“My first novel was the second ever written by a woman in Oman,” says Jokha Alharthi, as we shelter from the rain in a yurt backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “I published it in 2004. The first one came in 1999.”
The 41-year-old is the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English, and the first Arabic-language writer to win the International Man Booker Prize. These landmarks don’t seem to faze Alharthi, who perches on a cushioned sofa before changing to a straight-backed wicker chair, where, she says with a grin, she feels “more professional”. She wears black trousers and a black jacket with subtly beaded lapels. Her pale pink hijab matches the polish on her fingers and toes – as well as the faint lipstick mark she leaves on her coffee mug.
Alharthi is visiting from her home in the Omani capital of Muscat, where she is an associate professor at Sultan Qaboos University, but she is no stranger to Edinburgh. She studied for a PhD in classical Arabic poetry here, spending her days reading in the National Library of Scotland, and her evenings enjoying the “unique flavour” of the European and Asian films on show at the Filmhouse cinema. It seems an odd choice, to travel abroad to study the literature of your own country. “It was difficult. I had to learn how to write academic English, which was new to me,” she remembers. Did she think about how hard it would be, before she decided to come? “No!” she says. “I thought, everything will be OK, I will learn.”
Studying Arabic away from home allowed Alharthi to “get a different perspective” on her culture. Missing the “warmth” of her own language, Alharthi began to write a novel in Arabic. Sayyidat al-Qamar (which translates as “Ladies of the Moon”) was published in 2010, following 2004’s Manamat, three collections of short stories and a children’s book. In Edinburgh, she met the American academic Marilyn Booth, who took an interest in Sayyidat al-Qamar. Booth’s translation was published in English in 2018 as Celestial Bodies and when it won the International Booker in May of this year, Alharthi and Booth followed convention and split the £50,000 prize money between them.
Though a slim volume, Celestial Bodies has a complex structure, weaving together short chapters of numerous characters’ stories, which reach from the 1880s to the present day. Its sprawling nature has been criticised by some English reviewers, and Alharthi sympathises: “When I was writing it in Arabic, it never crossed my mind… But then, when I read it in English, I was, like, ‘Oh my God! There are too many characters in this book,’” she says, chuckling.
Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi during the rapid urbanisation of the past few decades, when Oman emerged as an oil-rich state. “I didn’t try to document the change intentionally,” says Alharthi. “I would like, rather, to think about how my characters would think, how they would feel, their choices in life, which sometimes can be very hard.” Since 1970, Oman has been governed by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the longest-ruling leader in the Middle East. His is an absolute monarchy; writers, journalists and human rights defenders who publicly criticise the state have been sentenced without trial. But Alharthi is not seen as pushing a political agenda in her fiction.
The characters to whom she pays particular attention are young women stuck between the shackles of old traditions – marriage, child-bearing, housekeeping – and the new freedoms afforded to them in an expanding world – education, travel. “The past 30 years have been a turning point,” notes Alharthi, who remembers being eight years old when Oman’s first university – where she now teaches Arabic literature – was opened. “In my grandmother’s generation, it wasn’t the done thing for women to be educated.” But the women in the Alharthi family were “lucky”: her grandfather, Ahmed, was an acclaimed poet, so her mother went to a traditional school and “educated herself in her father’s library”. The teenage Alharthi came top in every subject in her final year at school.
The three sisters at the heart of Celestial Bodies, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, are strikingly varied in character, though they have something in common: they each get married during the course of the novel. “We raise them so that strangers can take them away,” their mother, Salima, “whimpers” on Asma’s wedding day. To the chagrin of her family, Mayya names her daughter London, a rebellious nod to a Western, Christian state. “I have been fortunate to see different types of women. I know the strong ones and the fearless ones and the obedient ones and the patient ones,” says Alharthi.
Alharthi’s third novel, Narinjah (2016), is next to be translated. It will appear in English as Bitter Orange, its narrator an Omani student who has Chinese, Nigerian and Pakistani classmates.
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” she says. “I don’t give my novels to my mother before they are published. Once Narinjah was out, she recognised a character who is similar to someone from her childhood, who she used to tell me about. She called me, saying, ‘OK, I knew that one. What about this one? Who is it?’ and I was like ‘Mum, this is fiction! I have an imagination.’”
Alharthi seems to love the idea of playing mind-tricks on her mother. “But, seriously,” she says, “I am a big fan of history but I’m more interested in humanity. Fiction is not a mirror for our reality.”