In Shahad Al Rawi’s The Baghdad Clock, translated by Luke Leafgren and forthcoming from Oneworld Publications, two girls hiding in an air-raid shelter in Baghdad during the Gulf War tell stories to keep the fear and the darkness at bay, and a deep friendship is born.
On the second night, we arrived at the shelter with our families just before the sun went down. Before going inside, we began playing together on the small staircase that led inside. I jumped down to the ground from the second step. Nadia went up and jumped from the third step, so I did the same. She stood on the edge of the fourth step and hesitated. She changed her mind and came back down, unable to jump from such a height. The boys who were playing near the door came over. They went up the stairs, one after the other, and began jumping down and laughing together.
While this was going on, the siren began wailing. I did not like its sound; no one did. I took Nadia’s hand, and we hurried over to where our mothers were sitting. Her foot knocked over the big lantern on the floor in the middle of the shelter, breaking the glass. Oil flowed out onto the tiles and the flame took several big steps across the wet floor. We froze in the dark while the blaze of light moved our shadows on the cement wall behind us.
After a while, we heard the intense bombardment that followed the siren, violent explosions that came closer, little by little, and then began moving away. Once again, they approached and receded. The ground surged beneath us like a flimsy rug. All this time, our mothers kept saying prayers and reciting suras from the Qur’an.
I was thinking about disappearing from this world. I got up and walked over to my mother in the darkness. “Mama?”
“Yes, my love.”
“Do you know what I want from you?”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t want to be here in this world.”
Before I returned to my place, someone struck a match to light a cigarette. I saw my shadow dance on the wall. It grew bigger and spread over the ceiling of the shelter and then vanished. I stood still, thinking about my shadow. Where did it go this time? How do our shadows disappear out of this life? Am I actually just a shadow of myself?
My spirit lives in that shadow, and it departs with it because it does not like being here in this world.
I kept wishing someone would light another match so that my shadow would come back and I could talk to it. I wanted to ask, “How are you able to disappear so we no longer see you?” But I remembered that shadows do not have voices, and I returned to my spot, slowly edging toward Nadia. It was so dark I could not see her, but I knew she was there.
The planes went away. Fear departed with them, and then it was time to sleep. I stretched out on our small rug with its colorful lines. Nadia squeezed herself next to me and fell asleep. The cold ground gnawed at our bones. My mother put a heavy blanket over our bodies and tucked in our feet. Then I felt warm.
I did not sleep that night either. I was watching Nadia’s dreams. It is a fun game to watch someone’s dreams when they are deep in sleep. In the morning, I told her about the dreams. She did not like that and said, “How horrible! Why are you spying on my dreams?”
“Because I don’t know how to dream.”
Many times in my life I tried to copy her beautiful dreams and insert them into my own sleep, but I always failed. I had to be content with watching these dreams of hers, and when I found them upsetting, I would clean out her head and banish the things she did not like.
I got to know Nadia in the belly of this shelter that looked like a big concrete whale. A damp place fortified against the war, our fantasies flitted across the walls. We spent more than twenty nights in the shelter, that January in 1991 when the Baghdad sky blazed with planes and rockets. And during those long weeks we lived through fear, cold, and hunger, sharing our hopes and dreams. We did not know at the time what was happening around us. We did not understand then what the war meant.
Once, before we sat down on our rug, Uncle Shawkat walked over to us, smiling. He used to smile like that all the time. He gave Nadia a light pinch on the ear. He took her left wrist and used his teeth to leave the impression of a small watch on her skin. Then he took my left hand and did the same to me. His wife, Baji Nadira, came up and said to him, “Don’t do that!”
Baji Nadira kissed us both tenderly and apologized. We smiled at her, and at the same time, we were looking at the watches that gradually disappeared. Uncle Shawkat went back to his place with a group of men gathered around a small radio that was broadcasting distant whispers. His wife went and sat between my mother and Nadia’s.
After a while, many women went over to join them, talking about the war. Some young girls came and sat with us. I remember Marwa, Baydaa, Wijdan, Rita, and Mala’ika, which means “angel,” but whom we called “devil” for no good reason.
“I’m not a devil!”
“Yes, you are!”
Mala’ika started crying and went to sit close to her mother, pointing at us and saying things we could not hear.
Nadia and I got up and explored the different corners of the shelter. We counted the faces in the light of the lantern, wanting to know these people who lived around our neighborhood. Here was Umm Rita, as Rita’s mother was called. Here was Abu Manaf, taking his nickname from his son Manaf, as well as Manaf’s sister Manal and his little brother Ghassan, asleep on his mother’s lap. Here was Umm Marwa, and Marwa’s brother Marwan. Here was Hind, and over there her father and mother. Nizar and his father and mother. Mayada and her family. Umm Ali and her grown-up daughters. (Umm Ali did not have a younger daughter who sat with us.) These people lived with Umm Salli. Here was Wijdan, along with her mother and sisters. There was Farouq and his mother and father. Here was Umm Mala’ika, whose actual name was Haifa, and here was Abu Mala’ika, whose name was Osama, and Mala’ika’s grandfather too. As for her grandmother, she covered her face with a black abaya and slept all the time. Here was Ahmad and his mother; his father was no longer with us because he was a martyr.
Excerpted from The Baghdad Clock, published by Oneworld Publications. Original text © 2016 by Shahad Al Rawi. English translation © 2018 by Luke Leafgren. By arrangement with the publisher.