The Frailties of Love and Marriage

It was my innate curiosity that has led me into alleys and roads I never once thought I would be walking on. In my reading journey, this curiosity translated well in my diverse reading list. My growth and development as a reader, in particular a world reader, has been apparent these past few years. I used to prefer the comfort of familiar names such as Nicholas Sparks, Paulo Coehlo, Mary Higgins Clark, Sidney Sheldon, and Danielle Steel. But as soon as I discovered the vast world of literature, my reading preferences have expounded exponentially. I started the works of writers whose names I have never heard of before. With every new book and unfamiliar name I read, my horizon, both as a reader and as an individual, also expanded.

My immersion into the vast world of literature has inevitably led me to award-winning works and writers. One of my more recent discoveries was Omani writer Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies which romped away with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (now just International Booker Prize). When it was announced the winner for this prestigious literary prize, I admit I was one of the many readers who immediately went scoping for sellers who have a copy of the book. Luckily, I managed to snag a copy of the book last year and, whilst I have a growing pile of unread books on my bookshelves, I didn’t hesitate in reading Celestial Bodies ahead of the rest. I was really looking forward to the book.

Originally published in Arabic as Sayyidat al-Qamr (“Ladies of the Moon”), Celestial Bodies charted the story of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla. Born into an affluent and influential family in the Omani village of al-Awafi, Arabic and Omani traditions were inculcated into their systems at a young age. They were raised believing that they are destined for marriage and domestic life. However, the narrative concerns itself more on the individual journeys of the sisters, as they all leave the comfort of the village to get married and establish their own families.

“Some of those who fancy themselves philosophers claim that God, Mighty is He, created every soul in the shape of a ball. And then He split every one of these spheres into two, and apportioned to each and every human body one half. It is decreed that each body will meet the body that holds the other half of that rent soul. Between the two a passion arises from that ancient bond. From one human being to the next, the effect of this union will vary, according to the delicacy of each person’s nature.”

~ Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies

The eldest, Mayya, has always been overshadowed by her younger siblings. “I don’t know about books like Asma does and I’ not pretty like Khawla.” Being the subservient daughter, she suppressed her feelings for the man she loved to acquiesce to her parent’s demands of marrying Abdallah, the son of a wealthy merchant. The middle child, Asma, loved reading. Just like her older sister, she submitted to her parent’s demand of marrying Khalid, a self-absorbed artist. Asma viewed marriage as a means to an end – her dreams of pursuing an education. The youngest, Khawla, was steadfast in her resolve of patiently waiting for Nasir, her childhood sweetheart who emigrated to Canada. She refused all offers for marriage until her loyalty was repaid.

One of the major themes the narrative explored is marriage, with particular emphasis on how Omanis view marriages and unions. Arabic societies are known to be highly patriarchal, a characteristic shared by Omani society as well. Although the story revolves around three women, the influences of men, like their father, reverberated all throughout the sister’s stories. Vestiges of this patriarchal view has also rippled into the contemporary, eventually impacting the three women’s married lives. Asma’s husband was described: “He chose accordingly, looking for a woman who would fall instantly into the orbit he had marked out, who would always be there but would also always stay just outside, yet without wanting to create her own celestial sphere, her own orbit.”

The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies is a multifaceted story that covered a vast ground, exploring a bevy of subjects and themes. The novel takes a nosedive into the complexities and intricacies of different relationships – between parents and children, siblings, between husbands and wives. These relationships are often complicated as different beliefs, traditions, and value systems collide. The novel also explored the relationship between slaves and their former masters, a storyline woven into the narrative through Zarifa, herself the daughter of a former slave. Through her, the readers learn about the history of slavery in contemporary Oman. Slavery was once prevalent until it was outlawed by a legislation in the 1970s. The treatment of slaves and the aftermath of their emancipation in the 1960s was vividly painted by al-Harthi.

However, the novel does not reduce itself into a mere commentary about marriages and relationships in a highly patriarchal society. The stark dichotomies between the past and the present form a mantle of the story. The shift from a more traditional into a more modern society was underlined in the story. As time moved forward, the rigidity of Oman’s patriarchal society started to erode. Cases of male infidelities, and domestic abuse, both once ubiquitous, started to decline. As women are afforded more freedom, the objectification of women and the imposition of arranged or forced marriages also dwindled. The changes were gradual but were palpable and its impact reverberated into the present as we see a country in transition. It is also of important note that traditions still play an important role in the 21st century.

“Know that the stars of the firmament empty their gems into the moon, and the moon spills them into the water. The force of the water splits them into all the gems that exist in creation. the moon is the treasure house for what is on high and what lies below. The moon moves between high and low, between the sublime and the filth of creation.”

~ Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies

Underscoring the changes taking place in Omani society, Al-Harthi drew vivid examples. One fine example was London, Mayya and Abdallah’s daughter. She earned herself an education and was working as a doctor. Educated women were and are still are frowned upon in most patriarchal Arabic societies. Moreover, London was involved in divorces, another stigma in . Asma, on the other hand, was encouraged by her husband to continue her intellectual pursuits even though it was with some tinges of ambivalence. Change, after all, has its own birth pains. The influence of Western ideals in the shift from a conservative society to a more tolerant society was subtly woven into the tapestry of the novel.

