I used to review books here. I don’t anymore.
But when I came across The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi, I decided I couldn’t let the opportunity to share a few of the author’s words with others. So, this isn’t a review; it’s just random thoughts about an amazing book written by a woman who still isn’t old enough to capture so much wisdom in a thin novel.
I love this book. Maybe it’s because she refers to another book I love, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Or maybe it’s because she writes poetic thoughts in prose format that is easier for me to appreciate. Or maybe it’s the neighborhood the narrator and her friends inhabit, though different in many ways from the one I grew up in, where communities are made up of not just those who are related by blood, but by those who are connected–related in that sense–by common experiences. Just like the neighborhood I grew up in.
But mostly I think it is because I am in awe of her ability to share profound thoughts from the point of view of such a young woman.
The Baghdad Clock, not surprisingly, is set in Baghdad where the protagonist, a young Iraqi girl, meets Nadia, her best friend, when their families take shelter together during the 1991 Gulf War. But it isn’t a story about the war. It isn’t even about the shelter where they met. It’s the story of childhood friendships and first loves, of becoming adults and of loss: the loss of childhood innocence on one level and the loss of memories through the obliteration of neighborhoods on another.
The author was born in 1986. She wasn’t even as old as her protagonist when the 1991 Gulf War broke out. The book was published in 2016 when she was only 30. How could she have become so wise in fewer than 30 years? Let me share why I think she is wise.
At one point the narrator meets a soothsayer who answers her questions about friendship, an especially important topic at a time when both girls know it is likely one of their families will leave Baghdad, leaving the other behind. The soothsayer says,
You and Nadia do not love each other just for the sake of the deep friendship between you. You love your memories, too.
Both of you, but especially you, are afraid for these memories, because their passing means ripping up the solid ground under your feet. For those who fear the future, the past is a merciful cave in which people seek shelter when they turn away from the cruelty of the present.
How could someone so young have learned so much in so little time?
The soothsayer answers more of the narrator’s questions, “What if there had never been a war? What if the sanctions had not been put in place? What would our lives have been like, and what would Baghdad have become?”
Listen, my dear. I know you want to say, ‘Were it not for the war and the sanctions, things would have been better for us.’ That might be true, if we were to ignore geography and history. For you are a victim of geography in the first place. Your country isn’t on the Mediterranean where it might breathe the sea air, nor is it in the desert, where it might live on the luxury brought by oil. You live between them, where the bright light of the sun shines down on you all year round . . . Geography is a fate that cannot be escaped, but history is made. Adapt to your geography and change your history . . . [w]eave 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.
When I read this section, I couldn’t help but think of how it describes the incivility that continues to creep into our lives, especially in social media. The soothsayer explains that those who fear the future turn to the past and see efforts to recreate it as desirable. Yet the soothsayer’s advice is that we need to adapt and change. What brings fear to some is the solution to others. The result–conflict.
In one of the more contemplative passages, the author says,
In our neighbourhood, we would describe the best people as being ‘good and shamefaced,’ and whenever I came across someone who did not feel a sense of shame, I would secretly think he was dangerous and wicked. Shame is not a religious or pedagogic quality, nor is it moral principle. It is rather one of the gifts of existence that prevents us from committing travesties against the rights of other people.
I love this passage because it reminds me of one of the differences between the center of the moral compasses carried in life by Westerners compared to Easterners. As an oversimplification, I repeat what I heard when I first moved to Iran more then 40 years ago: behavior in the West is guilt-based; in the East it is shame-based. We, in the West, think of guilt as something to be avoided, something we don’t ever want to feel. Elsewhere in the world, shame is to be avoided, something others don’t want to feel.
If I substitute the word “guilt” for “shame” in the above passage, most of us might object to the thought that the best people are “good and guilty.” But if we thought of feeling guilty as a gift, as the narrator describes shame to be, we might all be a bit more compassionate towards one another. It would still be better not to be guilty, just as it is better not to be shameful, but feeling the weight of either guilt or shame should lead us to better behavior.
Every time I open the book to a random page, I find something I want to share. Instead, I encourage others to read the book.
I love this book.
2 thoughts on “The Baghdad Clock”
Thank you for making an exception to come and write about this book, I totally agree, it is a beautiful gem and misunderstood by some (negative comments on its being shortlisted for the International Arabic Prize), I think it’s exceptional, I loved reading it and the more I think about it, the more enamoured I am. I also listened to her read a little in a video and wow, the effect of listening to her read in her native tongue was amazing, so moving. For a story set amidst the chaos of war, it is truly magnanimous. I don’t think any other author writing of the loss an immigrant confronts has ever portrayed their past in this way.
Thanks for sharing your reflections on the book. I’m delighted to meet another fan of The Baghdad Clock. I’ll look for recordings of her reading the book. Another speaker read the available audiobook version, though perhaps hearing anyone reading the story will be enough of a different experience to be worth it. Again, thanks.