CHICAGO: Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018, Shahad Al-Rawi’s extraordinary debut novel, “The Baghdad Clock,” turns life in embattled Iraq into a fantastical world of characters and memories that serve as fuel for those who have lived and loved through the years of war. The book follows two young girls who first meet in a shelter during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and tells the story of their unyielding spirit in the face of a crumbling Iraq.
Al-Rawi’s reader is immediately drawn into the world she has created with her narrator’s sense of childlike wonder. Through the eyes of a young girl, the reader is invited into a Baghdad one may not have visited before. Along with a best friend named Nadia, the narrator takes the reader on a journey brimming with magical realism, in which reality and dreams are intertwined.
The author does an incredible job of painting a portrait of a neighborhood in Baghdad, with its ups and downs, its scandals and vibrancy, despite the surrounding planes, rockets and political upheaval. The reader grows with Al-Rawi’s characters, living life with them, losing life with them and navigating through their sorrows and joys. Between the Ma’mun Tower and the Baghdad Clock, first loves are found, school protests are had, honor is upheld and the fear of loneliness is explored through war and harsh sanctions that change the face of the city and the lives within it.
Due to sanctions, the loss of the neighborhood and its inhabitants, of gardens and roses, of pomegranate trees and orange blossoms, is gradual and inevitable. Life, Al-Rawi writes, withdraws “into distant rooms.” Her narrator’s neighborhood school turns into a military barrack and missile depot. One by one, neighbors leave and friends depart for safer shores. The choice of whether to stay or to go becomes harder as sanctions choke the city.
Al-Rawi writes beautifully of characters who immediately captivate you — characters who are relatable, but also imbued with a sense of magic. The life she writes of has an ethereal overlay, as if life is about much more than just living through war. In a country so often dehumanized by politics, Al-Rawi reminds us of the stories and people that make Iraq what it is.
First published in Arabic in 2016 by Dar Al-Hikma, Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel was translated by Luke Leafgren, translator and assistant dean of Harvard College, and published by Oneworld Publications in 2018. Al-Rawi is a writer and novelist and currently pursuing a PhD in anthropology in Dubai.