BOOKS: Oman through the rhythms of family

Saturday July 13 2019

Celestial Bodies by Jokha al-Harthi

'Celestial Bodies' by Jokha al-Harthi, the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

KARI MUTU
By KARI MUTU
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This year, the Man Booker International Prize worth £50,000 was won for the first time by a writer from the Middle East.

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha al-Harthi, is an intimate look at Oman in the process of transition.

Translated from Arabic into English, Celestial Bodies chronicles the lives of a middle-class Omani family in the small town of Al Wafi, not far from the capital city of Muscat.

In the wake of oil discoveries in the late 1960s, Oman is struggling to maintain age-old customs and traditions in a society being reshaped by modernity.

The story is set around three sisters — Mayya, Asma and Khawla.

They are young and eligible for marriage, to be arranged by their parents.

Mayya’s husband Abdallah becomes the principal narrator. The story returns to him repeatedly to connect third-party narratives that sweep across multiple generations.

Abdallah is the son of the merchant Sulayman, whose family made their fortune in the slave trade. Many of his experiences have been shaped by the women in his life.

He never knew his late mother, who died in puzzling circumstances — “killed by a basil bush” according to those who knew her.

Her absence and growing up under his sadistic father marred his childhood. Only in the arms of his nanny Zarafi did he find a measure of consolation.

Meanwhile, his emotionally-detached wife spends an inordinate amount of time sleeping to escape the realities of life, including her infatuation with another man.

His father-in-law Azzan is infatuated with a beautiful desert-dwelling Bedouin woman called Najiya in affair that sets tongues wagging.

Eschewing an education and many offers of marriage, Najiya takes over the family business from her spendthrift father and guardianship of her mentally challenged younger brother.

She is also fiercely independent, saying, “Azzan will be mine but I will not be his.”

Instead of moving in a linear manner, Jokha relates this family story through flashbacks and recollections by the sisters, Abdallah and other members of the extended family.

This is an era of master and slaves. Although slavery was abolished in Oman in 1970, many households still retain domestic workers who have few rights.

Yet Jokha mostly stays away from in-depth portrayal of the horrors that characterised slave life.

Dark-skinned Zarafi is one of the most intriguing personalities. Her great-grandfather was captured by slavers in Kenya and shipped off to the Middle East. She was bought by Abdallah’s father for less than a sack of rice, but eventually become his concubine.

When slavery was outlawed she chose to stay with her master. Loud, large-breasted and overly confident, she bustles through the Sulayman household throwing out satirical comments that belie her status as a servant.

The list of characters is quite extensive, so the family tree diagram at the beginning of the book is helpful for keeping track of their connection to the sisters and Abdallah.

Frequent insertions of poems by Jokha, who studied classical Arab poetry, brings in a lyrical element and although this is a translation, the book reads as though English was the original language.

Celestial Bodies presents no major dilemmas or gripping plot. However, there are many life lessons such as dysfunctional father-and-son relationships, women trying to break free of patriarchy, secret loves and lost dreams.

In between the domestic drama we come away enlightened about Oman’s colonial history, politics and cultural practices.

We see a society still influenced by superstitions, legends and jinns, spirits that needed to be appeased with food offerings or threatened with knives to stop them wreaking havoc on the living.

A recognised writer of Arab literature, Jokha is the author of numerous short stories and winner of the 2016 Sultan Qaboos Award for her novel Narinjah.