “You are always welcome here anytime you need to come back. This will always be your home, Ali.”
With the money I got, I bought the amazing little patch of secluded land in a matter of weeks. I already had everything carefully organized in my head. I’d imagined it all the first time I’d seen the place, and I now just had to put all my thoughts and dreams in action.
I was going to make the best plant nursery in Baghdad, something Baghdad had never had before. I wanted to create something people would talk about, a place people would like to visit as well as buy from, and I knew just the person to help me achieve those lofty goals. I would contact the same person who’d helped me find my passion and opened that new path in my life in the first place, Mr. Radhi.
Finding Mr. Radhi was very easy, as everyone in the areas he mentioned knew him. He was a well-respected figure in society, one of the few Iraqi civil engineers who’d graduated in the UK at that time, and he was also close to one of the members of the royal family, in spite of his loathing of politics.
While walking to his place, I wondered if he’d even remember me. It had been four years since he’d given me those books, the volumes that changed my life forever and opened a new world to me. I reached his home just after noon. It was near the water, surrounded by beautiful villas. Mr. Radhi’s villa was right on the riverfront, just 100 feet away from the Tigris, separated from the roaring river only by a small street used by commuters and cars as well. There was a short, off-white gate and a black door. The whole house could be seen clearly from outside.
I knocked twice and waited, and just when I was about to knock a third time, an old man greeted me. He was well dressed, sporting a black suit and a crisp, perfectly ironed white shirt. He spoke in a low voice, and I assumed he was in charge of household security. I introduced myself and asked for Mr. Radhi, and the old man informed me that the man I sought wouldn’t be back for an hour. He told me I should return then, but I explained to him that I had traveled a very long way and would prefer to wait there for him. The kind, understanding man opened the gates and invited me to sit in the garden.
Mr. Radhi’s garden was huge and stretched all across the front of the villa. It was home to many colorful flowers, a few palm trees, and a fairly green lawn, though there were some yellowed patches. Overall it was a decent garden, though not as spectacular as I would have expected. With a minute of observation, I’d already envisioned how I could turn the space into an absolute paradise.
The house was lovely on the outside, a large, three-level home constructed out of white and off-white stones. The floor of the entrance was fashioned from beautiful fading orange marble. The façade that looked out over the river was equipped with eight windows, four of them reaching from the floor to the ceiling. It was obvious that Mr. Radhi was a lover of light—sunlight in particular.
Around one p.m., I heard a car approaching. When the horn honked twice, the old man moved quickly and opened the gate, and a black car entered. Mr. Radhi was sitting in the back, still wearing that dapper-looking hat and sunglasses.
As soon as he got out of the car, he looked over and noticed me sitting in the garden. The old man whispered a few words in his ear, and Mr. Radhi handed his bag to the driver and started walking toward me. “Can I do something for you, young man?” Mr. Radhi asked in Arabic as he neared.
I replied in near-perfect English, “I’m sure you can, Mr. Radhi.”
He was a few feet away and looked at me for a second. Then, a big smile crept over his face, and he said, “Ali, is that you?”
I gave him a slight nod.
“You have grown into a handsome man! I always believed I’d see you again someday, and this is a pleasant surprise indeed. You must be starving. Come inside, and we’ll have lunch,” he said, patting me on the back.
The interior of the house was extremely beautiful, with class written all over it. Rustic, antique silk carpets were stretched all over the floors, and the walls were adorned with long, silver-framed mirrors and beautiful paintings. The furnishings included two beautiful green fabric sofas, and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. I’d seen quite a few houses in my life, but never had I seen any so elegant. The rosewood tables were exquisite, covered with hand-knitted, soft cloths; I had never felt anything so smooth before.
Amidst all that rich, artistic beauty, what I admired the most was the meter-and-a-half-tall grandfather clock in the corner. It was fashioned from dark cherry wood, hand-carved with golden angels dancing in the sky, overlooking a festive feast. Amazed, I instantly asked Mr. Radhi about it, and he told me he’d bought the clock from England a few years back. The delicate hand carvings were made by a student of David Roentgen, a well-known German Rococo cabinet- and clockmaker. “The wood’s the best you’ll find anywhere, and the mechanics are absolutely fascinating. It weighs more than a hundred pounds,” he said. “You’d need a real sharp axe to break it!”
“Oh, but I’d never want to break anything so beautiful,” I said with a smile.
After I took some time to admire that room and all of its masterpieces, Mr. Radhi showed me around some other rooms, each with its own identity. When we finally entered the dining room, lunch was already being served.
We were soon joined by a woman, and Mr. Radhi introduced her as his wife, Laila. She was a very elegant lady, rather tall, with long, beautiful, black hair that cascaded down over her shoulders like an ebony waterfall. She had light blue eyes that seemed to glisten, but her most striking features were her prominent cheekbones and her small, straight nose. Her skin was much fairer in complexion than Mr. Radhi’s, but they were a perfect match, both in their forties, no more a year or so apart. I could sense their deep connection immediately, and it was clear that they belonged to each other.
We enjoyed the food and conversation for more than two hours. I learned that the couple had only had one child, but he’d died at the age of five, due to fever .I could still see the sadness in Madam Laila’s eyes whenever she talked about their son; coincidently, his name was the same as mine, Ali.
After our delicious and friendly lunch, Mr. Radhi took me to his study, a small, square, cozy room decorated with brown leather armchairs and a small, round table. There were shelves on all four walls, full of books, and on top of the shelves in the center wall was a glass-encased saying by the Prophet Muhammad: “Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.”
