Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translation Marilyn Booth) is the story of three sisters who live in Oman. For those who don’t know, Oman is on the coast of the Persian Gulf. It shares land borders with UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
The three sisters, Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, grow up in the latter part of the 20th Century, a time of social upheaval in Oman.
The discovery of oil reserves lead to change in the economic structure of the country; the fourteen year civil war separated families from each other; and slavery was only made illegal in 1970.
The sisters belong to an upper-class Omani family. Their lives struck me as comfortably miserable. Comfortable, in the sense that they were relatively affluent. Miserable, in that they were constrained by an inflexible social order. Freedom to choose almost anything was denied them. They each reacted differently to those constraints.
Jokha Altharthi tells the story through two points of view: an omniscient narrator who, in each chapter, focuses on different characters; and, Abdallah, the husband of Mayya. Between them, the two narrators tell the story across three generations of the extended family, moving back and forth in time.
The effect is rather like being within a remembering mind; one preoccupied with making sense of the past, so as to understand the now. For a reader, like me, unfamiliar with the history and the culture of Oman it made for a challenging and ultimately rewarding read. The language of the English translation is evocative and lyrical. The story, itself, is engaging; it kept me turning the page while demanding I read it closely. As one of the judges from the Man Booker International prize commented Jokha Alharthi encourages her readers to read slightly differently.
It’s a complex, multi-layered novel. For example, in the two paragraphs below we are shown Salima’s (the sister’s mother) internal struggles, as she simultaneously greets visitors who have come to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild and reacts to an uncharacteristic act of her husband. Then, in the very next paragraph, Alharthi makes the political very personal, as she reveals her characters reactions to the baby’s unusual name.
Yesterday—and for the first time ever in her married life—Azzan had given her a gold ring that held an enormous blue stone. Everyone knew Salima despised gold and scorned any sort of adornment. What she had been obliged to buy as a bride she had kept in a locked steel box buried deep inside her large wooden wedding chest. She and Azzan had never exchanged gifts. He always gave her what she needed and he never asked her about household expenses: But gifts were another story! Salima felt uneasy about her husband’s impulsive offering. (80)
In the very next paragraph Alharthi shows us, through something as simply complex as the choice of name for the grandchild,, the social flux of Oman at the time:
As she disappeared into the kitchen to prepare more fruit, the muezzin’s wife and Judge Yusuf’s widow bent their heads together to whisper. Sister, what kind of man is Abdallah, allowing his daughter to have this odd name? Seems he doesn’t get to say a word about it, doesn’t his woman Mayya listen to him? If he had any balls, if her could make her listen, he would never have left it to her to name the girl for a city on the land of the Christians. London! Since when does anyone name his daugher after a place anyway? (p81)
Jokha Alharthi has written ten books. She is a writer and an academic, who after receiving her PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry from Edinburgh University now teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. During an interview with the Guardian Newspaper she had this to say:
No matter where you are, love, loss, friendship, pain and hope are the same feelings and humanity still has a lot of work to do to believe in this truth.
Marilyn Booth, translator, holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, Oriental Institute and Magdalen College, Oxford University. She has previously translated many word of fiction from Arabic. She has written a concise and helpful introduction for the English edition of Celestial Bodies.
Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction, a prize which is shared equally between writer and translator. It is the first Arabic novel to do so. Watch the clip, for the judges comments:
Mayya, forever immersed in her Singer sewing machine, seemed lost to the outside world.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Booth (2018) Sandstone Press
Categories: On Books