Jokha Alharthi: Complicated Relations Motivate Me To Write
Omani author Jokha Alharthi, recipient of the 2019 The International Booker Prize, has recently published her latest novel, The Silk of the Ghazale (Harir Alghazala).
A global audience, who became aware of Alharthi’s work through the English translation of her novel Celestial Bodies, now eagerly await the publication of the English version of her novel Narinja, or The Bitter Orange Tree.
Editor‑in‑Chief of Sada Rafiah Al Talei interviewed the novelist and asked her about her views and opinions as a female Arab writer. The interview is complemented by an article by Kevin Blankinship, Assistant Professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, which provides a general introduction to Alharthi’s works.
Your latest novel The Silk of the Ghazale is a multi-generational saga that tells the story of major social transformations in Oman – it seems to emulate Celestial Bodies in that sense. What motivates you to depict these transformations in your writings?
I think I’m interested in these transformations because human relations in general intrigue me; the intricacies and complexities, whether within a familial or a societal setting, pique my interest. Reflecting on generational struggles allows me to delve deeper into these relations and to understand them better. Looking at Omani society in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th century, one can hardly discern any differences in customs, traditions, methods of self-expression or even sense of fashion that prevailed then. Then suddenly, with the discovery of oil, a new chapter of Oman’s history was launched. Omanis found themselves, in a very brief span of time, forced to brave tremendous changes that took other nations centuries to assimilate.
“Omanis face enormous changes that took other nations centuries to assimilate.”
Nowadays even the meaning of the word “generation” is changing. For example, my generation is entirely different from that of my sister, who is only eight years younger than I am. The values that I lived by when I was a student are different from the ones she now follows. It is these changes, and the way people are adapting to them, that fascinate me and compel me to write.
It is interesting to me, as a writer, to observe that Omani families who wouldn’t allow their daughters to attend a co-ed university program only 10 years ago, are now willing to send their younger ones to study abroad on their own. These enormous changes in Oman, and in the entire world, always make me think about the idea of generational differences and extended families and the kind of intertwining and complicated relations they create.
You mentioned that you are not a feminist, but your novels represent strong, capable women who are able to change their lives and the lives of others. What does feminism entail more than this that you reject?
Yes, I might have once mentioned that I don’t like to be labeled as a feminist, but this was in a specific context; I hate classification and I can’t bear the idea of being restrained within the contours of a certain ideology that I might not be able to uphold in the future. I’d rather my novels live free of all labels, not only of feminism per se.
Perhaps my position on this matter has been formed after reading the works of some female Arab writers, particularly in the Levant and the Arabian Gulf. Reading them made me develop a certain aversion to the exaggerated victimhood cries of feminists. I grew to dislike the loudness of their rhetoric that assumes that all women are necessarily oppressed, and that all men are necessarily oppressors, and the monochromatic brush with which they paint the entire world.
I detest all writings that claim to be defending the “helpless vulnerable creatures” women are thought to be, it goes against the way I was brought up and the way I see the world.
As for supporting the struggle of women for rights and recognition, who can dispute with that? It is the duty of every individual, be it a man or a woman, to stand against all injustices and to support all freedoms.
I think it is essential for young girls to learn about their rights and understand their position in this world, that is why I gave my teenage daughter a copy of We Should All Be Feminists, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so that we can discuss it together.
I like Adichie because she doesn’t confuse feminism and femininity, she wears heels and likes make-up and men, and still, she is a vehement feminist. The feminist movement has undergone huge transformations over the years – that is why it would be wrong to put Virginia Woolf , Simone de Beauvoir, Fatema Mernissi and Nawal El Saadawi in the same basket. To me feminism is about equality, and this is how I explain it.
For me, The Silk of the Ghazale ( Harir Alghazala) is a profoundly feminist novel. How would you categorize its subject matter?
