Oman’s Jokha Alharthi Wins Man Booker Prize

Jokha Alharthi, Cover of award winning book 'Celestial Bodies'.

It is a historic moment of pride for Oman and especially for its women. Jokha Alharthi has become the first Omani novelist to win the Man Booker Prize. She is also the first novelist from Oman to be translated to English.  This also marks an important juncture in the history of the honour too because this is the first time it has been awarded for an Arabic literary creation.

Jokha Alharthi shared the prize with her translator, the American academic Marilyn Booth.  Jokha Alharthi’s novel ‘Celestial Bodies’ is based in the background of a remote Omani village of AL-Awafi and traces the tale of three sisters- Maya who is married to a rich man, Asma who marries to fulfil the daughter’s duty and Khawla who is waiting for her lover who has fled to Canada. 

What is thought provoking about this novel is the fact that it begins from the humble setting of the village and through its intricate depiction of characters, relationships and complex plot takes us on a journey of a nation that is simultaneously experiencing affluence and poverty.

So we do get a glimpse of what life would feel like to those belonging to the poorest of slave families and for even those who are enjoying the advent of new wealth in cities like Oman and Muscat.  What makes the book extremely engaging is the fact it offers us great detail about the lives of the characters and the social milieus they find themselves in and yet manages to retain one’s attention and keep one eager to turn page after page. The author has avoided stereotypical connotations of gender and race and the appearance of surprises makes this novel a must read. The novel is almost like a domestic drama with multiple layers of prose, philosophy and poetry drawn into it.

The Honor includes a cash prize of £50,000 which is $64,000 that is presented to the writer and the translator collectively.  The book is published by a Scotland based printing press, Sandstone Press.

The Book celestial body is an important book which revolves around the life of three sisters who are based in Oman. The narration of the book is so weaved that through the life of these sisters every aspect of social problems in Oman has been dealt with beautifully.

As per the brief overview of the book provided by the author and translated further, “Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves”.

Praising the novel historian Bettany Hughes remarked, “A book to win over the head and the heart in equal measure. Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free. The style is a metaphor for the subject, subtly resisting clichés of race, slavery and gender.”

Hughes also appreciated the translation of the book and said it was “precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech.”

Accepting the award the author said that she was pleased to open a gateway for Arabic literature in the world. She further mentioned that her book revolves around slavery but international readers can find the core human values and the idea of freedom and love propagated in the book to be more exciting.

According to the author literature is the best platform to engage with social problems, very subtly it can give initiation to a dialogue in the society simultaneously can also act as a pre cursor for change.

The author Jokha Al-haritha is the first women Arabic writer to win this award. She is based in Oman and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. Al-haritha did her PhD in classical Arabic poetry from Edinburgh University. She has also authored two collections of short fiction, a children’s book, and three novels in Arabic. Her short stories have been published in languages other than Arabic like English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian. Currently she has also been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers.

The Man Booker Prize award of which she is the recipient this year (2019) is an award presented to the best original Novel written in English language and published in United Kingdom primarily. The winner is decided by a jury which comprises of a writer, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. 

This time the panel was chaired by Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, fiction publisher and Editor Liz Calder, novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch and pianist-composer Joanna Mac Gregor.

In the past years the recipient of awards have been writers like Anna Burns (Milkman, 2018), George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017), Paul Beatty (The Sellout, 2016), Marlon James (A brief history of Seven Killings, 2015)

The fact that Jokha has won this prestigious award makes it abundantly clear that she has put Arab on the global literary map afresh. However what must also be acknowledged is the fact that we must look beyond the tendency to view Arabic literature only as an esoteric description of the land but foremost as an art itself. What one really learns from the book is the facts that even a country like Oman which is far less known compared to other literary hubs such as Egypt, Morocco, Palestine or Lebanon can be the land of such good quality literary creations. What is also learnt is the fact that human aspirations, dilemmas and dreams are so much alike even when they are placed continents away from each other.  

Alharthi has earlier composed two other novels, two collections of short stories and a book for children. She has been translated into languages like German, Italian, Korean and Serbian. Her achievement has rightly put her land Oman on the map of creative literature and art. Her book asserts that the whole of the world shares the emotions of love, friendship, pain and hope.

We congratulate Jokha Alharthi for this huge achievement and wish she only prospers and grows on her journey as a writer.

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