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The First Arabic Novel to Win the International Booker Prize


By Jokha Alharthi

Abdallah ibn Sulayman is lucky. Born into “easy times, times of plenty,” he’s the son of a prosperous Omani merchant and married to a woman he adores. Yet he experiences his good fortune anxiously. The source of his father’s wealth haunts him; more than one lonely death weighs on his heart; and when he asks his wife, Mayya, if she loves him, she laughs “loud enough to shatter every wall in the new house.” On a flight from Muscat to Frankfurt, Abdallah is plagued by soul-rattling dreams. “Praise be to God who has blessed humankind with the ability to forget!” he declares on waking. In her novel “Celestial Bodies,” the Omani author Jokha Alharthi inhabits this liminal space between memory and forgetting: the dark tension between the stories we tell and the stories we know.

Originally entitled “Sayyidat al-Qamr” (“Ladies of the Moon”), the novel circles between Abdallah’s fitful, high-altitude dozing and the equally restless history of his ancestral home, the fictional desert village of al-Awafi. Now little more than an oasis of nostalgia (“What there is in al-Awafi that isn’t in Muscat is the graveyard”), it was once a hub for the slave trade, a practice that was not outlawed in Oman until 1970, as the gulf nation’s oil wealth radically transformed its political might, economic infrastructure and social hierarchies.

“Celestial Bodies” is the second of Alharthi’s three novels, but it’s a book of firsts: the first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English and the first novel in Arabic to be awarded the Man Booker International Prize (which Alharthi shared with her translator, the Oxford academic Marilyn Booth). Spanning several generations, from the final decades of the 19th century to the early years of the new millennium, it also marks an innovative reimagining of the family saga. Alharthi avoids the languid ease of chronology in favor of dozens of taut character studies, often no more than a page or two: despotic slave owners and the captive women who raise their children; kleptomaniacs and gossips; assured Bedouin businesswomen; violent poets; arms dealers; superstitious mothers and aunts who are so tall they’re “like a skeletal minaret.” These vignettes are sharp-eyed, sharp-edged and carefully deployed in a multigenerational jigsaw that’s as evasive as it is evocative. “The style is a metaphor for the subject,” explained the historian Bettany Hughes, who headed the Booker judging panel, “subtly resisting clichés of race, slavery and gender.”

Booth’s translation honors the elliptical rhythms of Arabic and the language’s rich literary heritage. She imbues the book’s numerous poetic extracts with lyricism and devotedly preserves the rhymes and cadences of its proverbs. (“The feet walk fast for the loving heart’s sake, but when you feel no longing, your feet drag and ache.”) Yet there is no doubt that this is a contemporary novel, insistent and alive.

Abdallah may be our guide, but — privileged and irresolute — he is anchored to the past; the divergent fates of three sisters draw Alharthi’s tale into the future. When watchful Mayya marries Abdallah she quashes a fierce, unrequited love for another man. She calls her first child London, a name that provokes family ridicule but is as much a promise to her daughter as it is an act of rebellion: Your world, it suggests, will be bigger than mine. Bookish Asma is “not in any hurry to embrace all the joys of love in one gulp of intoxicating ether”; when she marries an ambitious artist, she leverages his desire for status to complete her education. Finally, there is beautiful Khawla, whose version of love is “sublime and self-immolating”; but the cousin to whom she is promised has emigrated to Canada and no one expects him to return. There is no right way to love, the sisters’ stories suggest, just as there is no right — or single — way to be a woman.

Caught between the earth and the heavens, between “the sublime and the filth of creation,” the moon is, Alharthi writes, “the treasure house for what is on high and what lies below.” “Celestial Bodies” is itself a treasure house: an intricately calibrated chaos of familial orbits and conjunctions, of the gravitational pull of secrets.

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