CHICAGO: The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2019, “Celestial Bodies,” written by author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth, takes the world to the village of Al-Awafi in Oman, to the household of three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla where their lives transition away from the traditions of their parents and move into a new age. Through marriage, births, heartbreaks and the joys and sorrows of life, Alharthi’s characters speak of a world that is intricate and unique in its customary ways but where modernity challenges ancient practices.
Independent in mind but stuck to tradition for the sake of their parents, Alharthi first introduces her readers to Mayya and her black Singer sewing machine. A seamstress who dreams larger than the world of thread and fabric, her marriage to the merchant Sulayman’s son is only the beginning of her heartbreak. Drowning in patriarchy, Mayya’s reality of who she is and what is expected of her is stark, but that does not stop her from questioning everything silently. While her marriage to Abdallah is not what she wants, she uses it to propel her to the city where she can escape her mother and the customs she does not care for.
Moving through time periods and narrators, Alharthi’s characters each take a chapter to explain the vivid world that makes up Al-Awafi and Muscat. Between Mayya, her mother and her sisters, as well as Abdallah and Azzan, Mayya’s father, an atmosphere is created which includes the comforts of religion and tradition, the traumas of loss, the suffering of slavery, the mandatory customs that result in a loss of independence and the breakdown of traditional structures. Their tale is relatable yet unique, rooted in a time when women’s education was non-existent and education in villages started late even for male children and when family lived together.
The details that Alharthi has injected into this work are the window through which the world can take a rare glimpse into Omani life that is transitioning from traditional practices to the modern age. Generation upon generation go through turbulent transitions as change is always inevitable.