Hemingway says it is hard enough to write a novel, let alone explain it. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to explain our writings. The Silk of the Ghazale attempts to offer a glimpse into the life of three contemporary girls, growing up under various circumstances and who are faced with different choices on how to live and present themselves in Omani society.
I wanted to delve into their minds, see the world through the eyes of Harir (Silk) and Ghazel, and explain how they understand life, people, love, friendship, emotional safety and how they react to interchanging future and past possibilities and interpretations.
In Celestial Bodies, I told the story of a traditional rural patriarchal society, but I never lost sight of the fact that relationships can never be unilateral; they cannot be total bliss or total hell. And while many people thrive with love, care, and safety, some people suffer from the same unsought privileges.
“The patriarchal system victimizes males as well as females.”
It is rather unfortunate to see that even young men, in the bloom of their youth, cannot challenge the patriarchal authority any more than young women can.
Men suffer even when they appear to be in control of their lives; if you look at the character of Abdallah in Celestial Bodies, who is the head of his household, and who seems to be a man in a man’s world, you’ll discover that he cannot escape the ghost of his controlling father or the demands of a harsh society that expects him to uphold all the predetermined rules that define masculinity.
It is true that my novels may be heavily populated by female characters, but I speak for all people regardless of what they are.
Do you believe that female literary work has essentially distinct themes, narratives, and perspectives? Or do you think they need to work harder to express a specific viewpoint?
I wouldn’t say “essentially distinct”, but women sometimes write more sensitively than men do about themes that touch them the most. And I say sometimes because there are times when women adapt a masculine viewpoint and talk about other women like men do. In the Arabic literary heritage, we have a case in point in The Unique Necklace (Al-Iqd al-Farid) when Umm Issam Al-Kandiah describes Umm Ias using masculine vocabulary.
In The Silk of the Ghazale you mention specific Omani cities and locations like Muscat, Lekhwair, and Sahar, but Sharaat Bat is not a real place in Oman, and neither was Al-Awafi in Celestial Bodies. Why do you set your stories at made up locations?
I believe that Muscat and Sahar have an urban composition that is essentially unique to them, but small villages like Al-Awafi and Sharaat Bat, that have contrasting geographic compositions, could be representative of all Omani villages. And by the way Sharaat Bat does exist on the map of Oman!
Do you believe that literature can play a role in creating a common identity within a community or a country?
I don’t think I can be that optimistic when it comes to what literature can do, especially in Arabic communities; who reads literature?
Literature is not a popular form of art that can create a common identity – as a matter of fact it is very elitist, and so are its consumers. Even when an Arabic novel is successful and sells thousands of copies, it could never compare to its English counterparts. Look at Celestial Bodies and the tremendous impact it had when it was translated into English, readership is low in Arabic, even for best-seller authors.
Thus the question remains unanswered I’m afraid, and I don’t think anyone can answer it.
Do you think then that literature can help readers improve their knowledge and understanding of different communities?
Actually, I do. The reviews on Celestial Bodies, for example, precisely show that. People were surprised by the book and some even said they had no idea a country named Oman existed. So, even unintentionally, the writer does help increase the readers’ knowledge.
When I wrote my novel, I never thought that it would be translated and that people from all around the world would know about Oman, but this is exactly what happened. Just like people learned about Japan by reading Kawabata, Mishima and Tanizaki, and Colombia by reading Márquez, and Russia by reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
However, we need to remember that the Japan Mishima portrays is different than the one Murakami gives us, and that Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo is different to that of Wagieh Ghali. That is why I believe we should approach the idea of gaining cultural insight through literature with caution.
Assuming that literature assimilates reality in all its details is simply wrong because it deprives literature of its aesthetic values. Literature should not reflect reality; it should create a convergent or a parallel one.
You see, writing as a dream can change reality, the secret as Herman Hesse tells us lies in the fact that “words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.” Besides, what would be the point of writing if we did not have the freedom to manipulate reality, and even change it, through the creative process.
