Romance and sanctions in ʹ90s Iraq
Shahad al-Rawiʹs "The Baghdad Clock" was a bestseller in Arabic even before it was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), one of the regionʹs top literary prizes. Al-Rawiʹs debut novel was published in 2016 and quickly became a big seller in Iraq and the UAE, where al-Rawi now lives.
Luke Leafgrenʹs English translation appeared this May, around the same time this yearʹs IPAF winner was announced. By then, al-Rawiʹs first novel had sparked fierce debate between critics and fans about whether it belonged on a literature-prize shortlist. Many critics found it light and meandering, while fans were passionate about the bookʹs magical-realist stories.
The novel opens during the first Gulf War and it follows the lives of an unnamed narrator and her friend Nadia. Both were born, like the author, around 1986. They meet when theyʹre about five, in a bomb shelter.
The first section, "A Childhood of Obvious Things", has an enjoyably innocent tone. The narrator and Nadia are trying to understand each other, the bombings and the larger world around them. It has some keenly observed moments, such as when little Nadia asserts knowingly, "The Maʹmun Tower gets bigger every day." But it also slips into a nostalgic greeting-card tone, as when the narrator looks back from the present: "In your hands, Dad, I am little even when I am thirty years old."
The tale grows up around Nadia and the narratorʹs twin romances. But itʹs also about fate, destiny and the Americans. Although itʹs never clear from the book what the U.S. wants from Iraq, the countryʹs leaders are ever-present: "George Bush and his son, George W. Bush, took turns firing missiles and illegal weapons at our childhood, while Bill Clinton and that old woman Madeleine Albright were satisfied with starving us."
The first fortune-teller appears
In the second section, "Letters from the Unknown", a fortune-teller appears. Described as "a tall, thin man with a well-trimmed beard," he arrives like a visitor from the future, knowing every detail about what will come. He doesnʹt mince words, telling them: "None of you has a future in this place" and later adds, "You will live as exiles and your tears will know no end."
Itʹs still the 1990s when this fortune-teller informs people that they should, "Make haste to flee because the storm is approaching with the speed of a madman." At first, neighbourhood residents disagree about the honesty of his predictions. Some locals decide the fortune-teller must be a foreign infiltrator. In one of the bookʹs few satirical moments, the history teacher gravely asserts, "He looked like Lincoln."
These are the sanctions years, when denizens of the neighbourhood slowly lose their elegance. Although bombardment was bad, sanctions seem worse. Sanctions "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."
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, political struggle seems meaningless. When the schools organise official protests against the sanctions, the narrator and Nadia run off to see their boyfriends. But while the narrator mocks the protests, she has no interest in any alternative.
The fortune-teller appears a second time to remind the narrator and the neighbours that they must think of themselves, as individuals, and jump ship. "Iʹm telling it for your sake and for the sake of your children. … These sanctions are long and will not soon end. When their end does come, war will begin and then everything will disappear into oblivion."
Memories of the future
In the third section, the narrator and Nadia head off to university. In many novels, this would be a time for political and intellectual awakenings. Yet in "The Baghdad Clock", the narrator refuses these modes of thought. "I did not understand politics and I did not want to understand anything about politics." She is angry at Bush the Father and Bush the Son for their attacks on Iraq. Yet she suggests no explanation for their interest in her country – they are more like a slow-moving hurricane than human representatives of a foreign power.
In one of the strangest parts of the book, a female fortune-teller arrives. This lesser fortune-teller strangely asserts that Iraq and Iraqis were always doomed. After all, she says, itʹs too hot and, "The sun dries up ideas like it dries shirts on a clothes line."
By now, war is looming and thanks to the excess of soothsayers, the characters know exactly how things will unfold. The narratorʹs boyfriend accurately predicts: "War is not a battle between two sides with a winner and a loser. War turns life upside down and scatters everything from its place[.]" Even before the 2003 invasion, the neighbourhood’s Uncle Shawkat attaches a piece of cardboard to the front of a building. It reads, "Neighbourhood for sale or rent."
The war begins, as all the characters knew it would and the U.S. marines "came for our future and smashed its windows." Soon after, "we heard the sound of the first improvised explosive device exploding against an American armoured car. The battle of the IEDs had begun.
The facts of war are related with detachment, as though the narrator is reporting on distant history. This is also when we learn about the origin of The Baghdad Clock. Itʹs when war starts that Nadia, the narrator and their friend Baydaa start collecting the neighbourhood’s stories. By now: "There is no longer a neighbourhood in our neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood has moved into the big blue notebook[.]"
Yet itʹs not only the past in this notebook. Everything, it seems, has already been written. The last section is "The Future", when the narrator will rediscover Nadia on social media. She also describes her own future, including her marriage and move to Dubai.
Despite the lack of emotional involvement or political insight, "The Baghdad Clock" does have a breathless charm, reminiscent of bestsellers by Ahlem Mostaghanemi. Thereʹs also something sadly engaging in the bookʹs overarching wish-fulfillment narrative: an author travelling back in time to tell a younger self about the tragedies about to befall Iraq.
Marcia Lynx Qualey
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