Anna Knox, who spent four years living in Saudi Arabia, has been waiting for a book like Celestial Bodies – a story that shakes up entrenched ideas of women in the Middle East.
Early on in Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, Abdullah, son of Sulayman the Merchant, describes his family home in the village of Al-Wafi with “large rooms that had accumulated over time, one built up against another, and each one opening out onto the next.” It’s an apt description for the novel itself, made up as it is of connected individual’s stories that accumulate piecemeal and gradually, moving back and forward in time, until opening out to form an extraordinary whole.
I have been in dwellings in the Middle East like this, which are both cloistered from and bared to the light, and reading Celestial Bodies felt very much like being in one again. While her translator, Marilynne Booth, rightly warns readers against understanding Arabic literature in general as “a road map to the Arab world rather than first and foremost as art”, Alharti’s ability to transport her reader to another place as well as into another way of looking at the world is powerful.
This slim, fragmented story of a family is the Omani writer and teacher’s third novel, and the first translated into English. It won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, the first by a Middle Eastern writer – and more pointedly, by a hijabi female –to do so. And it is one of the first translations I’ve read from the region that doesn’t conform, ultimately, to a Western imperialist view of the Islamic world, but instead draws on a deeply rooted understanding of life in the Gulf which, in the judges’ words “avoids every stereo-type you might expect.”
The first ‘room’ we enter in the novel is Mayya’s. She is at her sewing machine, and in love. By page two she is engaged, though not to the object of her affection. On page four the wedding is approaching, and then, the next line reads: “After the wedding, she returned to praying.” There is no scene, not even a sentence, referring to the wedding itself. This signals something. Most novels which open with a lead-up to a wedding will describe the wedding, perhaps especially if it’s a wedding the woman is not in favour of. But Mayaa is simply married. What we have instead, a paragraph later, is the story of Mayaa’s birth, told by her mother, in plenty of detail: “So I stood straight, clinging to the pole, until you slipped out of me, ya Mayya, right into my sirwal.” And then the story of Mayya’s own daughter’s birth at a hospital in Muscat where the baby slides right out “‘into the hands of the Christians”. She names the baby London.
All this in seven pages, signalling, certainly, that the novel is interested in showing the rapid changes Omani society has undergone in two generations, but also that this might not be the story we expect.
We are not prompted in any way to pity Mayya for marrying a man she is not in love with, or for marrying ‘young’. In fact, in the novel’s world she might even be regarded as fortunate. Relationships in the novel based on romantic connections – such as Mayya’s father’s with Qamar, a Bedouin woman, and her younger sister Khawla’s with her childhood sweetheart, and indeed London’s with her fiancé – lead to disappointment at best. Mayya’s life is not enviable, but neither is she an object of pity. And she is not powerless. She insists on a hospital birth for her baby, which she gets against her husband’s and her family’s will, and despite everyone’s protests and insistence that she change it, the creative act of giving her daughter such an unusual, un-Arabic name, is not overridden.
The absence of this wedding does not mean marriage is unimportant in the novel, or that we don’t get a wedding scene (we do, and it’s great). Marriage stories are central, in fact, to the lives of those in the novel, specifically the three sisters, Mayya, Asma, and Khawala, as are stories of pregnancy, births, childhoods, and deaths.
Because no-one’s story is told all at once, and no-one’s is told linearly, we return again and again to Mayya’s early days of motherhood, the first 40 of which, in Omani tradition, are spent at her parents’ home. There, she is looked after by her own mother as well as sisters, aunts, and other local women, and her only task is to eat the food she is brought, and to nurse her daughter. Alharthi gives an achingly real portrayal of the confusing mess of love, sadness, fear and exhaustion that a first baby, or perhaps any baby, engenders, and that in this supportive, restful environment (one hopes) a new mother can readily process. When her younger sister asks her eagerly if motherhood “is the greatest feeling in the world,” Alharthi writes of Mayya that: ”All she felt was exhaustion, pains in her back and belly, and an urgent need to bathe.” I could relate.
The novel privileges narratives like this, and while in no way romanticising them, also asserts marriage, pregnancy and mothering as worthy aspirations in a way that feels almost defiant.
Here’s Asma on her wedding day, standing before a mirror: “Now, Asma lowered her eyes to stare at her stomach, flat and taut in the mirror. She couldn’t keep back a grin as she imagined it rounding out… she could see herself vaguely as an old woman standing beside an aged Khalid as dozens of sons and daughters and grandchildren gathered around them.”
