Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.
The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society.
Narrated through the trepidations of three generations of an Omani family, and taking place across various decades, Celestial Bodies presents a gripping narrative, as well as an ethnographic take on fiction. Alharthi begins her novel with a poignant commentary on arranged marriage, and expectations concerning women in a patriarchal society. She introduces us to one of the main characters, Mayya, an illiterate seamstress, who is lost to her world of fabrics. We are vaguely aware that Mayya is frantically in love with a man named Ali who recently returned to Oman from London. Mayya, who is not a particularly religious woman, prays to God, nonetheless, that Ali becomes her betrothed. However, those prayers are short-lived as one day her mother comes in and announces: “Mayya, my dear! The son of Merchant Sulayman has asked for your hand.” Her mother does not expect a response from Mayya about whether or not she is interested. Following customs, Mayya is expected to fulfil this matrimony, especially since the groom is the son of one of the richest merchants in town. Mayya’s reaction, however, is visceral:
Spasms shot through Mayya’s body. Her mother’s hand suddenly felt unbearably heavy on her shoulder and her throat went dry. She couldn’t stop imagining her sewing thread winding itself around her neck like a hangman’s noose.
Despite her anxiousness, Mayya conceals Abdallah. A few months later she finds herself pregnant and, soon after, begins breaking with norms. Whilst commonplace for the females in her family to give birth with a midwife at home, Mayya insists that she deliver the baby at a hospital in Muscat, which she mistakenly pronounces as “Miskad.” She is reprimanded, first by her husband, who says: “you’d have my child slide out right into the hands of the Christians?” (commenting on the number of expatriates working at the hospital.) Her mother then expresses her dismay through a comparison of intergenerational norms. She informs Mayya that when she was born, the mother just squatted in the living room while the midwife prevented her from yelling, as it was “shameful.” Instead, the mother simply said “my Lord my Lord my Lord!” and delivered the baby. Mayya’s mother criticises the current women of Oman: “and to think that these days, women have their babies lying flat on their backs, and the men can hear their screams from the other end of the hospital.” Mayya’s decision to give birth in a modern hospital should be contextualized within Alharthi’s wider commentary on encounters with institutional modernity in Oman. Hospitals and modern medical services were introduced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries throughout the Arab region, either by French, British, or Italian colonial powers or by the Ottoman Empire’s modernization efforts, commonly known as the Tanzimât (1839-1876). Professor Khaled Fahmy, in his brilliant manuscript In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt, outlines the relationship hospitals occupied in relation to state subjects, particularly aiding the rise of the military institution with modern medicine focusing on treating soldiers and preventing outbreaks in military barracks. Fahmy also indicates that modern medicine was not seen as incompatible with Islamic norms, particularly by the lower classes. When it was opposed, it was due to the manner in which the authorities implemented it. Alharthi’s hospitals are not presented as incompatible with Islam but create resistance through exposure to new ways of living. From the 1960s onwards, oil-rich Oman could afford to operate and import various foreign hospitals into its major cities. This transformed the local imagination of what it meant to receive treatment for an “ailment.” The fictional village of al-Awafi represents an older, feudal socio-economic model of families understanding medicine as being part of the private household, and as existing within the confines of the village. Mayya’s decision alarmed the family because such a birth process would now situate them in an environment amongst foreign expatriates working within hospitals, exposing their private and familial situation to strangers. Thus, her decision should be read as a resistance to the patriarchal marriage arrangement she is confined to, as well as a way of attempting to establish herself as part of an urban class of modern society.
Mayya continues these acts of resistance, albeit in a more humorous light. She decides to name her newborn daughter London, after the British capital. The family is appalled and assumes that it is a temporary decision due to fatigue after birth. But Mayya persists with her decision, for which her mother in law reprimands her by saying: “Does anyone name their daughter London? This is the name of a place, my dear, a place that is very far away, in the land of the Christians.” At first, the reader might assume that Mayya named her daughter London to remind her of her lover Ali, who lived there. However, this humorous incident has a larger context. Oman fell under British protectorate rule in 1891 and London as a city occupies a significant place in the colonial and national imaginary. London is both a symbol of western modernity, and a place where ostentatious wealth culture is extended from contemporary Oman to the city of the former empire. Alharthi also relates the naming incident to colorism: when Mayya argues that another girl in Jaalan town is called London, the family indicates that it is a nickname which comes from the girl’s white, pale skin. In the end, Mayya affirms to them that London “may not have light skin like the merchant’s family does, but she’s still the daughter of this family. And her name is London.”
London comes of age in Muscat and, through her, we experience contemporary Oman. She becomes an outspoken doctor, yet falls into the materialism of a post-oil nation, occasionally demanding that her dad purchase her a “BMW.” She marries out of love, not out of convention, but this ends in divorce, shattering her expectations of romance. The family becomes enveloped by consumerism and loneliness, concentrating on enlarging the houses they live in, and importing more maids from the Philippines and India. Mayya forgets about sewing, forgets about her ambition to complete her education, and instead shifts her concerns towards domesticity. Desiring to move to bigger and bigger villas, she loses herself to mundane suburbia. Yet London retains her mother’s outspokenness, taking up the cause of her friend Salma, a rape victim whose family hushed up her case and hid it from the courts out of fear of a scandal. The most isolated and anxious member of the family remains Abdallah, who, caught between the worries over his autistic son and loveless marriage, and the taxing demands of a capitalist lifestyle in Muscat, drifts to his memories, unable to reconcile past and present. Abdallah often hallucinates and talks to the ghost of his deceased father. By discussing with him the looming problems in Oman—suicides, homicides, a stock market collapse, floods—he conveys to him the troubles of urban life.
