The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi tr. Luke Leafgren

Slightly surreal, nostalgic and deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of a childhood and early youth lived under the shadow of war, shared by a girl, (our unnamed narrator) who refuses to depict her childhood through the lens of suffering and devastation.

She shares their humanity, their connections, their hopes, and when she comes close to anything that might be traumatic, lifts off into dreams and the imagination, into other realms, soothed by the souls of the departed, the wisdom of her intuition creating metaphors and fantasy in her mind, an alternative way of seeing the world.

Her resilience isn’t defiant, it’s like a hardy shrub that wants to bloom even in the harshest environment and finds refuge in the imagination. One of her recurring dreams that she enters is the idea that they are living on a ship, one evening the Captain tries to answer her many questions. The fantasy world she creates when she closes her eyes, whether she is sleeping or awake, helps her cope, keeping childhood a place of both safety and wonder.

Listen my dear. The ship is an idea in your head and I am an idea in the head of the ship. Small ideas usually have delicate wings and when they lose their value on the earth, they fly up into space. The world we live in is just an idea made by the imagination of an inventive creator, and when he found it to be complicated, he began explaining it by means of other, smaller ideas…

We are prisoners of our imaginations, and our experiences in the world of reality consist only of ideas.
And don’t tell anyone, because people only believe things that come independently to their minds. Yet they don’t know where the mind is to be found.

She doesn’t understand the captains words, but knew he was telling her the truth.

Sometimes there are things we do not understand, and we know their meaning, not through words but rather, the meaning is already inside us before others talk to us about it. Some meanings exist inside us but are sleeping. Then words that we understand come and wake us up.

Memories are narrated through her friendship with Nadia, the girl she meets and sleeps next to in the air raid shelter in 1991, they tell each other stories and comfort each other in what is the beginning of a long and deep friendship that sustains them through the things that bring discontent, the sanctions, another war, the threat of separation.

We get to know the families who live and have lived in this neighbourhood, watching them grow and evolve, sharing those moments when they grow out of girlhood and begin to blossom. We are drawn into their lives until the black Chevrolet arrives and one by one they depart for elsewhere.

News from the outside and their fates isn’t shared by the usual channels, instead it comes in the form of a stranger entering the neighbourhood, a fortune teller. He warns them:

‘None of you have a future in this place. Sooner or later this ship will sink with all of you on board.’

One of the women dismisses him as a spy, but he has sown a seed of fear in them and the slow exodus begins. Uncle Shawkat becomes protector of abandoned homes, keeping away unwanted racketeers, writing names of the departed on the doors, the dates they lived there and the words, This House is Not for Sale.

It’s an unusual novel in its determination to not resort to pessimism, despite the suffering and loss that is around them, it clings to its memories of childhood and growing up, of friendship and budding love, of mother’s sitting around listening to the stories of the soothsayer, with only rare glimpses at the politics of their discontent.

Nadia and I were born during the war with Iran. We got to know each other during Desert Storm. We grew up in the years of the sanctions and the second Gulf War. George Bush and his son George W. Bush, took turns firing missiles and illegal weapons at our childhood, while Bill Clinton and that old woman Madeleine Albright were satisfied with starving us. And when we grew up, hell sat in wait for us.

It is a lament for days gone by, remembered by the young not the old, who know their children will grow up in other lands, other cultures, with little knowledge of their forebears, of their ways, their neighbourhood, the friendships that shaped them.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

Shahad Al Rawi
Source: Kareem El Deeb

It’s a beautifully written, poetic novel that won the hearts of readers in Edinburgh clearly, giving a unique insight into a culture, as lived by its children, its families, the lives impacted by foreign politics that no-one cares to share, the loss, not just in terms of human lives, but in an ancient, peaceful way of living that is no more.

Shahad Al Rawi was born in Baghdad and left there with her family for Syria. She now lives in Dubai and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology. The Baghdad Clock is her debut novel, it won the Edinburgh First Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Buy a Copy Via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you to the publisher One World Publications for providing a copy of the book.

16 thoughts on “The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi tr. Luke Leafgren

    • I’m not too keen on reading too many chunksters, I usually save one for summer. This isn’t a long book, 250 pages. The best way to check page count (and what other people thought of the book) is to check it out on goodreads.com (app or website).

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    • It would appear to be a tough read, but because she chooses to focus on the people and their lives and loves, it’s more like the sadness of growing up which is natural, than the disruption of war, she never really allows fear to lead the narrative.

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  1. I read this one last year and loved the neighbourhood-as-ship idea. I found the novel beautifully nostalgic but you’re absolutely right that it isn’t a depressing read.
    Thanks for reminding me of this lovely novel with your review 🙂

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    • I loved the way she was able to preserve those memories by making them exist in the present moment, I was a little uncertain to begin with of the child narrator, which she used in the first part, but that really was a clever way to structure it, by making each period in their lives more of the now, allowing them all to grow up without having to look back and of course, it is the child who has the most active and free imagination.

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    • Ah yes, the reference to Gabriel García Márquez, I did laugh to myself, as she presses the novel on Nadia, not just once but twice and Nadia tries but is unable to persevere. I did persevere, but admit I found it a slog and didn’t have the kind of experience sadly, our narrator has. I’m tempted to go back and see what I missed, but I know myself too well by now to do that!

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  2. Excellent review, Claire! This sounds moving and nostalgic. I’ll have to see if I can end my month of books in translation with it. Currently reading and enjoying Farewell, My Orange, which you also introduced me to 🙂

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    • Thanks Michael, I’ll be interested to see what you think, I think it’s a magical, poignant read, and clearly that sentiment was felt by many readers who voted for it, however there was a bit of backlash against it, in its shortlisting for the International Arabic Prize, however I thought those criticisms unfounded and wondered if that prize was taking itself too seriously. It is unique in looking at loss without anger against the perpetrator, but to me, this kind of work is what gives us hope for humanity, in our ability to persevere and to use gratitude and memory to survive the traumas inflicted by the less humane. It’s one to celebrate in my humble opinion and to listen to her read in the original language, one really feels the power of her words and the loss inherent in them.

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