Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Escaping the Shackles of Tradition: The International Booker-Winning Author Jokha Alharthi

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Escaping the Shackles of Tradition: The International Booker-Winning Author Jokha Alharthi

Article excerpt

"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 [pounds sterling] 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. …

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