In February, Shahad Al Rawi made history by being the youngest woman author to be shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Born in Baghdad in 1986, Al Rawi impressed judges and captivated readers with a debut novel marked with a wild inventiveness and emotional depth that belied her age.
Despite the many strengths of The Baghdad Clock, the judges decreed – rightly – that its author, who was at the start of her career, was more a worthy nominee than a deserving winner.
In the end, Ibrahim Nasrallah carried the day, but Al Rawi’s book was a number one bestseller in Iraq, Dubai and the UAE, and its commercial success and critical approbation have made her a writer to watch. So much so that an English translation of her novel, by Luke Leafgren, now arrives only two years on from the original publication.
The book follows two girls as they grow up and come undone during war and peace in the Iraqi capital.
By focusing on individuals struggling with personal concerns and shared upheavals within a fragmenting community, Al Rawi gets under the skin and into the minds of her characters, and shows their determination to thrive and survive through both love and friendship.
The novel opens in January 1991 with the girls getting to know each other in a large, damp Baghdad bomb shelter. Our narrator remains nameless; her new friend is Nadia. After enduring more than 20 nights of cold, hunger, and above all, fear, the pair emerge, become close and spend sunny days together in their neighbourhood.
Days turn into years. One morning, a neighbour who regularly enthralls the girls with her Kurdish stories and songs, packs a suitcase and returns to live with her family in the mountains.
When sanctions kick in and start to bite, families up sticks and emigrate. “It’s death in another form,” the narrator’s mother tells her. The girls are envious of those who leave to start afresh: “Those friends left for cold cities while we disintegrated where we were, living our days of dust with frozen smiles.”
However, they accept the loss and the worsening social conditions and make the most of their adolescence. They pass exams and secure places at university; they receive scented love letters from boys and have secret assignations.
But then war rears its head again, disrupting everything. “We moved like iron filings under the influence of its negative charge, having lost all sense of direction.”
As Baghdad falls, the friends are separated, family members are detained and loved ones go into hiding.
When the girls are reunited they decide to write a record of their fast-imploding neighbourhood to honour those that left it and to safeguard its valuable memories.
The Baghdad Clock is a stirring, and at times moving, portrait of two young women sticking together while everything around them falls apart.
They lose their way – “our stride fell out of harmony, we began to stumble frequently on our path” – but both come to realise that their similarities are greater than their differences and their friendship is worth preserving.
Al Rawi provides compelling depictions of each stage of the girls’ journey to adulthood. Particularly convincing, and especially enchanting, is her rendering of childlike wonder – from the narrator’s belief that her eyes will turn green when she grows up, to her worries about the Baghdad Clock (“Did it get any time off?”). Later, they are older yet none the wiser to the ways of the world and the whims of Iraq’s despot-ruler, and the narrator questions rituals and traditions and becomes stifled by politics and slogans. Her wide-eyed innocence is replaced by bleak cynicism. “Come along, war, my old friend!” she says. “Come, get rid of us like human scraps, superfluous to this world.”
The girl witnesses a woman committing suicide by leaping from a bridge into the Tigris. It is a pivotal moment in her life, an abrupt end to her youth.
It is also a rare instance of violence in the book. For the most part, Al Rawi only reports or alludes to carnage and casualties. She is concerned not with the act of violence but the effect of it, the way it can destroy both a neighbourhood and a childhood. It is a bold move but one she manages with aplomb.
She is less successful in other areas. Her narrator loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude – but Al Rawi's attempts at magic realism (a dog whose actions predict future events; a woman who finds a whale in her kitchen) lack purpose and fail to charm. Worse, a character called Uncle Shawkat delivers trite platitudes or waxes sentimental about crying rivers of tears, or feeling like a stick either swept along "by the heedless waves of this life" or "left to lie on the ground of chance".
Al Rawi fares better when her characters talk straight and when her surreal flourishes have serious ramifications: the narrator’s ability to enter Nadia’s dreams, or a soothsayer’s grim warnings about the future – and those predictions coming all-too-true.