More than anything, it is Alharthi’s ability to grant individuals the power of their own voices against chorused stereo-types, which I found transformative. Nowhere is this better exemplified than when Asma recalls the story of Muzzien-Wife’s teen-aged marriage when the village women gather to admire the purchases for her own upcoming wedding. “WAllahi, my dear, I wasn’t more than fourteen,” the now widowed wife of the village’s ‘Judge’ (the man who sounds the call to prayer and also helps interpret the Qur’an) begins. But what follows is not the story of a victim, or a child violated. Instead, the bride’s silver bracelets are repeatedly put to rather violent use against her husband, on the advice of her mother. The story we anticipated is upended, humourous. The woman vicious, the mother in control. After a month, Muzzien-Wife goes on, “what was written by the hand of fate happened. I told you he was careful to be understanding and gentle, I was just a young girl, and the world has to move ahead.” The Judge died young, and Muzzien-Wife loved him so much, she tells Asma, she could not marry again. It’s the only happy love story in the book.
Just as she breaks stereo-types and expectations through her narratives, Alharthi breaks every rule I ever learned in creative writing school. She shifts narrative viewpoint constantly (at one point between three characters in a two-page scene), uses both first- and third-person narration, and changes her location in time with each short chapter. At first I resisted this jumpiness, but it quickly became a fluidity that made the novel sing, and it is perhaps what also works to evoke such a strong sense of place. That the present moment is always full of the future and the past is something I try occasionally to convey in my own writing. Alharthi achieves it constantly; it is her base-line. At one point Abdallah asks: “Where is this place called forgetting?” Narrating his story on a flight between Oman and and Frankfurt, he physically embodies a borderless space in which time is not fixed and memory floats.
In one particular scene, Mayya is alone in the bed holding her baby daughter, London. Alharthi shifts seamlessly within the paragraph to the internal thoughts of that same daughter 20-something years in the future: “Ahmad’s face visited London insistently before his features faded so completely that she began doubting he was a real person with whom she had had a real relationship, that they had actually met, then also that they had really and truly broken up. London would try to hold his image in her mind but at the same time to banish it.” Immediately following this paragraph, Alharthi writes: “Mayya stroked her daughter’s forehead and touched her wiry hair.” We have quite literally returned to the outside of baby London’s head. This poetic compression and expansion of time and viewpoint within the confines of such an intimate scene is remarkable.
Abdallah, Mayya’s husband, is the only first-person narrator in the book, a choice which works to expose him as the emotional, vulnerable and romantic character he is. Even the font of his chapters gapes wide open, compared to the nicely contained Times New Roman in the rest of the book. And his story also works to subvert expectations.
Early on he recalls with a sense of violation how the maids’ “hands wandered now and then onto my body”. Chased by a slave girl when he was 14 who “fell on me without any advance warning”, he pushed her away, but a few days later his mother-figure, Zarifa, also a slave woman, “was trying to push me into having sex with one or another daughter of the slave families that had long inhabited my father’s household”. In one swoop, the more familiar image of the subjected Muslim woman is turned on its head.
That these sexual acts of dominance are made by slave-women against a free man is significant. Slavery was only abolished in Oman in 1970. In a piece in the Gulf publication The National, Alharthi referred to slavery as a taboo subject, commenting that while some Omanis appreciated her writing about it, others would have preferred her not to.
But the way she writes about slavery is not only subversive in the Omani context. Each of the slave character’s stories is complex and divergent, full of both power and powerlessness, and deeply humanising in a way that narratives of oppression seldom are. A young Salima – Mayya’s mother – while privileged in many ways, is jealous of the slave girl’s “freedoms” to dance at weddings, to sew clothes for their dolls.
Zarifa, a physically large woman whose personality is equal to her size, dominates the novel more than any other character. Born into slavery, she works her position to greatly benefit herself, and raises Abdallah like a son (and may have something to do with his mother’s disappearance). But she struggles to accept her freedom when it is granted, and remains in Master Sulayman’s house as his mistress instead of following her own son to a new life.
Nothing about this novel is black and white. Even Sulayman, Abdallah’s father, the wealthy slave-owner who hangs his own son upside-down in a well, slowly becomes someone to sympathise with, as well as to fear and dislike. Our confusion over him makes him real. Alharthi achieves this over and over in the novel not by arguing or by challenging but by telling – stories that are complex and contradictory, as real people’s stories are. It is this that makes the novel such a feat of theist humanism, if that’s a thing.
“Yet I felt the place wasn’t big enough for me,” Abdullah goes on to say, after describing his family home. This, also, is true of the novel whose brevity, while beautiful, cuts short several of the stories, which feel at the conclusion like unfinished rooms. But then again, perhaps there is as much in what might have been said as what wasn’t, as Alharthi puts it in this haunting sentence: “Mayya considered silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection. When you were utterly quiet and still, you were likeliest to hear accurately what others were saying.”
Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi (Sandstone, $27) is available at Unity Books.
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