Literature, in my opinion, should explore the mysteries of our existence, it should ask questions and not give answers, and it should never reiterate what is already known or told. Literature should illuminate our existence as humans, it should help us become less superficial and judgmental, it should teach us without preaching to us.
That is why it is a mistake to view Arabic novels as ethnographic documents of their authors’ countries; novels are not social records and shouldn’t be viewed as such. I understand that human curiosity and desire for knowledge may tempt people to adopt such views, and this is a problem that has been addressed by various writers, but I truly don’t believe, for example, that Milan Kundera’s description of the Czech Republic starkly mirrors what the country was like at the time. Thus, trying to match literature to reality or even trying to look for reality within a work of fiction is definitely an erroneous attempt.
Are you able to express yourself freely in your writings? Or are there taboos you’re careful to avoid?
Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani, the historian scholar, has a great saying that means “if you compose, you’re exposed.” Writers must be brave in the face of inner self doubt and outer criticism, without courage writing will be soulless because a frightened writer will produce a dead text.
For me, writing is impossible without a complete sense of freedom, and I always knew that the trick is to never think about the readers while writing, but after the success of Celestial Bodies I found myself overwhelmed by the magnitude and diversity of my readers that it became harder for me not to think about the audience.
But if while writing The Silk of the Ghazale, I tried, even for one second, to censor myself or change controversial ideas so that I wouldn’t find them blasted on social media platforms followed by an outrage of criticism, like what happened after the publication of Celestial Bodies, I know that I’ll immediately stop writing.
“Large audiences can be burdensome to writers.”
Frankly speaking, large audiences usually suffocate the writer, I’ve seen it happen to many authors even if they never speak about it. A writer is not a celebrity who needs to monitor his words and be diplomatic – a writer must do the opposite. He needs to poke at wounds and be utterly free, otherwise, why write at all?
The continuous awareness of the presence of an audience is a huge burden; I remember reading a famous and charming writer who started her career by writing in her own mother tongue and focusing on her own people. Her novels were free, and her characters were also free to the point of insolence sometimes. They would make racial utterances that would be completely unacceptable in any other context, but they were perfectly harmonious within her created universe. Today this writer sells millions of copies in all languages, and she would never make one comment about religion or any other controversial matter in her novels because she is worried about offending some of her readers. To me, this desire to observe what is now known as the “universal values” has blocked her creativity that caused her work to lose its authenticity and appeal. I don’t want to be this person; I don’t want to follow a trend that doesn’t represent my true values and private beliefs even if it was a popular one.
“Universal values infringe on my creative freedom.”
In my opinion, the greatest challenge facing Arab writers in general and Omani writers, in particular, is social media. Social media is very successful in manipulating and directing public opinion and it makes criticism easier and more fleeting than face-to-face interaction. Anyone can copy a line from a book and turn it into a tweet and start a public crucifixion of a writer – that’s why many female writers are reluctant to tackle intimacies in their works of fiction, [because] the social repercussions would be unbearable. But the consequence of this is that readers, in turn, fail to become intimately attached to a novel that fears intimacy.
Winning the Man Booker Award in 2019 has established you as a renowned international Omani author and has also drawn attention to Omani and Arabic literature. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree. After reading numerous translated works and reviews and attending multiple conferences, prior to the COVID-19 situation, I discovered that many people who knew nothing about Omani or Arabic literature were intrigued to discover it after I got the award. I get a lot of mail from students from around the world who show interest not only in my novel but in other Arabic novels and who ask me to nominate various titles for them to read. I have also nominated the work of other Omani writers for translation, but I believe the full effect of my award will be realized later on.
Do you think that receiving the award has drawn attention to Arab women’s literature?
I hope I was able to present a new voice for women writers, and I think the award has brought Arab women’s literature into the center of attention. In the last 20 years, many Arab female writers have become very prominent – [and] despite some tendency to shout or to simplify reality and view the world from a tubular microscope – good art and diversity prevailed. We now see women from all walks of life represented in literature and this to me is very promising indeed.
