The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is seven years old in 1991, sheltering with her family in the neighbourhood shelter. Here she meets Nadia of the green eyes, who is the same age as our narrator and who swiftly becomes her best friend. As they grow up, they deal with all the usual challenges – rivalries with girls at school; crushes on boys – but also with the sanctions which gradually rip the life out of their community. As the sanctions grow more severe, more and more families choose to emigrate, each household collected in a black Chevrolet and driven off to their new lives in other lands. For those who remain, living among an increasing number of abandoned houses, life grows grimmer by the day. It’s only in memories that they can preserve the cherished neighbourhood they know and love. For some, like Uncle Shawkat, that takes the form of lovingly caring for the houses and gardens of those who’ve left, so that when they return they can step back into their lives – though all know they never will return. For others, like our narrator and Nadia, memory takes the form of writing down all they can about their neighbours and mapping every detail of the streets.

The book is named after the four-faced Baghdad Clock, which becomes a meeting point for the characters and which watches over the neighbourhood, regulating it with its striking. Indeed, the clock becomes a measure of the community’s integrity: when the clock itself is destroyed by the Americans, and each of its four faces tells a different time, that – says the narrator – is when people become confused and seek to resolve their confusions by adopting strange and extreme ideologies which had no place in the old ordered world. So this is a tale of an ordered community becoming disordered – a tale of people being punished for planes flown into towers in a distant land which had nothing to do with them. And, in the midst of a war which makes no sense, the local people try to find meaning – whether that’s in the sombre prophecies of the enigmatic soothsayer who visits them, or the doings of Uncle Shawkat’s adopted dog Biryad, who is considered to have prophetic abilities.

Dreams and predictions often become real in this novel: the narrator, who claims to be able to see Nadia’s dreams when she sleeps, but to have none of her own, recounts several bizarre episodes which are clearly situated within the literary traditions of magical realism. Are they dreams? Spiritual experiences? An overactive imagination? The decision to use such episodes made more sense towards the end of the book, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes a touchpoint for the teenage girls in the neighbourhood. Yet Marquez somehow succeeds whereas this novel, all too often, seems to be interwoven with non sequiturs. Don’t get me wrong: of course I understand that dreams and fantasies are as central to Middle Eastern literary tradition as they are in the West; and that these curious episodes represent psychological retreats from the horrific realities of our narrator’s life. But the frustrating thing is that it just doesn’t work. The novel itself is written in a highly detached way – I don’t know whether this is due to Al Rawi’s own style or to Luke Leafgren’s English translation – and I found it hard to engage with at the best of times.

A chronicle of a hard time, from an underrepresented narrative voice, this gives us a valuable picture of the kind of lives lived beyond the news images of the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately, for me, its literary experimentation just didn’t quite work and its desire to be enigmatic all too frequently meandered into confusion (on the part of this reader anyway). This is, as ever, a highly personal view, perhaps all the more so in this case, because The Baghdad Clock has been warmly received by critics and was one of the nominees for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2018. Please do take a look at some of the glowing other reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or LibraryThing in order to get a balanced picture of the novel’s ‘feel’ and to judge whether or not you might be interested to read it. I’d be interested to hear from those who felt that the combination of different elements did work well, as maybe I can learn from your thoughts and come back to the book in the future with a richer appreciation.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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