Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi (2010)
translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (2018)
Sandstone Press (2018)
243 pp

The moon is the treasure house for what is on high and what lies below. The moon moves between high and low, between the sublime and the filth of creation. Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world.

This year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize is an interesting choice by the judges, a book whose strengths lie in its deep cultural insights and clever construction. Based on the story of two Omani families, brought together by marriage, and a lengthy cast of surrounding characters (the family trees at the start is invaluable to the reader) it gives, by its impact on the characters and by the analogy of their changing lives, a fascinating insight into the history and modernization of Oman over four generations, across the 20th century and into the early 21st.

The repercussion of the 1920 Treaty of Sib, a treaty “between the Sultan of Muscat and the Imamate of Oman, recognising Omani autonomy within the interior regions of Muscat and Oman, which was a British protectorate at the time” (see Wikipedia), serves one key motif. This treaty essentially divided the country between the more cosmopolitan, secular, pro-British Muscat tradition of the coast, ruled by the Sultan, and the more traditional, insular, and tribal interior, ruled by an Imam according to the ideological tenets of Ibadism.

The book is written in over sixty short, almost flash, chapters (c. 4 pages each), and the narration alternates between the first-person narration by one character, Abdallah, and a more conventional third-person omniscient narrator who tells the story from the perspective of a number of the other characters.

The narration also roams in time across the years in non-linear fashion taking us within a few pages from traditional rituals to appease the djinn to the worship of Gucci, and from traditional Bedouin tented communities and the small (fictitious) village of al-Awafi to luxury malls in modern-day Muscat. But it is also striking how many of the old traditions are still key in the 21st century, and how much agency the female characters still had in the days of arranged marriages.

Abdallah’s story is at the heart of the novel. His sections are narrated from his confused thoughts in the last hours of a flight to Frankfurt, in the early 2000s. Afflicted with a headache, he drifts in and out of sleep, while he attempts to piece his life together:

The airplane hurtled forward, pitching into heavy clouds. I could not get my eyes to close even though I knew it would be hours before we reached Frankfurt.

I don’t remember . . . I can’t tie it all together, all these things that happened.

Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, dozes off for a few moments. As he wakes up he is still half-talking in his sleep. Don’t hang me upside down in the well, don’t. Please, no! Don’t!

This last, a recurring nightmare, a reference to a childhood incident when he was severely — and he felt unfairly — punished by his strict father, Sulayman. Abdallah is a businessman, dabbling in property and the stock market with mixed success, from a long line of ostensibly traders of dates, but in reality his grandfather was an arms trader, and his father diversified into the slave trade: slavery was only officially abolished in Oman in the 1960s.

In the 1890s a major slump in the Omani date trade drove a young merchant by the name of Hilal to seek a new source of profit that would let him benefit from all the mercantile experience he’d already accumulated. Resourceful Hilal realised quickly that the arms trade was the smart alternative.

It was Sulayman who inherited everything: his father’s mercantile savvy, quick mind, tall and imposing figure, grave dignity, and the large house built of plaster – as well as his nervous disposition and the title of Merchant. But Sulayman did not trade in weapons. To all appearances, dates were what occupied his work days, although his real profits were built on the slave trade.

Abdallah’s mother also died shortly after his birth, but in rather mysterious circumstances, and he was brought up by Zafira, a Sulayman’s former slave who was also his long-term mistress (pre-dating his marriage), who was married off to another slave (who later escaped the country), and who was now a servant of the family. One of Zafira’s grandparents was kidnapped from his Kenyan village by pirates and sold into slavery in Oman via Zanzibar.

Zarifa is one of the novel’s more colorful characters, fiercely protective of Abdallah, a zealous guardian of the traditional rituals and given to quoting rhyming proverbs. The following volley of words comes as she enters Abdallah’s mother-in-law’s home to visit his wife, Mayya, after the birth of her first child, using the occasion to also complain about her own daughter-in-law:

The proverb-giver says: Give the sick what they yearn for, but it’s God alone will restore.