Rafiah Al Talei is Sada Acting Editor in Chief, Middle East Program Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her on Twitter @raltalei
In her Arabic fiction, Omani novelist and International Booker Prize-winner Jokha Alharthi charts the rapid political and social changes that have occurred in her home country during the last fifty years. But just as important, she uses the form of the novel itself to explore human responses to those changes, giving readers access to inner lives as only imaginative literature can.
By: Kevin Blankinship
When Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer in 1916 that “a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness,” he had the same artistic vision as Jokha Alharthi, the Omani novelist who shared the 2019 International Booker Prize with translator Marilyn Booth for Alharthi’s second novel, Celestial Bodies. Alharthi, who holds a Ph.D. in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman’s capital, Muscat, raises brooding over the past to a high craftsmanship through her novels Dreams, Celestial Bodies, and the Bitter Orange Tree, the last of which comes out next year in Booth’s English translation.
All three novels are redolent of Oman and its rapid changes since the 1960s. But works of fiction are not textbooks. They follow their own zigzag logic, daring readers to trace a straight line from imagination to reality. In Alharthi’s case, the hazy boundary between art and life prompts questions about Omani folkways and Alharthi’s own link to them. It discloses private responses — most of all by women — to traditional Arab-Muslim society, in a way that is both deeply personal and elusive of the political scientist’s neat case study.
Historically wealthy from Indian Ocean trade, in the 19th and early 20th centuries Oman fell prey to internal squabbles, British partition, and a waning economy, leaving it one of the most destitute places on earth. By 1970, it had only six miles of paved roads, no newspapers or radios, and an average life expectancy of 47.
From this bleak tableau, the discovery of oil in 1964 entered the Omani bloodstream. Sultan Said bin Taymur was slow to use this sudden wealth to improve the country, and this hesitancy ultimately proved his downfall: in 1970, during the height of an armed rebellion in Dhofar province, Said’s own son Qaboos deposed him in a bloodless coup.
Under the softspoken Qaboos, Oman emerged from its cocoon. National GDP grew from $256 million to $80 billion and life expectancy improved from 50 to 77 years. Slavery, once a cornerstone of the economy, was outlawed in 1970, and in 2002 voting rights were granted to all citizens over age 21. International ties were also strengthened. Though he wielded absolute power, suppressed free speech, and retained the exploitative kafala (visa sponsorship) system, Sultan Qaboos was treasured by Omanis as “a beloved modernizer with an iron fist.” His death in 2020 left the country with a hopeful future.
These breakneck changes to Omani society undergird all of Alharthi’s fiction. One sees them in Celestial Bodies, which charts the responses of three daughters, Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, to unhappy marriages. Mayya resigns herself to loveless union with a wealthy merchant to please her family. Asma marries Khalid, a self-obsessed artist with whom she at last makes peace by cherishing the fourteen children she bears him. Khawla marries her childhood sweetheart Nasir, who is unfaithful and whom she eventually divorces.
Rigid patriarchy and family expectations stifle these women, but they aren’t helpless: all move from their ancestral village to the capital city of Muscat; all struggle capably with new education and technology. Yet the real force of Celestial Bodies is in its structure, which rotates through different characters and travels easily between generations, sometimes within the same paragraph. As James Wood notes, these fluid alterations speak to the swift changes in Omani society, as well as to the special ability of novels to give “privileged access to the wounded privacies of many characters.”
They also betray Alharthi’s own early style, a distinctly lyrical one seen in her first novel Dreams. Told by a woman as she grows up and falls in love, the plot mingles memoir with magic, feeling more like poetry than prose: expressionist description penetrates the everyday, while the familiar and uncanny collide. In an emblematic opening sequence, the narrator follows her dying father up a snaillike staircase, passing through a menagerie of mythical creatures — rabbit-eared mules, human-legged falcons, neckless giraffes — all the while crying, “I am not me! This house is not my house!”
