Jokha Alharthi can claim several “firsts” with her book “Celestial Bodies.” Hers is the first book in Arabic to be awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction, in 2019. It is also the first novel written by an Omani woman to be translated into English. And for many readers, her book offers the first glimpse into everyday domestic life in the rapidly changing nation of Oman.
The novel explores the experiences of three generations of two families, beginning in the early 20th century and extending to contemporary times, an era of extraordinary social and geopolitical change. While the country evolves from a closed nation under the sultan’s rule to a modern state that boasts luxury fashion malls, both the men and women of Oman wrestle with the ramifications of these changes.
At the center of the story are three sisters. Mayya, nursing a broken heart, marries into a rich Omani family. Asma marries out of a sense of duty, while Khawla digs in her heels and waits for the man she loves, which is complicated as he has emigrated to Canada. Each grapples with her life choices, balancing tradition with the emerging freedoms of Omani culture. Their experiences offer three different perspectives on these changes, and point to the fact that individual decisions, collectively, help propel the country forward.
Though focused on the three sisters, the book explores the broad picture of domestic life in the Middle East, including rich details of traditional customs. It would be a mistake, however, to call this a “domestic narrative.” Its structure could more accurately be described as a puzzle with each brief chapter providing a fragment of the picture. Looking both backward and forward, with no single event driving the storyline, Alharthi leaves it to the reader to assemble the tale from the nuggets she provides.
Yes, it can be challenging to keep tabs on all the characters, absorbing their fears and hopes, before jumping to the next chapter after only a few pages. While the book does provide a family tree, the author does not spoon-feed the tale.
But the effort is worth it. The story is beautifully told with credit extending to Marilyn Booth, the translator, who spins exquisite English descriptions from Alharthi’s original Arabic.
Set in the village of al-Awafi, just outside the capital city of Muscat, the story reveals an expansive view of a culture that most of us in the West know nothing about. It charts the experiences of everyone from the poorest servants to the wealthiest merchants.
Alharthi also reveals that things aren’t always how they appear, including the remarkable power that women wield when traditional social mores dictate that they have none.
Most of the story is told by a third person observer except for one notable exception: Abdallah, the merchant’s son and Mayya’s husband, tells his own tale. Even the typeface of these chapters is different. Perhaps this is a subtle nod to patriarchy? But maybe not, since by choosing his own words, Abdallah reveals his vulnerability as he struggles with memories of his abusive father as well as his fears that his wife does not really love him.
But Abdallah is also the one who exercises his strength when he learns of his daughter’s fraught domestic situation. He supports her through a divorce, which enables her to pursue a professional career, a choice denied to women of earlier generations. His daughter represents the future. Sweeping cultural change, after all, sometimes comes from incremental personal decisions.
The book is full of strong women characters. Alharthi, though, avoids clichés and stereotypes. The women do not buck the patriarchy in a predictable fashion. Rather, Alharthi reveals the nuances within domestic life, especially the possibilities to be discovered in everyday occurences, an experience that readers everywhere will recognize.