‘Excuse me, do you have a copy of ‘Celestial Bodies’? It just won the Man Booker International Prize and it was written by Jokha Al Harthi.’
Truth be told, I hadn’t expected to receive a positive response immediately (at the least, I expected a double take), because I wasn’t in Oman at the time. I was in a country where the Arabic naming styles of ‘Al’ and ‘Bin’ are never used, and where the usage of such words was considered decidedly foreign.
Nevertheless, that she had won the Man Booker International Prize meant Jokha Al Harthi’s book had been accorded a special place in this sprawling bookshop. I’d had my eye on this book for quite some time – ever since it had been included on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize’s longlist, and if wanting to read the book wasn’t motivation enough, the lovely contrast of the stunning purple-and-blue sky studded with stars with the traditional Omani village setting of brown homes and swaying palm trees certainly did invite potential readers to reach out for this book.
But while the cover did accurately portray the setting of ‘Celestial Bodies’, it was the picture of the three women clad in traditional Omani garb, their backs turned away from the reader as they headed down the long road home, that turned out the be the centrepiece of Jokha Al Harthi’s wonderfully written book.
‘Celestial Bodies’ is set in the fictional Omani village of Al Awafi, and tells the tale of the development of Oman through the ages, from the eyes of three young women. Of the three sister, Mayya, the eldest, marries first. Her younger one, Asma, marries out of a sense of societal duty, and the third, Khawla, refuses to see all suitors, waiting instead for her intended, who has gone to Canada.
Although I had indeed bought the book, the tedious task of adulting (a term used by people who don’t quite feel like adults, but still have to do all the adult things) meant I had to wait for a while before delving into the world Jokha had so amazingly constructed. Free time came in the form of the plane ride home and about three and a half hours to kill.
After watching the sun’s rays pierce the clouds for about 10 minutes, I decided to shut myself off from the outside world and explore the world of ‘Celestial Bodies’. The novel opens during a time when Oman is on the cusp of modernisation. The capital, Muscat, is just being developed, and people still prefer staying in their spacious village homes.
In Al Awafi, a new school has just opened, and many of the children are excited to learn. The older members of the family, though, busy themselves with the tasks of the household. While some head to the village or family wells to draw water, just a stone’s throw away from the date groves and farms that provide income and sustenance to several of the households in the village, others set about helping their elders preparing the evening meal.
While the kitchen was used to make family meals, it takes vast cooking pots over beds of fiery coal to make the meal in question: Mayya, the eldest, is getting married to Abdallah, who has specifically requested her hand in marriage from her father. He plans on moving her to the new city of ‘Muscut’, where many new homes and job opportunities are arriving.
But both Mayya, who loves to sew clothes, and Abdallah, who was brought up by a stern, strict disciplinarian father after his mother passed away, are hiding something from the other. Abdallah is having a hard time dealing with the harsh manner in which he was brought up.
Recurring nightmares, where he relives the anguish and agony of a father who did not hesitate to beat him, and friends who often ill-treat him after first luring him on the pretext of befriending him, are unfortunately commonplace in Abdallah’s psyche.
More often than not, while he does sleep, he can often be heard pleading in terror to the people who cause pain to him without a second thought. He wakes up to the derisory, insulting laughs of his friends, who do not understand the mental harm he is undergoing, so much so that he takes any laughter aimed at him to be that of an insulting nature, even if it is the musical giggle of his wife who is genuinely laughing at his jokes.
Jokha’s writing to not just express the pain Abdallah is undergoing, but also capture the helplessness he feels by not being able to share his thoughts, is so good that you can actually sympathise with Abdallah, particularly if you too have undergone the angst that he has.
Her writing is so sharp and so creative that as you envelope yourself in the world of ‘Celestial Bodies’, it is hard to not picture yourself in the midst of the scenes in these chapters, whether it is the family house in Al Awafi, the new whitewashed home in Muscat, or even the long drives taken by the daughters in their new car as they cruise along Seeb beach.
But while Abdullah tries to grasp and wrestle with his pain, life goes on outside. The girls’ nanny comes to their home to share gossip with the men and womenfolk of the household, the children return from school, and the village hatches dreams of a better life, while Oman continues its inexorable march towards progress and modernisation.
But while advancement and development are on the horizon, the traditions, cultures and beliefs that form the bedrock of Omani society continue to act as an anchor among the people, ensuring that they don’t forget their past as they move towards the future.
A riveting read that is hard to put down once you pick it up – indeed, I only stopped to read it once the plane had landed in Muscat, and it made me appreciate the capital all the more after I’d read the version described in Jokha’s book, often superimposing the characters she’d created over the places she’d mentioned – ‘Celestial Bodies’ is a book so good that you can read it over and over and over again, and is sure to make both those who are in the country, and want to visit it, all the more appreciative of it.
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The Short and Skinny
Name: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Al Harthi,
translated by Marilyn Booth
What it’s about:
In an Oman on the cusp of modernisation, three young women, Mayya, Khawla and Asma are at a crossroads in their lives as well. Told through the eyes of the three sisters, Celestial Bodies is a story of Oman’s progress into the modern world as it continues to honour its traditional past.
Languages: English and Arabic
Where to buy: Available at all leading bookstores in Oman and online
Amazon Rating: 4.2/5