When Mr. Radhi saw me staring at those words, he said, “Ali, there is nothing better than learning. I have learned all my life and I will continue to do so.” He then talked a bit about his book collection and explained where the books had come from. After that, he asked me to join him in the garden so he could have a smoke of his pipe; his lovely wife didn’t like him smoking inside their lovely home.
In the garden, we talked for hours. Mr. Radhi showed genuine interest in hearing everything about my life. I started from the beginning and told him all that had happened to me up to that point, everything I could recall about my life leading up to that moment. I explained how I’d lost my parents and told him about the hard but rewarding work on our farms for all those years. I talked about my passion for agriculture, nurturing plants, and farming. I also made sure to mention the influence he’d had on me the day I’d met him in the old market. “You opened my eyes that day,” I said. “You showed me that my life could hold adventures I never expected.” I then told him I’d bought a nice plot of land near the river in the northern part of the city. “It’s not a huge piece of land,” I said, “but it’s big enough for what I’ve got in mind. I can set up my nursery there, and I want it to be unlike any other place in Baghdad.” I was very excited about my new mission in life, and he allowed me to go on and on without interruptions, until I finally stopped.
All his words seemed wise, but this time, he uttered some I’d never forget: “Ali, I am confident it will be special, and I’m ready to help you however I can. I will design a house for you there and supervise its construction. Also, my house is always open to you, and you may consider all my books yours, if you need to learn more about anything”
For the next few months, I worked together with Mr. Radhi and the laborers he’d hired. In exactly four months, everything was ready. My small house, complete with a climbing vine, was built in the far end corner that led to the river. It had a living room, a bedroom, a small kitchen, and two bathrooms. The small garden ended at the river, and I had a small wooden boat yard there so I could take a ride in my small boat whenever I felt compelled to. In the front was a nursery, cultivated for growing roses, tulips, jasmine, and other flowers. The flowerbed stretched from the main entrance to the corners, where palms and citrus trees grew in neat arrangements. There was a small sitting area positioned in front of a beautiful fountain, with two angels playing music in the center of it all. All of this was surrounded by a quaint fence, and the place was a heaven all its own.
Mr. Radhi refused to accept any payment for the work, so in exchange; I offered to redesign his garden for him. When he agreed, I asked him to give me a week to finish the layout I had in mind and several months to follow through with the plans. I already had great plans in mind for his garden, and I knew exactly how I thought it should be. It was a wonderful space, and I could picture lovely outdoor sitting areas there, where Mr. Radhi, his wife, and their guests could enjoy the surrounding natural beauty I had planned for it.
It was simple enough to go on instinct for what colors and types of flowers and trees would work best. It was my first chance to put my years of farm experience to the test, and I was confident I would succeed.
Mr. Radhi’s house was designed without gardens outside the gates, so I had to make the best of what rested behind them. I wanted each garden I designed to have its own special identity, I didn’t like the idea of open gardens. After all, it wasn’t a public park that just anyone could walk into. I wanted Mr. Radhi’s garden and any others I worked on to lure visitors in with its beauty. To me, the garden wasn’t an object; rather, it was as much a living thing as any human, and it had the right to express itself however it chose. Just like a house, I believed the garden should have its own privacy and an entrance.
I decided I would give the garden two entrances, one at the front, close to the main entrance, and the second at the far end, for those coming from inside the house. I selected four ficus trees, two to be placed at each garden entrance. They were a meter high and trimmed into round shapes, though they could be shaped differently in the future. The outer path around the garden was a foot wide, a mixture of small, shiny, white and black stones. Next to it were pink and white roses, neatly planted in two straight, parallel lines. The middle of the garden was an extravaganza of colors—yellow, red, and blue. Tulips, a large mixture of white and red roses, white orchids, and some lilies were all selected carefully to portray a message of appreciation for life, something I felt Mr. Radhi and Madam Laila had within them but had neglected a bit in their garden. I also planted six small cycads in various places, and each was surrounded by a bed of purple tulips. I’d always thought a garden should tickle more than the eyes; it had to alter all the human senses, and I knew the gardenia could do just that. Thus, I planted four beds at each end, and the flowers were so fragrant that their scent could be enjoyed from across the street.
Madam Laila was extremely fascinated and joyfully grateful for the work I’d done outside their home. She was impressed with the flower selections and the colors, and she said, “This is a piece of art, worthy of a portrait!”
Ahmad Ardalan was born in Baghdad in 1979. At the age of two, he moved with his parents to Vienna, Austria, where he spent most of his childhood and underwent his primary studies. After his father’s diplomatic mission finished at the end of 1989, he returned to Iraq, where he continued his studies and graduated from the University of Dentistry. As a result of the unstable political, military, social, and economic conditions in his home country, Ahmad decided to leave Iraq and move to the UAE. After facing difficulties to pursue his career in dentistry, he opted to pursue employment in the business world. Since then, Ardalan has held several senior roles within the pharmaceutical and FMCG industries, throughout much of the Middle East. His early childhood in a mixed cultural environment, as well as his world travels, increased his passion for learning about cultures of the world and inspired him to pen The Clout of Gen, his first novel. After eleven years of being away, Ahmad returned to Baghdad in January 2013 on a visit that was full of mixed emotions. Inspired by his trip to Iraq, he wrote his second novel, The Gardener of Baghdad.
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