Thursday, 24 May 2018

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi
First published in Arabic by Dar al-Hikma in 2016. English language translation by Luke Leafgren published by OneWorld in May 2018.

Featured in WorldReads: Iraq

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository (PB)
Wordery (PB)
Waterstones (HB)
Amazon (used PB)

Baghdad, 1991. In the midst of the first Gulf War, a young Iraqi girl huddles with her neighbours in an air raid shelter. There, she meets Nadia. The two girls quickly become best friends and together they imagine a world not torn apart by civil war, sharing their dreams, their hopes and their desires, and their first loves. But as they grow older and the bombs continue to fall, the international sanctions bite and friends begin to flee the country, the girls must face the fact that their lives will never be the same again.

This poignant debut novel will spirit readers away to a world they know only from the television, revealing just what it is like to grow up in a city that is slowly disappearing in front of your eyes, and showing how in the toughest times, children can build up the greatest resilience.

The Baghdad Clock is a beautifully magical novel of a girl coming of age in a war-torn city. Through the eyes of our never-named narrator, we see the effects of bombings, a decade of sanctions, and more bombings on a thriving Baghdad neighbourhood as its community slowly splinters and evaporates. I was strongly reminded of South American magical realism at several points so was happy to spot the classic novel One Hundred Years Of Solitude being given a role. The Baghdad Clock is a considerably faster read, but I think readers who enjoy Marquez will appreciate Al Rawi too. Concepts such as the neighbourhood being a ship allow for truly effective imaginings and I gave a wry smile at the irony of the emigrating families all leaving in a black Chevrolet - an American car.

I did feel as the story continued that our narrator often felt younger than her years would suggest, but that may be because I am used to reading about protagonists who are overly worldly wise. I can't remember exactly how childish I was in my early teens! The friendship with Nadia is utterly believable and provides such a strong thread for these lives. Al Rawi gives touching details so I felt as though I genuinely saw Baghdad through a child's eyes, which makes her occasional drawing back to reveal the full extent of the suffering caused - especially by the drawn-out years of sanctions - particularly poignant. Neighbourhood characters such Uncle Shawkat and his Kurdish wife, Baji Nadira, are memorable and I was moved by the image of Shawkat continuing to tend the houses of the departed, not knowing whether they would ever return. Seeing the impetus here for what has become a global 'immigration problem' reveals its other side - that of an emigration disaster leaving communities and neighbourhoods destroyed not so much from the physical damage caused by war, but by the gradual exodus of friends, relations and neighbours.

The only part of this book that didn't work for me was the short Future which is kind of an epilogue. Its style felt too different to what had gone before so, while I was interested to see some of what would happen to these characters and how their lives might pan out, I wouldn't have felt anything lost if The Baghdad Clock had ended prior to this final section. I preferred being in the earlier atmosphere and the sudden change felt almost like starting a new book without having taken enough time to reflect on the previous one.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Shahad Al Rawi / Contemporary fiction / Books from Iraq


  1. I haven't read this author but this seems like an interesting book.

    1. It's such an important story and I hope it is widely read

  2. This sounds really interesting! I love books that look at the world through the eyes of children because I think they see the world in a much more authentic light, even if they don't understand everything (that's part of the reason I loved The Kite Runner so much). I'll be giving this a shot sometime for sure!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. I hope you enjoy it! As you loved The Kite Runner, I think you probably will :-)

  3. I do agree with the fact that children can be really strong and resilient even in the face of larger, overwhelming situations like war. It sounds like this one is going to pack quite the punch and really be emotional. I know someone else has already said it, but definitely feeling The Kite Runner vibes after reading your review.

    1. There are differences, obviously, between The Baghdad Clock and The Kite Runner, but I think readers that enjoyed either book would also take a lot from the other one