Such Lewis Carroll jabberwocky visions are absent from The Bitter Orange Tree, Alharthi’s most recent novel. Instead they’re replaced by a gritty, grainy realism. Readers peer through the eyes of Zuhur, an Omani graduate student in the United Kingdom, as she imagines the tortured life of her grandmother, who grew up in post-World War II Oman – “the sick man of the Gulf,” which people fled by the thousands for a better life elsewhere. For those who stayed, like Zuhur’s grandmother, there was sickness, poverty, dried-up falaj wells, and despair.
Embodying this ordeal is the grandmother’s loss of sight in one eye as a child, after a piece of grass gets wedged in it. She hitches a ride to Muscat to see a doctor, who tells her, “The foreign object in your eye will go away on its own.” Instead, it embeds deeper and robs half her sight. “I cry for her one damaged eye,” Zuhur says later in the novel, “and for the grasses of ignorance that ruined it. Aside from putting Zuhur’s own struggles in perspective, such details in The Bitter Orange Tree, more than in Alharthi’s other books, make Omani society come alive.
Yet we shouldn’t be quick to equate art and reality. “Too often,” says Alharthi’s translator Marilyn Booth, “Arabic fiction is thought of as a road-map to the Arab world rather than first and foremost as art, as imaginative writing, pushing the boundaries of what can be thought and said.” To take one example, all the characters of Celestial Bodies come from a village called al-Awafi. But there is no such place in Oman. “Some people told me they looked it up on the map,” laughs Alharthi in an interview, “but it is in fact a made-up village.”
Then again, maybe life is more like fiction than it seems. In the novel Dreams, Alharthi has the narrator’s beloved say, “To me, I feel as if I play a double role in this life,” he says. “I live it, and I watch myself live it.” Or in Celestial Bodies, whenever Mayya sleeps in order to forget her loveless marriage, “life appeared to her sharply divided in two parts, like night and day: What we live, and what lives inside of us.” What better way to describe the self-observing, self-observed work of a novelist? In a topsy-turvy world, the individual is detached from herself; in the world of the novel, she finds herself again by writing her own story. Hence some comfort in the otherwise terrible declaration of Segismundo from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th century play Life is a Dream:
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.
Kevin Blankinship is Assistant Professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. He writes regularly for the mainstream press, including The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and more. He is @AmericanMaghreb on Twitter.
Bitter Orange Tree, to be published by Catapult in May 2022, translated by Marilyn Booth
The farmers hurried off to sell their harvest of dates and dried lemons to the big merchants, who would repack them for export to India. The shop owners sped to Muttrah Suq to buy stock for their shops back in the remote villages: rice, coffee, spices, crates of tinned pineapple, mint breath-freshener lozenges, brightly colored fabric, and beads. The young men hurried off on their heroic attempts to travel to Bahrain for employment, or to Iraq for studies. But first they had to obtain that rare precious jewel: a passport, known as the Sa‘idi passport because Sultan Sa‘id had to agree personally to its being issued. The men and women who had gotten places on the truck because they needed treatment hurried to the missionary hospital in Muttrah, which eventually, after a decade or so of existence, came to be called al-Rahma, the Mercy Hospital.
Dr. Wells Thoms treated around eighty patients every day. Among them, on this day, my grandmother stood, taller than most, erect in her thirty-nine years, waiting for her name to be called. They told her that first, she would see the Khatun. She was ushered into a room where a blonde woman in a white uniform stood. “Are you the Khatun?” my grandmother asked. The American woman smiled and said sweetly, “My name is Beth Thoms.” Her smile and her voice gave my grandmother a sense that the miracle must finally be near, for this was the famous doctor’s wife. Beth gave her a printed, loose-bound book which my grandmother took with both hands as though she were receiving a divine gift. She did not tell the blonde lady that she could not read or write. Or that this book—which she later learned was the Gospels—was only the second book she had ever held in her life, the first having been the Qur’an. Once home, she would place it among her treasured belongings as a memento of her meeting with Thomas.
