“Everything our eyes touch is just an idea. There’s nothing real about reality. We are prisoners of our imaginations, and our experiences in the world of reality consist only of ideas. All of existence is an assembly of ideas. That is the sole truth.”
“The madness of history tears us apart; geography brings us together.”
The Baghdad Clock, Shahad Al Rawi
By Neriman K.
As May winds down and June awaits, I continue the Middle Eastern + Unapologetically Muslim Reading Challenge with Iraqi writer Shahad Al Rawi’s debut, The Baghdad Clock.
From Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (2013) to Ahmed Saadawi ‘s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), many postcolonial Iraqi novels have presented a kaleidoscope of views mirroring the complex reality of a region that has battled various forms of despotism and oppression over the years. Similarly, The Baghdad Clock offers insight into the complex ways in which ongoing wars– from civil wars to imperial invasions– have affected those who voluntarily or involuntarily have found themselves in the middle of a war-torn city.
The Baghdad Clock was first published in 2016 and was translated into English by Luke Leafgren for Oneworld Publications in 2018. As a war narrative enveloped in magic, love, and hope, The Baghdad Clock adds depth to the burgeoning genre of postcolonial Iraqi novels.
You should/may want to read The Baghdad Clock if you’re interested in:
- bildungsroman novels
- magical realism
- Iraqi novels that explore not only the trauma of war and violence but also quotidian details
- the themes of love, friendship, belonging, and home
The Baghdad Clock is a coming-of-age story that follows a young unnamed protagonist and her best friend Nadia as they grow up together in their beloved crumbling neighborhood. The narrator and Nadia meet when they are five in an air-raid shelter in 1991 (See The First Gulf War). As a decade passes and history unfolds, the two friends explore love, friendship, cultural norms, and the complex relationship between the imaginary and the real.
I read The Baghdad Clock before bed every night.
Why am I even bringing this up?
Well, when I was preparing for my comprehensive exams a few years ago, I couldn’t read at night at all. My reading list, which focused on postcolonial literature and the Middle East, involved books most of which were replete with violent scenes: death, rape, war, etc. Naturally, sleep often eluded me if I read a chapter or two before bed.
Don’t get me wrong; I selected these books that reflected the brutal realities of political conflict and imperialism. But I also recognized the need for Middle Eastern novels that would emphasize that there’s much to the Middle East than war and violence. The Baghdad Clock‘s success lies in its move away from the focus on violence towards quotidian details. Yes, the novel is politically conscious–how can it not be? But the narrator’s story is delightfully human. She learns to love, kiss, make friends, and take care of pets, and all the while she makes sense of an uncertain future.
She writes in response to the U.S.-led air offensive and sanctions:
“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.”
She further allows the reader to view the ongoing war in Iraq through her perspective as an individual who grew up in a war zone:
“Years before, I had been a small child when I came here to escape the old war, and now, here I was again, having fled this new one. The same planes and the same bombs drove me away after twelve years of sanctions. What had Bush the Father wanted from my life? And what was it that Bush the Son sought from it?”
Elsewhere, the narrator questions:
“Is there anything uglier than war? How ugly is this world that understands itself through wars and blockades! What does civilisation mean when we starve children and adults and then launch missiles at them? What does it mean for humanity to progress when it keeps inventing ever more hideous paths to mutual annihilation?”
These are not complicated political questions. They are simply the questions of a person who is afraid. Yes, I am afraid. Deeply afraid, to the point of trembling. My humanity, which hates aircraft carriers, shines forth in this fear. This fear alone forms the foundation of my personal culture, one that hates wars. From this fear, I love all people who tremble in fear at the news of war.”
Al Rawi thus presents a story about the human condition–about what it means to grow up in the middle of an ongoing war while resisting to be defined by its inhumanity and barbarism.
All the characters in the novel including the narrator, Nadia, her first love Farouq, the neighborhood dog Biryad, stray cats, the Aunties and Uncles in her neighborhood, and the city of Baghdad itself remain resilient despite the escalating conflict.
The neighbors emigrate one by one. The city loses its glory and vibrancy. The Baghdad clock tower, which gives the novel its title, is destroyed. Soon, the narrator and Nadia too move across the borders to Dubai.
Refusing to be mired in turmoil, the narrator comes to terms with the cruel reality of the war. She relies on her imagination, stories, and folktales to re-create her own reality. This is how we get to see her conversing with her deceased grandfather, sharing Nadia’s dreams, and melting from love. She announces before she immigrates:
“I will trick you with my words and dodge my memories. I will sing and cry; I will dream with Nadia. I will distract myself by talking to the American pilot. I will open the neighbourhood record and choose only the happy days. I will do all that until the black Chevrolet comes and carries us across the border.”
