Today we’re delighted to reveal that the Iraqi writer Shahad Al Rawi has won the Book Festival’s 2018 First Book Award with her debut novel, The Baghdad Clock. The novel, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018 and topped the bestseller lists in Iraq, Dubai and UAE, was translated by Luke Leafgren and published by Oneworld.
The First Book Award celebrates the wealth of new fiction from the UK and around the world featured in the Book Festival public programme and is voted for by readers and visitors to the Festival. The winner was chosen from the 49 debut novels and short story collections for adults and young adults eligible for the Award this year.
Shahad Al Rawi, who appeared at the Festival in August, was born in Baghdad in 1986. She attended secondary school in Baghdad before moving with her family to Syria. She now lives in Dubai where she is currently studying for a PhD in Anthropology.
In her poignant novel, Al Rawi takes readers beyond the familiar images of Iraq in the news to show the everyday struggle of Baghdad’s people, revealing the reality of growing up in a war-torn city and watching a way of life that’s slowly disappearing in front of their eyes.
On finding out she had won the prize, Al Rawi said:
“I’m extremely happy to receive the news of winning the 2018 First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I’m very proud for two reasons; first because this prize came from the Edinburgh International Book Festival itself. Secondly, because the competition was extremely strong and the books drew on so many different subjects. I want to thank my readers from all around the world for choosing my novel. In addition, I’d especially like to thank Oneworld for taking so much care with The Baghdad Clock, translating and publishing it in English.
“Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the most important festivals in the world. It has the best reputation, and I’m very grateful that I was part of it this year. I was so happy to participate in all the activities and very impressed by how well organised it was. Most of all I was enchanted by the people. I wish every success to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the coming years to continue creating bridges between writers and readers. I loved everything about the city of Edinburgh and it’s a great honour to be connected to it by this prestigious prize that carries its name.”
Director of the Book Festival, Nick Barley, said:
“To tell stories is a fundamental part of the human condition. Even in extreme situations like the one portrayed in Shahad’s novel, it’s stories that keep people going. Maybe that’s why her novel is so affecting and so powerful. The Baghdad Clock is not just a popular winner with Edinburgh International Book Festival readers this year: it’s also a brilliant winner that will live long in the memory – and it establishes Shahad Al Rawi as a force to be reckoned with, in Arabic and English alike.”
The Baghdad Clock is set in 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War, as a young Iraqi girl huddles with her neighbours in an air raid shelter. There she meets Nadia, and the girls quickly become best friends, sharing their dreams, 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.
The novel was a clear favourite with voters. A small selection of voters’ comments are below:
“The Baghdad Clock poignantly captures the experience of middle class Iraqis during the 1991 war, the sanctions and the 2003 war. It provides a rare insight into Iraqis’ everyday existence – their hopes and fears, dreams and anguish. I couldn’t help but cry bittersweet tears as political events unfolded in the book, dreading how they would impact each character. Shahad is able to combine the heavy reality of war with the beauty and simplicity of childhood friendships.”
“It is a novel that touches the hearts of Iraqis before others, from the reality of their lives. Thank you to Shahad Al Rawi for having made blood flow in my veins again.”
“This novel brings back memories that were hidden under the dust of time.”
“The words of the novel echo in my head every time I walk in the streets of Baghdad.”
“I don’t have words to describe this wonderful novel which tells the history of every Iraqi person born in the time of war. Through writing The Baghdad Clock, Shahad Al Rawi has protected the history of every person in her generation.”
“A novel that deserves a special place in the modern literary library.”
“This is a book that cannot be forgotten.”
Huge congratulations to Shahad Al Rawi! For full details of all writers and books eligible for the 2018 First Book Award go to www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/first-book-award. The 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival will run from Saturday 10 to Monday 26 August and the full programme will be announced in June.