It is no stretch of imagination to perceive the novel as a microcosm of modern Oman. The story of the sisters was juxtaposed on a rapidly-changing and developing Omani landscape. On top of the generational conflicts, al-Harthi riveted the readers by subtly drawing on the backdrop details of Omani history, from political upheavals to rebellions as Omanis struggle for independence. These historical details further complimented the changes taking on the foreground. The novel highlighted the landmark changes that has taken place in Omani society and caught in the swirl of these shifting tides are four families from different social classes, each threading the troubled waters in different ways.

The past was an important element of the narrative as the characters were either living under the shadows or were being chased by phantoms from their past. Abdallah, for instance, lived under the shadow of his father and Zarifa. On the other hand, his wife continuously pined for her first love. Stylistically, the narrative employed a mix of first person and third person perspectives. There was also an omniscient narrator in between. Interestingly, Abdallah related the story in his own perspective whilst the women’s stories were related through the perspective of a third-person. This created an illusion that the narrative focuses on Abdallah and patriarchy.

However, whilst many praised the novel’s unorthodox structure, I found it also to be its own undoing. Whilst it was innovative, it was a contributory factor in making the a little confusing. Al-harthi created one too many strands that the readers have to follow. There was also no smooth transitions between these continuously shifting phases. The readers witness the performance of a ritual to appease the djinn, and within a couple of pages, traditional worship was supplanted by the worship of luxury items and materialism. These strands meander, wandering in all directions and they never quite converge.

“Though I hold her close, my soul still yearns yet how can I be closer than in her embrace? I kiss her mouth to chase my fever away but my mad cast-off love-thirst burns ever more The reach of my passion! May that craving be cured by the sweetness of that which my lips do absorb My exposed weathered heart will never heal itself until these two selves are seen as one mingled”

~ Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies

The meandering strands were specially palpable in the first two-thirds of the story and although al-harthi tried to make amends in the latter parts, when the story started to have some clarity, there was not enough to make the strands come full circle. It was disjointed. The mix of third and first person perspectives became more subversive as al-Harthi has an aversion with punctuations, making it a challenge distinguishing streams of consciousness and dialogues. I usually don’t mind the lack of punctuations but in Celestial Bodies, it was particularly challenging.

It didn’t help that the story was bereft of a formal plot. Rather, it was akin to a mosaic of stories woven together to come up with a whole narrative. It was neither cohesive nor was it chronological. It was rich at parts, especially with its details of Omani history and culture and its diverse characters, but overall, it was uneven and lacked consistency. The novel refuses to abide by the concept of time or chronology as the story weaves in and out of time and place in the space of the same chapter. Within paragraphs, a baby can grown into a fully-functioning adult and turn back into an infant. For readers who prefer structured narration, Celestial Bodies can be a challenge.

For all its faults, I am cognizant that there is a rich tale underneath all the confusion. To her credit, Alharthi did have a grand story to tell about her nation of birth. Celestial Bodies was brimming with details of contemporary Oman and it was a delight witnessing the transitions taking place in the country through the 2019 Man Booker International Prize winning work. However, it was neither an easy or a pleasurable read. I don’t begrudge al-Harthi of her ambition and her vision; I commend her for it especially that through her novel, she broke several barriers. Unfortunately, the narrative crumbled under the grandness of al-Harthi’s ambition. In a slender book, she tried to explore a score of big ticket themes such as patriarchy, love, marriage, and the shift from the traditional to the modern. It felt cramped and disjointed; there was never enough time to situate one’s self on these grand themes.

Ratings

58%

Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

Book Specs

Author:  Jokha Alharthi
Translator:  Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 243
Genre: Domestic Fiction

Synopsis

Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world.

In the village of al-Awafi in Oman live three sisters. Mayya marries after a heartbreak. Asma marries from a sense of duty. Khawla rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. Elegantly structured, Celestial Bodies is the story of the history and people of modern Oman told through one family’s losses and loves.

About the Author

Jokha al-Harthi was born on July 16, 1978 in Oman.

Al-Harthi received her formal education in Oman. She obtained a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry from Edinburgh University. She is an accomplished writer who has already published a score of short story collections and children’s stories. She has also published three novels, debuting with Manamat. Her second novel, Sayyidat al-qamar was published in 2010 and has earned her a slew of accolades. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers. In 2018, it was translated and published in English as Celestial Bodies, making it the first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English. In 2019, Celestial Bodies won the Man Booker International Prize. Sayyidat al-qamar earned the distinction as the first work by an Arabic-language writer to win the prestigious literary award.

Her third and latest novel, Narinjah (Bitter Orange) was published in 2016. It won the Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature. The English translation of Narinjah will be published in 2021. Her other works were also translated into English, Serbian, Korean, Italian, and German and were published in Banipal magazine, an independent literary magazine promoting contemporary Arab literature through English translations. She was also one of eight participants in the 2011 IPAF Nadwa writer’s workshop. In 2020, she appeared in a panel discussion at Adelaide Writer’s Week.

Al-Harthi is also currently an associate professor in the Arabic department at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman.