Booker Prizewinner Jokha Alharthi Explains Why Oman Is Fertile Soil for Literature

The author has made the Gulf nation her home and her work, the one infusing the other

Booker Prizewinner Jokha Alharthi Explains Why Oman Is Fertile Soil for Literature
Jokha Alharthi collects the Man Booker International Prize in London, England, on May 21, 2019. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

At dusk, Jokha Alharthi likes to go to al-Seeb, a long sandy strip that stretches west of Muscat, Oman’s capital city. She never tires of contemplating the old promenade’s quiet spectacle, as the Indian Ocean’s waves lap the shore, children swim and play and joggers run in tight clusters near the sea foam. “I enjoy the tranquility of these moments, the ordinary people who come here to spend time with their families,” the 44-year-old Omani writer tells me, as we drive slowly along the beach at the end of a hot June day. We hoped to go for a walk but the brutally humid weather has us sheltering in her car’s air-conditioned comfort.

As elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, cranes are fast reshaping the waterfront landscape of Muscat, with new commercial and residential developments that evoke Dubai or Miami. For the time being, al-Seeb has escaped the insatiable appetite of the developers, and Alharthi cherishes its authenticity. Her own writing is irrigated by the clash of the old and the new in Oman, where the social and physical landscapes have changed dramatically since the discovery of the first exploitable petroleum deposits in the 1960s.

Alharthi witnessed these tensions in her childhood village, Sharqiyah, an oasis two hours’ drive from Muscat that sits at the intersection of the coast and the desert. Date palms were everything in Sharqiyah in the pre-oil days. Families measured their wealth by the number of trees they possessed. Today, “There are schools and hospitals, the village got satellite television in the 1990s and the internet at the beginning of the 2000s. Yet village traditions have endured,” she says. Conflicts of values and wounds in the social fabric created by abrupt changes are at the heart of “Celestial Bodies,” which won Alharthi the International Booker Prize in 2019. The novel follows three generations of one family, as they try to make sense of the successive waves of events that have transformed Oman over the past several decades.

As we drive along the beach promenade, Alharthi points to a few old houses built for fishermen. The small buildings stand as the last witnesses of a not-so-distant past. Most have been sold by their former owners and a more affluent population is slowly moving in. “I still remember when, at sunset, you could see men and women sitting together, drinking coffee, eating fruits. It was the same scene everywhere on the seafront, even outside Muscat, along the al-Batinah coast.” Even men and women from different families could hang out together, as social mores in coastal settlements were more relaxed than in the hinterland, she adds. This past is mostly gone. Still, an old man, obviously absorbed by the sunset spectacle, stands in front of one of the houses. “See? So cute.”

Alharthi has a clear tenderness for the elderly. Her own grandmother was a powerful character in her upbringing. “She was what we call today a public figure. A very strong, respectable woman who would sit at her house knowing everything about everyone, controlling everything, her sons, her daughters, her servants. People, not only women but also men, used to come to her house to drink coffee. I sneaked in with my sister and we listened to their stories. They were astonishing. Their life was difficult back then, even for men. Although they had more choices, they couldn’t travel without getting the sultan’s permission. He would decide who deserved to get a passport. It was a favor.”

It should, then, come as no surprise that unforgettable matriarchal figures populate Alharthi’s stories. Bint Aamir is a case in point. She is the main character of “Bitter Orange Tree,” Alharthi’s third novel and the second to appear in English. The daughter of a Bedouin horse-trainer who throws her out of the house after remarrying, Bint Aamir is reduced to making charcoal to survive, and the novel details her many hardships. The novel’s narrator is Zuhoor, Bint Aamir’s granddaughter. Zuhoor studies abroad in Britain, like Alharthi did (she graduated in 2011 with a doctorate in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh). Like Alharthi, Zuhoor’s experience on this faraway island is marked by feelings of estrangement and longing. “Bitter Orange Tree” opens as she learns of Bint Aamir’s death, and meditates melancholically on her grandmother’s unfulfilled dream of having “a tiny plot of land, living off its proceeds, until her death.”

“When we talk about women’s rights, my daughter is astonished to learn that they haven’t been there forever,” Alharthi tells New Lines. “Women today can think of having an education, of getting jobs. They can’t decide everything, but they have way more choices than the women from my grandmother’s generation. It is important to me to understand and remember this.” The fate of women trying to come to terms with situations not of their choosing particularly moves her. “Of course, I am interested in women because they are the least fortunate, but I wouldn’t be honest if I am not saying that men are also facing many restrictions.” Freedom is also a matter of race and position in the social hierarchy, and Oman is still deeply pervaded by invisible social rules, she adds.

“In my opinion, these rules are even stronger than the pressure coming from religious or political authorities. They definitely limit what people can do with their life, unless, of course, you choose to challenge them. Take marriage, for example. People are expected to marry someone from the same social status. This is the most important thing here. It doesn’t matter if the man is rich or poor. What matters is the family. If the grandfather was a slave or a former slave, then it is out of question for someone whose family has always been free to marry his descendant. The social pressure is there, and I think social media makes things worse. Instead of giving more choice, they reinforce control.” Alharthi observes this firsthand with her own students; she teaches classical Arabic literature and travel literature at Sultan Qaboos University.

