Shahad Al Rawi’s The Baghdad Clock, published by One World Publications, allows us to see the world through the wondering eyes of a child. We watch as her world, at first so big and filled with magic, gradually shrinks as she grows. However, no matter her age and size, our guide never loses her sense of amazement at what it brings.
This is also the story of friendship. Of how she and Nadia, who will be her best friend, meet. It’s 1991 and Baghdad is being bombed. While the young girls live in the same neighbourhood they meet in a bomb shelter. While the earth shakes they form the friendship that will take them from childhood all the way to university and beyond.
As we follow the children through their adventures, and as they gradually age, our picture of their world expands. As their awareness grows so too does our understanding of the realities of their lives. Their neighbourhood in Baghdad changes from being filled with the familiar faces of friends and family to a place where houses are occupied by strangers or lay empty haunted by the memories of their departed occupants.
While our unnamed narrator and Nadia experience all the typical travails of growing up; rivalry with school mates, becoming aware of the opposite sex, and worries about school, they also have to deal with things most of can’t even begin to understand. The ruinous war with Iran in the 1980s had left Iraq damaged while the bombardment of 1991 and the ensuing sanctions shredded what little hope for life the people had.
We experience these hardships through the eyes of our narrator. Her descriptions of her neighbours’ attempts to maintain their lives and the neighbourhood are heartbreaking. It’s like their holding back a tidal wave of indifference that will wash away their lives as if they have no meaning.
At one point our guide says to us that while Bush father and son tried to bomb us, Clinton and Albright seemed content to slowly starve us to death. Amazingly, and beautifully, this is probably the most overt political statement in the book. Al Rawi has no need to spell anything out for she has done a magnificent job of painting a picture that allows us to draw our own conclusions.
However, this not some gritty and horrible book that describes details of starvation, death and destruction and other such devastation. Instead we see the results, the fallout as it were, of sanctions and invasions on one specific neighbourhood.
Characters are so lovingly drawn and described we can’t help but share their hopes, fears, sorrows, and even, the occasional moments of joy they experience. For while the young people are trying to figure out how to navigate growing up, our narrator also takes the time to observe the adults around her.
Never once does Al Rawi attempt to manipulate our feelings by creating an overly sentimental picture for us. In fact the descriptions are usually told with the matter of fact directness of a child without any artifice. If anything this makes them even more effective as we see the stark reality contrasted with the child’s wonder at the universe and its potential for magic.
The Baghdad Clock has a wonderful air of magic realism about it. Ironically, towards the end of the book the characters pick up Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, one of the foremost examples of the genre.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, as portions of Al Rawi’s kept bringing Marquez and his work to mind. There’s no sign of imitation, rather a nod to another author’s acknowledgement of the power of dreams and imagination.
The Baghdad Clock is a wonderful human book which tells the story of one neighbourhood in Baghdad from the first Gulf War, through sanctions, to after the second Gulf War and beyond. Without being polemic or preachy it reminds us there are always people on the other side of anything. Its a brilliant and imaginative work that will capture both your heart and your mind.