When Omani author Jokha Alharthi, 41, gathered at the Roundhouse in London on the night of May 21, there was a spark of hope in her heart; she was moments away from creating history. As the Man Booker International Prize ceremony unfolded, Alharthi, the only woman author from Oman to have been translated into English, emerged as the first writer from the Arabian Gulf to win the coveted prize.
Alharthi’s second novel, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press, the UK, 2018), was one of the six novels to have been shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, with five of the shortlisted authors being women. They included Annie Ernaux (France), Marion Poschmann (Germany), Alia Trabucco Zerán (Spain) and Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), who became the first Polish writer to win the prize last year. Celestial Bodies, originally published in Arabic as Sayyidat al-Qamar (2010), has been translated into English by Marilyn Booth, UK-based American academic and translator, and a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. Alharthi shares the £50,000 prize with her translator. The novel, the first venture into Arabic literature by Sandstone Press, will be brought to India by Simon & Schuster in June.
“It is a great honour and I hope it will open a window to Arabic literature and Omani literature in particular. I feel incredibly proud,” Alharthi says in an email interview. The prize, she writes, creates “an opportunity for a work of Arabic literature to be read widely”. “I hope it helps other Arabic writers,” she says.
In Celestial Bodies, Alharthi captures the macrocosm of Oman’s transition — from a traditional, slave-owning society into a country that has embraced modernity — through the microcosm of a family’s love and loss. Alharthi says, she started work on the novel when she was doing her PhD in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh in 2010. She was missing Oman and felt a little homesick. “The novel began with thoughts of Oman, rather than with the full sweep of the novel in mind. I always dreamed of writing this novel. I imagined some plots and characters but not all of the details were clear in my mind from the beginning. It grew as I wrote it,” says Alharthi, who teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.
English historian, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, chair of judges for the prize this year, said in her statement that, in Alharthi’s novel, through the “different tentacles” of people’s lives, loves and losses, we come to learn about a society. “It starts in a room and ends in a world.”
Perhaps, that’s what all great novels do — emerge from a particular region and find resonance around the globe, weaving in their tapestry the warps of the universal human conditions and reflections that transcend the confines of time and space. The issues Alharthi explores in the novel — remnants of colonialism and slavery and the struggle of its wide cast of characters to deal with a traumatic past and, at the same time, keep pace with the changing times — are sensitive. Talking about them is considered a taboo in Oman. “I think literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues. And slavery is not exclusive to Oman, it’s part of human history,” Alharthi said in an onstage interview after the prize announcement.
Celestial Bodies tells the coming-of-age story of three sisters — Mayya, a seamstress; Asma, a bibliophile; and Khwala, a stunner — in the Omani village of Al-Awafi, and the choices they make in love and marriage. While Mayya marries after heartbreak, Asma does it “out of duty”, and Khwala keeps saying no to her many suitors, waiting for her lover who has migrated to Canada. Mayya and her husband Abdallah name their daughter “London” despite opposition from their relatives. It is an act of defiance against traditional societal norms for Mayya, who sees little of the outside world till she gets married and aspires to escape the clutches of conventions.
Alharthi writes that she did not intend the three sisters to be seen as “types”, but rather for women in Oman to be perceived through the novel as “complex and surprisingly independent and brave”. “I think there are many ways to represent modern women in Oman…I hope readers like to encounter these unusual women. Some of them are very imposing and almost otherworldly…,” she says.
Slavery, which was officially abolished in Oman in 1970, still exists in many families and the ghosts of the traumatic past continue to haunt those who were at its receiving end. In the novel, Abdallah’s troubled relationship with his slave-owning father, Merchant Sulayman, and the cruelties that the latter inflicts on his son also make for important chunks. The novel alternates between third-person narrative and the first-person account of Abdallah, who looks back on his life, traversing between the past and his present. The transition between the two is seamless, and sentences seem to have years between them. “The first person narrative is Abdallah’s consciousness. He is helpful to the reader because his own story shows how Oman has changed so much, and so quickly. The third person narratives allow the reader to meet and to understand different characters, and their experiences, and to piece aspects of a changing country together, a little like a jigsaw,” says Alharthi.
The characters in the novel come from two disparate worlds: those who descended from the enslaved and those who descended from slavers. Zarifa is a slave, but she chooses to remain with the slave-owning family after slavery ends — the mistress of her own destiny. “Nowadays, Oman does not regularly engage with the question of slavery in the past, and while the contemporary way of life is very different, there is, of course, a great value in exploring what slavery meant, and how it impacted the society,” says Alharthi.
Even though most characters seem trapped in the past, they seem to be following their own paths to freedom and liberation. How does Alharthi see this quest for liberation play out among families in Oman today? “Perhaps, changing social mores require us to forget or disregard our pasts. Perhaps this is dangerous. In writing Celestial Bodies, I was interested in making the connections between the past and the present. For example, Mayya and Abdallah’s daughter, London, is a modern woman, driving a BMW. Educated. She has opportunities. But she makes a mistake, and her parents have to arrange for a divorce. Liberation is, perhaps, a quiet theme of the novel — if we compare Zarifa (Merchant Sulayman’s slave) with London, for example,” says Alharthi, adding that even in her last novel, Narinjah (Bitter Orange, 2016), she explores past and present, and the “slim border” between the two in the minds of the main characters.