In her stories, Alharthi makes sure to reflect the complexity of her country. She doesn’t like when things are painted with overly broad brushstrokes, as is often the case in Western discourse about women in the Gulf. Her own experience with the media has not always been positive, she confesses. She regrets a tendency for easy sensationalism, whereas reality, in her country perhaps more than elsewhere, is always multiform. “Simply look at the difference between the north and the south of Oman when it comes to customs and traditions. In the south, if a woman gets divorced, it is a cause of celebration. Her family will slaughter a goat or a camel because she is coming back to them. In the north, it is the opposite: Getting a divorce is shameful.”

She goes on: “Or take this story that a Tunisian friend told me and that I like very much. When he moved to Oman, he was warned to never speak to any women. One day, he went for a picnic with his family in the desert and his car got stuck. Several cars passed by and didn’t stop, until a Bedu woman arrived, driving her Jeep. My friend was scared to talk to her, but she helped him, fixing the car all by herself and commenting sarcastically, ‘Next time, be careful because women don’t come here very often.’”

Our own drive is much smoother. We pass al-Seeb market, and Alharthi slows down to survey the small shops. The Pakistani vendors who sell poultry and other meats look back at us with an inquisitive gaze. In her last novel published in Arabic, “Harir al-Ghazala,” Alharthi turns toward these migrant workers, who constitute approximately 30% of the population in Oman. “I try to challenge the way they are portrayed, by giving them dignity and human agency. I have always felt that they are very close to me.” The novel features a little girl who grows up in a house full of servants from Bangladesh, India and the Philippines. “These people are actually the ones who take care of her, because the mother is kind of absent. I show how the relationship between the girl and the Bangladeshi cook is like a father-daughter relationship. She would go to his room in the morning because everyone is still asleep at 5 a.m. except for him. She would sit there until he gets ready to prepare breakfast for her. Some readers told me that they were very nervous because they feared that he would sexually assault her. But this is cliche!”

The sun is slowly sinking into the ocean and we finally decide to set out for a walk. The humidity is unbearable and we are baffled to see groups of young boys playing basketball as we sweat our way along the beach. We quickly give up and take refuge in a coffee shop, a small square building facing the sea. Alharthi orders juices and Omani pancakes, a favorite of her childhood. “My mom used to cook them for breakfast and today, when I run out of time, I do the same for my children. It is easy to make,” she explains while pouring honey on the round crepes. Our conversation turns to food stories. Her father would refuse to eat anything other than rice, meat and salad for lunch, she says. Rice, beyond anything else, was his staple food. It is central in the Omani diet, as it is in many cultures across the Indian Ocean. Similarities between the Omani and Indian culinary traditions are especially plentiful, “even if our food is less spicy,” Alharthi says.

These culinary connections are ancient, as people and commodities have been crisscrossing the Arabian Sea for thousands of years. A few years ago, Alharthi traveled to Kerala. She was struck by how much the carved wooden doors she saw were reminiscent of Omani traditional architecture. The layered identities of Oman, an Arab land shaped by its connections to India, Baluchistan, East Africa and Britain, constitute an important part of her literary explorations.

As much as they unfold through time, her novels also expand through space. For centuries, Oman was a thriving seafaring empire that controlled the Swahili coast of East Africa from today’s Somalia in the north to the Mozambique Channel in the south. In the 1840s, the Omani ruler Said bin Sultan moved his court from Muscat to Zanzibar. Omani sultans formally ruled over the island until 1964. Bint Ameer, the grandmother in “Bitter Orange Tree,” was born just after World War I, a moment when many Omanis sought refuge in East Africa. “I couldn’t avoid talking about this very old connection,” Alharthi says. “Today, in Oman, many people still speak Swahili as their first language.”

Oman was also the center of a slave trade, a sensitive topic from which the writer does not shy away. For instance, one of the most powerful characters in “Celestial Bodies” is Zarifa, a flamboyant slave, who is also the secret lover of the master of the house.

The sea has completely vanished into the night, signaling that our conversation is slowly coming to an end. Before we leave, I ask Alharthi if she knew, growing up, that she would become a writer. She laughs: “The only thing I knew was that I loved to read and write. I was a top student and everyone thought I would study medicine or engineering. Humanities was for people with lower grades.”

But she was hooked on literature. She spent countless hours as a child in her parents’ overflowing library. She read everything from Agatha Christie to the Baghdadi poet Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani’s “Book of Songs.” She was surrounded by muses, not only her grandmother, but also her grandfather. A famous poet, he spoke only in rhymes and riddles. Her uncle, Mohammed Alharthi, who passed away unexpectedly and whom Alharthi is still mourning, was also a well-known poet and writer. He wrote travel narratives about Thailand, Vietnam and Andalusia, and one book that followed in the steps of Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter desert. His travel book “Ain wa Janah” (Eye and Wing) won him the Ibn Battuta Award for Geographical Literature.

Her uncle’s last book was about Sri Lanka, Alharthi tells me. He worked on it for five years but did not live to see it in print. After he passed away, Alharthi helped his daughter, her cousin, to publish it. She also took care of her grandfather’s vast collection of poems, which she carefully assembled and edited over a period of 10 years.

Today, the mother of three is craving time for her own writing. “Celestial Bodies” was the first Arab novel to win the Booker Prize. Alharthi is happy that the award shed light on Omani literature, and Arab literature more generally. Its rhythms and rich heritage infuse her own work. “But as a writer, I also cherish my privacy, my isolation. This is the only way I can write beautiful things.” Even if she is keen to depict Omani society with nuance and depth, her novels should not be read as ethnographic documents, she also insists.

“Literature should not reflect reality; it should create a convergent or a parallel one.”

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