On May 21, Oman’s Jokha al-Harthi could become the first Arab writer to win the the Man Booker International Prize. In her nominated novel Celestial Bodies, Harthi (born 1978) chronicles the transformation of Omani society from the start of the 20th century until our present time. The story is told from the perspective of an Omani family spanning three generations, and it delves into taboo subjects ranging from slavery to infidelity. 

Prior to her nomination, Harthi was not particularly well known in the Arab world, as literature in the Arab Gulf region was largely dominated by Saudi and Kuwaiti writers. 

When the Man Booker literary prize was founded half a century ago – awarded to P H Newby for his novel set in Egypt – the nominations were restricted to authors from Britain and the Commonwealth states, Ireland, and Zimbabwe. The International Prize was launched in 2005 as a biennial to open a venue for authors outside those countries and recognize their bodies of work. In 2016, however, the International Prize was fully dedicated to novels translated into English from a foreign language. This year, the shortlist includes novels translated from French, German, Polish, Spanish and – in the case of Harthi – Arabic. 

Together with Marilyn Booth, who translated her book, Harthi is competing against prominent writers and translators such as Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who won the prize last year, and Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez. 

Below is a conversation between Asia Times contributor Sherif Abdel Samad and Harthi. 

Sherif Abdel Samad: Why has Omani literature been neglected and overlooked by Arab or Western critics and publishing houses in the last decades?

Jokha al-Harthi: The Omani novel started relatively late. Perhaps in the 1960s with Omani novelist Abdalla el-Taki [1924-1973]. In the ’80s and ’90s a few Omani writers started publishing their work. One could say that the Omani novel began to flourish in the new millennium.

Poetry had dominated the literary circles, until not a long time ago. My grandfather was a known poet and used to invite his friends to his house, where they would recite classical Arabic poetry of [Abu al-Tayyib] al-Mutanabbi [915-965] and Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarri [973-1057]. I was a child back then and remember how shameful it was for men not to know classical poetry by heart. So imagine, as a novelist, you had then to compete with Mutanabbi or Maʿarri. This has changed nowadays. Omanis now favor the novel. Yet unfortunately not too many Omani institutions promote the genre. There is also the fact that many Arab critics still perceive Egypt and Lebanon as the focal point of the publishing world, which means very few look over to Oman. The same goes for the translators.

Samad: Your novel Celestial Bodies was first published in 2010 in Arabic. How come it was translated into English only last year?

Harthi: In 2010 Celestial Bodies won a prize for best Omani novel. It was agreed in 2013 that Marilyn Booth would translate it into English. I think she finished the translation in 2015, and then it took another three years until it was printed. Booth had replaced one of my supervisors, who worked with me on my PhD. [Harthi holds a PhD in classical Arabic from the University of Edinburgh.] At that time she read my novel and liked it. But eight years for a novel to get translated is not such a long time world. [She laughs.] There is a Swedish writer on the shortlist [Sara Stridsberg], whose novel was published in 2006.

Samad: Your novel deals with a lot of sensitive issues, such as slavery in Oman. In general, not too many Arab writers dwelt on the topic of slavery. One of your main characters, Zarifa, was herself a slave.

Harthi: Writing about slavery in Oman demands a lot of courage, as the topic remains largely taboo. Yet it affects lots of individuals living in our society. The offspring of slaves are out there.

It was a very important topic to me, in order to understand the dynamics of our society. I did a lot of research, but could not find many documents in Oman. What really helped were the British Library and the archive of the University of Edinburgh. There I discovered how slaves were sold and sent to Oman. I also interviewed many elderly people, who still remember lots of stories. Of course there are different perspectives. In the novel for example, Zarifa, who was a slave, remains close to the family that owned her, while her angry son wants to shake off the yoke of slavery.

Samad: Celestial Bodies also deals with topics such as womanhood, infidelity and marital life. How was that perceived in Oman?

Harthi: Unfortunately the “moral critique” is still present not just in Oman, but also in other Arab countries that found my book too liberal. I have not paid attention to these voices, to be frank. I do not have a problem with people objecting to my writing. They are entitled to their opinion. Yet we jeopardize literature the moment we seek to constrain it. There has to be space for art to breathe.

Samad: Most characters in your novel suffer indirectly from the patriarchal rule of the family. Particularly the women remain subdued with the exception of the youngest heroine, named London, who enjoys unprecedented liberties and rights.

Harthi: In Oman old patriarchal rules and traditions have remained for centuries embedded in our society. I thought a lot of how people were living in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even at the beginning of 20th century they lived in similar fashion. Things changed very slowly, before the oil was discovered. And with the oil came the technology. So people, who had lived a very simple life for centuries, all of a sudden they had to change. And it is not easy to change. What seemed to be out of the question in the ’60s and ’70s, when Abdalla, the main character, was still a child, was changed in the ’80s. And on the other hand that changed in the new millennium. Still there are families who preserve the patriarchal rule and others that have another dynamic in their relationships.

I guess it is easy to have a car or a phone. But it is not that easy to transform my relationship with my father or husband. This is what matters. I have a little daughter myself. And I try to keep up with the things that she has, because it is all new to me. Imagine how our fathers must feel like. I studied abroad and it should be easier for me to cope.

Samad: Why did you choose the title Women of the Moon for the Arabic version, even though Abdalla, London’s father, is the pivotal character in the novel?

Harthi: The women play the more dominant part in the novel, even though Abdalla’s chapters are written in the first person as narrator, whereas an omniscient narrator speaks for the women. The novel strongly revolves around Abdalla’s relationships with his daughter London, his wife and his maid. You think I should have named the novel Women of the Moon and Abdalla? [She laughs.] Finding a good title is never easy. Also in English. Celestial Bodies. I had a shortlist of names and eliminated one by one, till that title stuck with me.

Samad: While reading your novel, I was surprised how you jump back and forth through time in one page, without affecting the flow of the novel. Contrary to the classical linear narration, you reveal to the reader right away how the lives of the characters would change and seek to explain why.

Harthi: For me, time has a revolving effect. You cannot distinguish between present and past. The past is filtered through our memory. It is open to all possibilities, like the future. Therefore, the characters cannot be removed from their past. The past transforms them, and they transform the past. There is no real closure to time, even though it seems like the past is behind us.

On Monday, May 20 at 7:45pm, the night before the 2019 Man Booker International Prize winner is unveiled, the Southbank Centre in London will host a public reading by the six shortlisted authors and translators in both English and the native languages of the books. A Q&A will follow.  

On May 21, the winner will be revealed.