But why not some salted fish, since dear Abdallah already brought her forty hens? She must have her strength back!

Even that viper of Sanjar’s: he brought her a live chicken out of the goodness of his heart, and honey and butter too, and still she doesn’t want me to cook for her.

The proverb-spinner says: When the ass’s belly is full of food, then and there he kicks you good.

Abdallah is haunted not just by the nightmare of the well and his troubled relationship with his bullying father, but also confusion as to what happened to his mother and guilt that he lost touch with Zarifa after his father’s death, and didn’t even attend her funeral:

I went to my father’s funeral after he died in hospital. When my uncle died of a heart attack, and Zayd drowned in the flood, and Maneen was killed by a bullet, and Hafiza died of AIDS and Marwan killed himself with his father’s dagger, I went to their funerals, and I also attended funerals for my friends’ fathers and mothers, but I didn’t go to Zarifa’s. Simply, no one told me. She got ill without my knowing and she died and was buried and I still didn’t know.

The other key family in the novel, that of Abdallah’s wife, is from a traditional Omani background and, the boys in the Abdallah’s generation ill-fated with health, the family line consists of three very different sisters:

A room at the other end of the courtyard would mean Asma could be alone with her books, as she preferred, and Khawla with her mirror, as she liked. As for Mayya, usually she did her sewing in the sitting room, anyway, except when it was filled with women and her mother signalled that she must leave. She must go to the girls’ room.

Quiet, enigmatic Mayya seems only to care about sewing, and so it is a surprise to her family when Abdallah, after visiting their house, makes a traditional proposal for her hand:

Her mother hadn’t given the matter of love any particular thought, since it never would have occurred to her that pale Mayya, so silent and still, would think about anything in this mundane world beyond her threads and the selvages of her fabrics, or that she would hear anything other than the clatter of her sewing machine.

Unknown to both her mother and Abdallah, though Mayya harbors an idealized love (albeit one she pursues only in her mind, as she sews):

When Mayya saw Ali bin Khallaf he had just returned empty-handed from years of study in London. It didn’t matter to Mayya that he had no diploma: the sight of him electrified her.

She faithfully obeys her parents and marries Abdallah but gives him little affection, that reserved instead for her children, naming her first daughter, to everyone’s shock, London. London, born in 1981, is in her mid-twenties as the book ends and is herself divorcing after a love marriage, fiercely disapproved of by Mayya, goes badly wrong.

The second sister, Asma shares her father Azzan’s love for poetry and literature. And Azzan himself has a long-running passionate affair with a Bedouin woman Najiya, nicknamed The Moon, one fuelled by traditional love poetry:

Azzan held Najiya’s face between his hands as he repeated the lines that Majnun had said to his Layla.

Light the dimness with your glow once the full moon dips and shine in the sun’s stead whilst lazy dawn tarries
Your radiance outdoes the brightest sun there be: it can never thieve your smile, steal your pearly mouth
The resplendent night, your countenance! tho’ the full moon rise a moon bereft of your breast, of this graceful throat I see
Whence would the morning sun ever find a ready kohl-stick to etch for its pale face these languid eyes of yours?
What starry siren can mime coy Layla when her form spirals away or her eyes, the winsome startled pools of the sands’ wild mare?

(from “Layla and Majnun,” a 12th century narrative poem composed in 584/1188 by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi)

Amma doesn’t so much have an ideal love, as idealists love herself. As she reads through her father’s extensive library, one books in particular appeal:

There was also the blue-spined book called Kalila and Dimna, the fables said to have been authored originally in Sanskrit by the Indian philosopher Bidpai, translated into Persian, and then translated into Arabic by the scholar Abdallah Ibn al-Muqaffa — a diminutive book no taller than a hand span, looking more like a little school notebook — printed at Sadir Press in Beirut in 1927.

