Friday, March 01, 2019

Oman: Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi

Like Kuwait, Oman has changed rapidly in recent decades as it emerged as an oil-rich nation. Economic change was accompanied by societal change, and this book traces the stories of one family during these changing decades.

It is focused on Azzan and Salima's three daughters - Mayya, Asma and Khalwa. Mayya has a secret love, who shows no interest in her, so she resigns herself to accept marriage to another man. Asma marries from a sense of duty, while Khalwa waits years for the cousin to whom she believes herself betrothed, who has emigrated to Canada where he lives, unbeknown to her, with another woman. Their lives and loves are richly depicted. But this is not just the story of the three women, but of the men of the family too, and of their other relationships. We learn of Azzan's harsh childhood, and of Mayya's husband Abdallah's life, and love for her, which is not returned.

Azzan has a secret relationship with a Bedouin woman Najir bint Shaykha (Qamar - the moon). The title of the book seems to reflect the idea of women as celestial bodies, or perhaps celestial bodies as women. A quote from an old book says "Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world." And throughout the book this idea of celestial bodies gives resonance to the events that take place.

I enjoyed following the lives of the family members over several generations, and discovering lives that are richer and more complex than westerners with a superficial knowledge of Arab countries might imagine. In particular, although the three sisters were clearly expected to marry and to be subject in many ways to their husbands, the book reveals them to have greater autonomy than the reader might at first think.

Jokha Alharthi has written children's books, short fiction, and three novels in Arabic. She teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and has completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh (There are many quotes from classical Arabic poetry throughout the book).

Celestial Bodies won the 2010 Best Omani Novel award. It was translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth, and published in Britain by Sandstone Press in 2018, with support from the Anglo-Omani Society and Creative Scotland.

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