My grandmother met Dr. Thoms like a lowly human meeting a saint or a holy man or a revered miracle worker who had turned people’s dreams into reality. But it was a short appointment they had. This famous missionary doctor, who had performed the successful operation on the eye of the Imam only a few years before, took only two minutes to examine my half-blind grandmother’s eye before he informed her that the harm caused by the herbal treatments of her childhood was as serious as ever, and no light would ever shine from this eye again. The nurse made a motion to conduct her out, but she refused to go. The doctor felt for her. He gave her a card on which he wrote her name, his diagnosis, and his prescription for antiseptic eye drops.
When I was on the threshold of twenty, on the threshold of traveling, impatient to follow my path, on a buoyant tide of confidence in life and brimming with plans and desires; when my grandmother was dying, and I was collecting her clothes and her few, simple belongings, packing them before taking her to the hospital, I came upon this card, and I read the print on the back, a line from the Biblical book of Proverbs. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Twenty Years of Literary Creativity – and Counting
Even before gaining international recognition for her 2010 novel Celestial Bodies which was awarded the International Booker Prize, Jokha Alharthi had already made a name for herself as an established author of literary works widely popular in Oman and the Arab world.
Jokha al Harthi’s first literary work was a collection of short stories released in 2001, titled Maqati Min Sirat Lubna Ith Aana al-Rahil, or Excerpts from Lubna’s Autobiography: When It Is Time to Leave. She then followed this with a number of short story collections, novels, and literary texts – among them being Sabi Ala al-Sath (A Boy on the Roof) and Fi Madih al-Hubb (Impressing Love) – as well as children’s stories such as Ushsh lil-Asafir (A Nest for Birds) and Al Sahaba Tatamana (The Cloud Wishes).
Her novels, however, were what made her known in international literary circles. She released her first novel Manamat (Dreams) in 2004, and then released her first translated novel, Sayyidat al-Qamar (Celestial Bodies), in 2010. Her third book Narinjah (The Bitter Orange Tree) was released in 2016, with its English translation due to be released next year (Sada publishes an excerpt as part of this issue). Her latest Arabic novel Harir al Ghazala is due to be published this year, which Sada will be publishing an excerpt of as well.
Along with her literary works, Alharthi has also written academic works like her book The Body in Arabic Love Poetry; The Udhri Tradition, published April/May 2021 in a University of Edinburgh publication. In 2010, she published Mulahaqat al-Shumus: Manhaj al-Talif al-Adabi fi Kharidat al-Qasr (Chasing The Suns: The Literary Methodology In Kharidat al-Qasr). She has also published a poetry collection, or diwan, in 2014, titled Diwan Abi Al Hokm Al Sheikh Ahmed bin Abdullah Alharthi, as part of a publication for the Center for Omani Studies at Sultan Qaboos University.
From the Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature to the International Booker Prize
Alharthi has received multiple Arab and international awards throughout her career, the most prominent one being the International Booker Prize, awarded to her in 2019. As a result, she has been hosted in multiple international conferences and literary festivals spanning Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as several countries in the Gulf. She has also secured deals to translate her literary works into 21 global languages, including German, French, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Norwegian, and Turkish.
Previously, Alharthi was awarded the 2016 Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature, and was on the shortlist for the 2011 Sheikh Zayed Award in the “young author” category. In addition to this, Alharthi received an award for Best Omani Publication in Children’s Literature in 2011 and received Best Omani Novel for Sayyidat al-Qamar in that same year. In 2001, she was the runner-up for the Sharjah Award for Creativity in Arabic for her short story collection Excerpts from Lubna’s Autobiography.
After receiving her PhD in Classical Arabic Literature from the University of Ediburgh in 2010, Alharthi is now an Associate Professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University.