When Jokha Alharthi was in Edinburgh, slumped under the trials and tribulations of pursuing a PhD in Classical Arabic Literature, the burning desire to give her characters a home seeped into her, homesickness partly fueling the desire.
It was then she devoted herself to giving the smoky outlines in her mind a concrete shape.
Celestial Bodies was originally published in 2010 as Sayyidat al-Qamr . On May 21, 2019, it won Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth—the English translator of her novel—the £50,000 Man Booker Prize, making Alharthi the first female Omani novelist to have scooped the prize.
The novel opens with an intricate family tree. Shaykhs, merchants, slaves, slavers, commoners—all of whom breathe life into the story.
The story unfurls from the village of al-Awafi in Oman where three sisters (Mayya, Asma and Khawla) live. As marriage proposals march to their doorsteps, Oman rides the waves of change after the discovery of oil—BMW’s, Lexuses plying the streets, electronic appliance crowding the houses, shopping malls and villas blooming like gardens. With history’s shadow hovering above everyone, we see it’s not just the sisters who are on the pulpit of the story. Other characters’ lives shoot out of the sisters’ narratives and form a fabric of symbiotic, interwoven connections, fringed with the leaves of history.
Mayya, who stays mostly silent and is “forever immersed in her Singer sewing machine”, is married to a Merchant’s son, Abdallah, after separation from her first love who “was so tall that the fast-moving clouds seemed to graze his head.” Whenever Abdallah showers her with words of affection, Mayya laughs like crazy. He’s madly in love with her, but she’s still reeling from the heartbreak and doesn’t really reciprocate his feelings. He’s unaware of the things that trouble her greatly.
Abdallah is a confused man, who was tortured as a child by his merchant father whose business depended heavily on slave-trade. He spends a mammoth portion of his energy in trying to receive constant validation from his father and in countless attempts to “fly in the stratosphere” of his father’s respect. When he himself becomes a father, he is conflicted over the version he should choose—an abusive father, or a calm, timid one. His narrative is in the first-person, which sets his account aside from the others.
Because Abdallah’s mother died when he was very young (as per legend, a Basil leaf had killed her), he is brought up by one of his father’s female slaves, Zarifa, who has a very complex, bitter-sweet relationship with the merchant (Abdallah’s father). Zarifa’s roots are in Africa, from where her great-grandfather, Senghor, was trapped by pirates as he ventured into the woods to collect cooking materials. Her mother was subjected to slavery, which later passed on to Zarifa (“slavery passes to you from your mother”). Drifting from owner after owner, Zarifa ended up in the hands of Abdallah, an abusive man for whom she had endless respect, whom she considered her savior from the talons of other ruthless slavers.
The fictional take on politics and other important issues such as mental health, sexual abuse, migration, women’s rights, emancipation, superstition, etc. forms the bones of the novel. We see characters like Cousin Marwan, Muhammad (one of Mayya’s sons who has down syndrome) and Masouda. We see characters like Salma and her mother, who try desperately to escape the shadows of her paternal uncle. We see instances of forced separation and marriage. There are tales of jinn women whose curses are fatal. We see migration, the longing for roots, and the desire to be buried in one’s homeland (where not a single tree grows, not even scrubby little desert bushes). We see slaves living in cramped ship-docks, perspiring heavily, dying, and slavery passing from generation to generation. Despite the ban on slavery, we see it being kept alive by the secret traders. We see insurgency and the will to join the cause to preserve the sovereignty of one’s homeland. We also see glimpses of brave women who steer the wheels of their own future, of intimate moments of their affection and happiness.
Alharthi’s prose has an undying poetic hum and is almost dream-like. But it can get a little obscure at times. Even so, there’s a sense of pleasure in how she manages to bleed dreams into reality with the obscurity. One can notice the feature in Abdallah’s narratives that skid off to dreamy musings suddenly. Since the whole story is housed in separate chapters for each character, there’s no room for boredom. Every time you turn a few pages, you’re taken inside the vision of a different character, a different mood completely.
Celestial Bodies echoes the impact slavery, insurgency and rapid development have brought upon Oman. It brings out naked human emotions before readers as they try scaling the borders between jinns and humans, dreams and reality, past and present. It is a must-read novel, not only for the glimpses of Oman it presents, but also for the creativity that can cup a reader in its palm; the creativity that shows us the long-lasting ripples, created by the shadowy hands of history coursing through everyone and everything; the creativity that shows us that we are here because a certain history has worked in a certain way.
After all, Celestial Bodies pushes the “boundary of what can be thought and said”, and it’s not just a “road map to the Arab world.” It highlights how our conceptions thrive on stereotypical ideas about a certain culture/country. It also highlights how translated works can fill the gaps created by such stereotypes in this age of globalization, and bring before us a diverse world of literature that contains not only one country, one continent, one people, but many countries, many continents and many peoples.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is an aspiring fiction writer.