Spotlight On Oman
Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies is the first novel from the Gulf to win the Man Booker International Prize—a book by a female Omani author at that, a scholar and academic. The judges called the book ‘A richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.’
Oman is a small Gulf country, that, like so many conservative societies, changed after the oil boom, or rather, was dragged reluctantly into urbanization and modernity. The past is—like India—feudal, staunchly patriarchal, with slavery being abolished as late as the 1970s.
Alharthi tracks the lives of three daughters—Mayya, Asma and Khowla—from a well-off merchant family, and moves from the traditional village of al-Awafi to modern city of Muscat, speaking in multiple voices.
It is a historian’s book as much as a writer’s (there are faint echoes of Jane Austen), as Alharthi charts the transformation of Oman with understated compassion, so that the melodrama of the lives of three generations remains controlled. Still, there are passages like this about a woman’s sorrow over her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.”)
It begins with Mayya, always at her sewing machine and silently in love with a man who is unaware of her existence; she has an arranged marriage to Abdallah (his name appears after a while, he is simply referred to as Merchant Sulayman’s son, as if his own identity is not important) and gives birth to a daughter (the women kindly point out that she will look after the sons born later), whom she stubbornly names London. As she grows up, London’s story is also included in the tangled web of relationships.
Mayya’s sisters also have their own romantic problems, but they are not as fleshed out as Mayya and Abdallah (his perspective is written in the first person). Indian, or rather Asian, readers will relate a lot more to the novel, since these societies have also gone through similar social and economic upheavals.
It is a sprawling epic, unraveled like pieces of mosaic, and trying to fit in so much, that many of the characters seem underdeveloped. It is not an easy read, but it does generate curiosity about this corner of the Arab world not often depicted in fiction. The prize will undoubtedly bring more Arabic writers into the spotlight, hopefully with fine translators, who are able to read the emotions correctly and find the right words for them.
By Jokha Alharthi
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Simon & Schuster