Abdallah also serves as a conduit to discuss Oman’s past with regards to slavery and manumission. His father, Sulayman, was a ghastly figure and a rich merchant who maintained ties with illicit slave trade, despite its abolition in 1970. Describing Sulayman, Alharthi informs us that “to all appearances, dates were what occupied his workdays, although his real profits were built on the slave trade.” When Sulayman was on his deathbed, he himself would hallucinate, imagining that he was still in his house, looming over it as a patriarch. He’d yell “tie Sanjar up, tie him to the column on the east side of the courtyard, out there, out in front of the house. Anyone who gives that slave water or shade has to answer to me.” Abdallah would then kiss his hand, intercede, and repeat to him that the government had abolished slavery and that Sanjar is no longer his. Becoming enraged, Sulayman would yell:
Sanjar is mine, he doesn’t belong to the government. The government can’t free my slaves. I bought his mama Zarifa for twenty silver thalers! I fed her, when a sack of rice cost a hundred pure good silver coins.
Abdallah’s father represents the merchant who transitioned from an imperial socio-economic structure into one governed by the state. Deluded by power and wealth, he refuses to transition into a new society and world in which the individuals around him are free from slavery. He believes in his right to own and govern subjects from East Africa to Balochistan, and he understands his position in society through a master-slave relationship, not through a secular conception of a businessman in a nation state. This relationship also manifests itself in his dealings with his son. Abdallah, emasculated and controlled by his father, can’t make simple decisions, such as moving his family from the village to Muscat, until after the latter’s death. Traumatized by his father’s behavior, Abdallah does not become a quintessential patriarch himself, but transforms into an accommodating, generous husband in an otherwise loveless marriage with Mayya.
The theme of slavery in the novel should be read within Oman’s wider history and its complex relationship with the Indian Ocean, particularly Zanzibar. Zanzibar is often romanticized for its transnational imperial geography, as well as for the diverse migrants who have passed through and settled in it. Being part of an Omani imperial dynasty, it was governed under different racial hierarchies of Arab, Shirazi, Indian, and African. This did not mean that Arabs didn’t intermarry with, for example, Africans, as that happened even at the royal level. However, tribal and ancestral alliances were important and eventually exacerbated under British rule. This system came to an end in 1964 when a bloody revolution sought to empower Africans who were perceived as the bottom of the hierarchy. The Arabs who fled relocated to Oman in the 1970s and, due to their high level of education and royal lineage, joined the upper echelons of society in Muscat. However, the relationship between Zanzibar and Oman, particularly in relation to slavery, remains unresolved and contested. Despite the evidence of a plantation economy in Zanzibar, there are still those who deny the existence of slavery there, often labelling it as a different and older “familial system.” Beyond the confines of official rule, an indirect pirate economy arose that would kidnap children and able adults from East Africa before selling them into slavery— exactly the case of Sanjar and his family. Throughout the novel, Alharthi introduces us to the painful history of this illicit economy. We hear about Habib, Sanjar’s father who abandoned him at the age of six in order to return to his homeland. It did not surprise the family, as they had always heard him say that he “would go back to that land from which he’d been snatched away, back to his freedom, plundered by pirates and merchants.” Habib’s decision is then replicated by Sanjar, who also leaves Oman to work in Kuwait. Halfway through the novel, Sanjar’s mother reprimands him for choosing the name “Rasha” for his daughter (an unusual name for a slave family) and then confronts him about his move to Kuwait. His mother calls him ungrateful to have abandoned the family of the merchant “Sulayman” who raised him. Sanjar angrily replies:
No, Zarifa, no! Merchant Sulayman has no claim on me. We are free – the law says so, free, Zarifa. Open your eyes. The world has changed but you just keep on saying the same words over and over: ya hababi, ya sidi, my master, my honoured master. While everybody’s gotten educated and gotten jobs, you’ve stayed exactly where you always were, the slave of Merchant Sulayman like that is all there is.
Zarifa, who herself was romantically involved with merchant Sulayman, is unable to understand this modern conception of citizenship that her son is speaking of. She sees him as ungrateful and delusional, like his father who would always tell her “we are free.” Co-opted and convinced by the only system she has ever known, she is unable to imagine a new, national way of being in Omani society. Together with Sanjar, they represent what the coming of manumission meant to a society in transition.
In Celestial Bodies, Alharthi takes us on a bewildering journey that is both specific to Oman and relatable in its experiences. Narrating an interplay between past and present, Alharthi brings to the surface the troubles and contradictions of maintaining traditions in a modern society built on the energy economy. Whilst riddled with vignettes of Oman’s history, Alharthi also presents us with contemporary situations shared across societies, from loneliness to intergenerational trauma. This feat could not have been accomplished without the English translation by Marilyn Booth. Having read the novel in both Arabic and English, Booth presents a succinct and poetic translation that is able to capture the intense moments Alharthi presents, as well as the various vernacular dialects used in Oman. Booth engaged not only in a linguistic translation, but also in an emotional one, in which she is able to bring to life the specter of history and the angst of modernity.
MK Harb is an anthropologist and writer from Beirut, Lebanon. He received his Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and his research focuses on cities, architecture, and escapist consumer culture in the Arab world. His work has been published in Columbia University’s Journal of Politics and Society, Hyperallergic, Art Review Asia, and Reorient Magazine. He is currently working on a novel pertaining to the energy economy, migration and the hallucinatory experience of post-oil Arab cities.
Read more essays on the Asymptote blog:
- Poetic Solidarity Across the Himalayan Divide in Burning the Sun’s Braids
- Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two
- Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part One