The Baghdad Clock: A searing coming of age story in Iraq during conflict
The sanctions were not only a weapon to make us starve, they largely put an end to our way of living and destroyed the meaning of life. They stole away the spirit of hope, and when hope disappears, life becomes merely a routine in which we move from one miserable day to another yet more miserable. In such a life, people do not love each other. They do not even love themselves.
The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi is a novel that captivated me far longer than books usually do. I couldn't bring myself to finish it in a matter of a few days; I had to take my time with it, becoming familiar with the narrator and her life story, a young girl whose named we never find out.
When it begins, the unnamed narrator of this novel is merely five-years-old, hiding in an air-raid shelter. Here she meets Nadia, one of the other children hiding with her family.
They quickly become friends in the way young children do, and that same night, with the world in turmoil outside the confines of the shelter, the narrator enters her new friend’s dreams for the first time.
"She took me by the hand and flew with me high above the old houses of Baghdad. We kept rising, climbing higher and higher until we became small as bees that vanished into thin air."
As the novel progresses, their friendship deepens as they experience childhood and adolescence together. So this is a story of female friendship, as much as it is the story of a child growing into a young woman in a space that’s continually unsettled by war and sanctions.
Shahad Al Rawi's novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018, a recognition it deserves for its intelligent prose and unflinching portrayal of growing up in a country that is slowly losing itself to war.
As a coming of age story, The Baghdad Clock beautifully portrays the exhilaration, thrill and anticipation that comes with falling in love for the first time; the tender awareness of the self when you become aware of your own body and femininity; the biting questions that line up with each day in a world that is gradually getting bigger and more varied than ever before.
The narrator's friendship with Nadia is one of the most important facets of her life. Watching her friend as she grows older, the narrator becomes aware of her own little milestones and growths in life. Nadia's life is like a measure of her own; the two are never too far away from each other, and when they do reunite after a separation, it brings new perspective and strengthens their friendship.
|When you grow up in a country that is slowly being ravaged by war and foreign interference, exile and emigration can only ensure a life displaced, friendships lost and communities scattered to the world|
What complicates this experience for the narrator and her friends is that they are growing up in a country that is fighting a war and being oppressed under sanctions. When you grow up in a country that is slowly being ravaged by war and foreign interference, exile and emigration can only ensure a life displaced, friendships lost and communities scattered to the world.
|Author of The Baghdad Clock, Shahad Al Rawi [Getty]|
The effects of the sanctions are felt by everyone in the narrator's vicinity, especially the people who live in her neighbourhood.
The families in the neighbourhood are in varying stages of panic; some, like the narrator's own family, hold on to hope and stay until they no longer can, whereas others pack up and emigrate the first chance they get.
The narrator, who grew up around these people, tells the reader little stories about their life, perhaps as a reaction to missing them or in hopes that her memories of them don't disappear.
Through her observations, we get to know the colourful characters who live in nearby homes, including two of the novel’s standout characters: Uncle Shawkat, who takes care of the homes after they’ve been abandoned, and Biryad, the beloved neighbourhood dog who seems to have some uncanny abilities.
The Baghdad Clock is a novel that delightfully weaves magic realism into the harsh reality of the world that the characters are living in.
A recurring character in the story is the fortune teller who seems to know everything about everyone, and his predictions about their life also tend to come true giving a layer of authenticity to his claims.
His sudden appearances in the neighbourhood unsettle the members of the community, especially the women, who crowd around him to know anything that can help them keep their families safe from harm.
The magical experiences of the story’s narrator also escalate in intensity as she grows older, including one incident where she meets her long dead grandfather in his new abode. The magic realism in the story never overhangs awkwardly; it permeates throughout, adding a layer of fascination to an otherwise sensible yet gloomy tale of growing up.
|What do these happy countries with their terrifying fleets want from hungry people in despair and utterly exhausted?|
While the magic realism is intricately woven into the narrative, its philosophical leanings are more prevalent and straightforward.
Philosophical questions are part of what makes the narrative such a great work of introspection; the narrator is perpetually asking questions about life, relationships, abstract ideas and even commenting on what she observes about the people and occurrences in life.
In a particularly self-aware moment the character, a creation of the author's mind, asks, "Am I a dream or an idea like the captain said? What is the difference between a dream and an idea? Should I be happy if my life is only a dream in someone’s head"
The bleakness of war is the backdrop of this story in which the narrator is trying to piece together the happenings in her life and give meaning to it all.
What is home if the physical dimension of it is being destroyed? What do you return to if the people who lived with have also disappeared? How does a child become a person in a world that's slowly disappearing around her?
"A war in my childhood, sanctions as a teenager, and a new year with advanced smart bombs when I have not yet reached twenty. How can a normal person tell their personal life story when they move from one war to another as they grow up?"
The sanctions and war make life difficult for the characters, especially as they grow older and formulate dreams and aspirations, alongside deeper bonds with each other.
Having fallen in love, the desire to preserve life as it is becomes important for the protagonist. But it's not possible, not with people leaving Baghdad on a daily basis, not with life going forward burdened by pain and uncertainty.
As a novel of war, The Baghdad Clock asks the question that most overwhelms the innocent, especially children and youth, like the protagonist, "What do these happy countries with their terrifying fleets want from hungry people in despair and utterly exhausted? What does the advanced world want from us?"
It is easy for powerful countries to declare war on parts of the world that seem remote and removed from their own reality. In The Baghdad Clock, Shahad Al Rawi depicts a reality that is as real as any, despite its many moments of magic realism. Even the most magical scenes cannot overshadow the real pain hiding in its pages, drawn from the political climate of our current world.
Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.
Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books