There was one passage from Kalila that Asma particularly liked to read out loud to Khawla, for its lyrical beauty, created by the repeated aas and haas, the feminine possessive pronoun at the end of so many nouns. Qaala al-ghuraab: za’amuu anna ardan min aradi . . . The crow said: They claimed that after the passage of years, lands where the elephants dwelt went dry. The water grew scarce, the wells dried up, the vegetation was killed off, the trees withered away and the elephants grew very thirsty . . .

As she always did, before turning away from the bookshelf Asma riffled through the few pages remaining from a book whose title she did not know. She had kept it apart from the other fragile, deteriorating books in the storeroom. In these pages she read that text, though she already knew it by heart, even if she did not understand it at all.

Some of those who fancy themselves philosophers claim that God, Mighty is He, created every soul in the shape of a ball. And then He split every one of these spheres into two, and apportioned to each and every human body one half. It is decreed that each body will meet the body that holds the other half of that rent soul. Between the two a passion arises from that ancient bond. From one human being to the next, the effect of this union will vary, according to the delicacy of each person’s nature.

This union of the spheres — the need to find one’s other half — is a key motif in her life, and when her family receives a proposal for marriage for her and the younger sister Khawla from the two sons of “Emigrant Issa” she accepts it, and marries the artist Khalid, throwing herself enthusiastically into their marriage, only to find that his art is his real love:

She began to realise that there was no way she could be Khalid’s other half, once upon a time sundered but which (he assured her) he had now found. This was because Khalid, on his own, took on the likeness of a celestial sphere complete unto itself, orbiting only along its already defined path.

Although she finds peace by forming her own orbit, the husband and wife forming a system of two spheres that orbit around each other.

Meanwhile the vain, rather shallow, Khawla rejects the proposal, with her father’s permission although to her mother’s horror, in favor of her long-lost love, who emigrated some time ago to Canada, but for who she is prepared to wait until he comes home.

Emigrant Issa’s story itself explains how the uneasy truce that governed Oman since the 1920 Treaty eventually unwound in battles in the 1950s before being uneasily reconciled again in the 1970s:

Issa, had acquired his nickname of ‘Emigrant’ by leaving Oman for Egypt in 1959 after the defeat of Imam Ghalib al-Hina’i in the war of the Jabal al-Akhdar. Like nearly two thousand other Omani families who fled, fearing the English and their ruthless manipulations of power, Issa hoisted the burden of his little family onto his shoulders and settled them and himself in Cairo. His sons Khalid and Ali finished their educations there, and his daughter Ghaliya was born there. When Oman’s new government offered an amnesty in the 1970s, asking the fugitives to return and share in constructing a new awakening for a united Oman, Issa the Emigrant refused the offer outright, his head high in exile.

But there Issa expresses his sadness by reciting 19th century Omani poetry with his son, as Khalid recalls:

Stabs of lightning pierce me like the wail of the grieved cameleer
Why, sad one, are you somnolent and dull?
Its grim swords clove the heavens, in an army of clouds to rush onward
O homeland sorely missed, clouds and rain over all.

And then when I got to certain other lines he made me repeat them tens of times.

Those places in which I could not stay on and on
Yet in my hope-filled mind, still they reside
Far away have I gone but never have I left them:
But then, how many times is body torn from soul!

Then he would take over, reciting the next section of the poem himself, but only getting so far, always as far as the same line.

I departed them, overruled, and I could not prevail
No person can surmount what is decreed

It all makes for a wonderful picture of a society of which I had little knowledge.

If there is a weakness, it is at the pure story level. The sheer multiplicity of characters in the third-person sections makes it hard to invest in any of their individual stories, many of which are in any case left rather hanging — as an example, Mayya’s idealized love Ali bin Khallaf is never mentioned again — and the use of a third-person narrator means that their voices are less distinct. But this is definitely a worthwhile book.

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