While reading The Baghdad Clock my breath caught, as if I might sob, at the innocent voice of the child narrator, at her insistence on telling a beautiful story.
You see, this is a coming of age story that opens in an air raid shelter in Baghdad. It’s the early 90s, during the First Gulf War. The very first war I saw live on the TV news. It was terrifying to watch. Not because of the horrors of people suffering. Rather, because of the absence of that. The images on our screens were cold, clinical; the white lights of missiles arcing through the sky to their computer identified targets. It terrified me, that impersonal representation which minimised the suffering, the pain of it, as if casualties were few and far between. It was war as visual entertainment. Simplistic justification abounded. Astute assessment was more difficult to find.
The Baghdad Clock is the account of the friendship of two girls, the unnamed narrator and Nadia, who met in that air raid shelter, sheltering from those missiles. The girls become firm friends, sitting beside each other at school, sharing dreams, aspirations, supporting each other through love and heartbreak. Around them their neighbourhood, like a foundering ship, disintegrates, as one by one families move away, risking everything in the hope of a safer life.
Food becomes scarce. Every day goods, clothes, household effects vanish from the shop shelves. The financial system collapses. The Baghdad Clock, a symbol of the past, the present, and the chance of a future, is destroyed.
The novel moves in and out of dreams and reality as the narrator, and those around her, search for a way to cope with what is happening to them; as they try to hold on to their childhood and their way of life.
Literature, One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular, provides a way to cope with that which is beyond reason, for “escaping misery”. The narrator reads it many times.
I travelled from our neighbourhood to the village of Macondo whose people were afflicted with the same insomnia that we were living though. We too no longer took any pleasure in sleeping. Forgetfulness began erasing the blackboard of our collective memory. p 172
Nadia does not get past page 59. But their friend Baydaa takes it with her when she leaves the neighbourhood. Together the three of them discover that story-telling provides a way to hold on to their neighbourhood, their way of life, their memories, their childhood.
Yes, we do not cross the same river twice, but with the power of imagination, we are able to create a river of memories that flows over us thousands of times. P 207
Near the end of the book the narrator, now in early adulthood, tells it like it is. She speaks the truth for the children who lost their childhoods, the casualties of those clinical arcing, enthralling, terrifying missiles and everything that came afterwards.
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. (p210)
This is a poignant novel, rich with metaphor and literary allusions. It deals with the brutality of humans without brutalising the reader. It is a beautiful, passionate, engaging work of art. It made me long to be able to visit the Baghdad of earlier days.
Alas, it is quite gone. And yet, it lives on in the pages of this book.
The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi, translated by Luke Leafgren, 2018, One World Publications
Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Winner of the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award
Categories: On Books