Life as an exile is arduous, as the ominous soothsayer warns the neighborhood of its impending fate before the sanctions:
“Do you really know what it means for a person to remain an exile until the end? That he abandons the mother tongue that has established its spiritual history within him. And that he spends the rest of his life contrary to the laws of this spirit. For that reason, exile is always an exile of the soul, an eternal distance between body and soul that rends a man’s being and throws him into the storm. “
The narrator, who represents those who have been compelled to leave, wishes to return home– “To our house. To my parents. To our neighbourhood. To my friends. To the university I want to attend with Nadia. I want Baghdad.” However, Like the rest of her neighbors who are now part of the Iraqi diaspora, she is resilient.
As the soothsayer tells her elsewhere:
“Geography is a fate that cannot be escaped, but history is made. Adapt to your geography and change your history. ‘How do we change history? Do you mean falsify it?’ Not at all. Just weave from its cloth a new garment. Gather the good islands together and leave out the painful ones. There, make a fresh memory, a good space for joy. In short, change the entire culture. Or at least some of it.”
The narrator learns to preserve memory in the face of war and displacement; she learns to carry her neighborhood, her friends, and her beloved city within her soul.
And Al Rawi beautifully depicts what it takes to not forget.
In this context, writing and reading serve as precious tools through which the narrator battles individual and collective amnesia. “Writing does the work of protecting memory,” the narrator reflects, “Through it, we remember the names of things, some of their functions and how to use them.” There is, however, a difference between merely recording information and preserving “living memory.” Stories, folktales, quotidian details, the narrator suggests, allow us to capture the spirit of the past–to keep memories alive.
Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the narrator and her friends begin to record their stories onto a common notebook, which they call, The Baghdad Clock: The Record of a Neighbourhood. As the residents leave the neighborhood, the narrator and Nadia go out and write:
“on the houses the names of their old inhabitants, the dates they left their homes, and the countries they now lived in.”
Then, they transfer the details and stories into their notebook:
“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. There is no longer a neighbourhood in our neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood has moved into the big blue notebook filled with stories and ghosts, sometimes in Nadia’s handwriting, sometimes in mine, and sometimes in Baydaa’s. We have written there everything that was possible to write.”
Years later, the narrator reads the notebook in question, which suggests that the novel that we’re reading is part of the archive, too. In this spirit, both the narrator and the author reclaim the narrative on Iraqi war(s), creating a textual space where individual and collective memory can be restored.
The Baghdad Clock was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2018 and won the 2018 First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It remains a reader’s favorite, and the novel’s success isn’t surprising at all. As Al Rawi discusses in an interview, The Baghdad Clock is “a story written from the heart, ‘a local’ novel written with real human feelings…[which]… belongs to everyone living in our world.”
You can find more information about Shahad Al Rawi and The Baghdad Clock below.
Have you read The Baghdad Clock? What do you think?
Some of my favorite quotes from The Baghdad Clock:
“Sometimes there are things we do not understand, and we know their meaning, not through words but rather, the meaning is already inside us before others talk to us about it. Some meanings exist inside us but are sleeping. Then words that we understand come and wake them up.”
“A squadron of birds moves across the sky. I lift my eyes and turn my face towards the arc of their flight, longing for their lightness. How happy are these creatures who live without country. I want to fly with them, to soar far away. I want to live in become an expert on this place, an expert on war and its ends. I know exactly what it sought.”
“In those days devoid of meaning, I came across the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in my father’s library. Through it, I travelled from our neighbourhood to the village of Macondo, whose people were afflicted with the same insomnia that we were living through. We too no longer took any pleasure in sleeping. Forgetfulness began erasing the blackboard of our collective memory. We would pass by Uncle Shawkat, and it was as though we did not know him like we used to. We would pass by houses and forget the names of their inhabitants. The forms of things changed, and a single thing would come to possess many names. Language was no longer blessed with good health. Liberation, fall, occupation, invasion, destruction: how could all these words apply to a single day?”
“When we get ready to resume old memories, we need new hearts, not used ones. Fresh hearts, in which we construct new civilisations of friendship. We write a new history upon them, a story never before told. We enter its world for the first time and get to know its protagonists for the first time too.”
I am the future. I live now in a continuous birthing from the womb of the past. Here I am on my way to you. Be calm; be not afraid. It is not only that which has occurred that has settled in the past. Do not tell anyone, I beg of you, but that which occurs in the time to come will likewise settle there too. The past rolls up the present and swallows that which is to come. It advances like a dust storm, billowing up towards the sky and blocking the horizon.
If you like Shahad Al Rawi’s writing, or if her writing sounds interesting, you may like:
- The Night Counter (2010) by Alia Yunis
- Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013; 2018 in Eng) by Ahmed Saadawi
- Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories (2013) by Luay Hamza Abbas
- Mirage (2018) by Somaiya Daud
- The Watermelon Boys (2018) by Ruqaya Izzidien
- Summer Bird Blue (2018) by Akemi Dawn Bowman
- A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018) by Atia Abawi
More on Shahad Al Rawi:
Cite this post: Kuyucu, Neriman. “The Real and the Imaginary: The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi.” Reading Under the Olive Tree, 28 May 2020, http://readingundertheolivetree.com/2020/05/28/the-real-and-the-imaginary-the-baghdad-clock-by-shahad-al-rawi/