Tag-Archive for ◊ Celestial Bodies ◊

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• Friday, June 25th, 2021

Jokha Alharthi, born in Oman in 1978, is one of eight sisters and four brothers. She is a writer and academic. She was first educated in Oman before receiving a doctorate in classical Arabic poetry from Edinburgh University and presently works as an associate professor in the Arabic department of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. Alharthi has written three collections of short stories, two children’s books and three novels in Arabic. She is currently living in Al Khoudh in the Muscat Governorate of the sultanate of Oman with her civil engineer husband and their three children,

Celestial Bodies was initially published in Arabic in 2010, English in 2018 and has been translated into several other languages, as have the author’s short stories. It won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019, a first for a novel written in Arabic from the Gulf and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English.

Celestial Bodies is a saga of two Omani families, related by marriage, stretching over generations. It is a melodrama with many characters, hence the family tree illustrated at the beginning of the novel – an approach often used by South American novelists like Isabel Allende’s Portrait In Sepia or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez incidentally happens to be one of the author’s favourite writers, both novels having been read and discussed in our Book Club. Through these characters from the fictional Omani desert village of al-Awafi close to the capital Muscat, we are introduced to people’s political and cultural backgrounds.

The story features three sisters with contrasting personalities, Mayya and Asma, who both accept arranged marriages. With a pang in her heart, the first marries the son of a prosperous merchant whose grandfather made his wealth from slave trading. The second marries a self-centred artist who does not include her in his life. As for the youngest, Khawla, after waiting resignedly for her long-time childhood love to return from Canada to be betrothed, will quickly become disenchanted with her husband’s double life – one in Canada with his girlfriend and the second in Oman, when he returns to impregnate her every two years.

The three sisters are discontented with their loveless married lives. However, Mayya will submit to her fate while Asma lives outside her husband’s sphere and devotes herself to her several children. As for Khawla, she obtains a divorce from her cousin and, once liberated, opens a beauty shop in the capital city.

Celestial Bodies is a fictional story with a historical background. It is divided into fifty-eight short chapters that swivel in a non-linear narrative among the characters. Each chapter is named after the person giving his or her thoughts and views. Abdallah, the son of merchant Sulayman, who has several chapters dedicated to himself, is the main narrator and the one who gains the readers’ empathy the most. He narrates in the first person while flying to Frankfurt, revealing his diffuse feelings and various sufferings from an early age, continuing to the present day. He thinks of his abusive father, a mother who died in mysterious circumstances when he was a child and a wife who does not return his love for her.

In contrast, Zarifa, Sulayman’s slave and mistress, is one of the leading female characters, a very colourful, charming person who sheltered and looked after Abdallah following his mother’s demise is a third-person narrator. Other female characters have a third person narrating voices too. It is a man’s world, after all, even if they happen to be sensitive and defenceless like Abdallah.

Each chapter provides a glimpse of the story to be continued in the next. Fragments of characters’ views about history and events are given to the reader to gather, interlace and complete.

The author goes back and forth from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the early years of the new millennium. She gyrates unrestrictedly through the lives of three generations of well-to-do families, their divorces, inexplicable death, slaves (slavery was not outlawed in Oman until 1970) their culinary parties, their wedding ceremonies and all the other traditions which evolve as time goes by and witness the unavoidable changes creating clashes between the old and young generations.

Having a PhD in classical Arabic poetry, the author could not resist including some beautiful poems from Majnun Layla, written by the twelfth-century Persian poet, Nizami and poems from the ninth- century Iraqi poet, Ibn-Al-Rumi, and other poems from the tenth-century Iraqi poet, Al-Mutanabbi. All the poems are recited by Azzan, Mayya’s father and Salima’s husband to his beloved Bedouin mistress, Najiya, who is as beautiful as the Qamar (the moon in Arabic), during the enjoyable time they spend together away in the desert.

In her story, Alharthi portrays patriarchal society with its marriage, sorrows and male promiscuities contrasting with female submissiveness. The patriarch is illustrated as a planet around which orbits satellites of celestial female bodies, like Mayya, Asma, Khawla, Zarifa, Salima, Shanna, Masouda, Qamar and London. The celestial bodies in the sky include stars, planets, satellites, asteroids, meteoroids and comets, comparable to the different classes of society depicted in the novel; the rich, the wealthy, the slaves, and the poor.

Nevertheless, the author shows some hope with the changes of the new generation toward a more harmonious life. Celestial Bodies is a revelation of a wide-ranging Omani culture with complexities unknown to the outside world. It is a short, rich, dense novel, lyrically magical and absorbing.

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