The Late Sultan Qaboos truly understood the historical THE role of the Sultanate of Oman in the consolidation of cultural awareness. He believed that culture, arts and literature are the spirit of the renaissance of any country, and even establish awards – the Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature – to support those fields. Omani writer Jokha Alharthi was the 2016 recipient of the award for her novel Narinjah. Although there aren’t that many women authors in the country, those who have emerged onto the literary scene have made a mark, and Jokha sure is one of them.
Alharthi is one of the major contributors to Omani literature and to the circle of female writers in the Sultanate, not just because she is at the top of her game but also as she has gone global by becoming in 2019, the first Arabic writer to win the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies. The fictional story pivoting around the lives of three sisters and their families coming to terms with social changes in Oman, a desert country confronting its slave-owning past and a complex modern world, also turned Jokha into the first female writer from Oman to be translated into English, an accomplishment worthy of world-wide recognition. The humble author saw her victory as “a window [that] has been opened to Arabic literature.”
The book – Alharthi’s second novel – had appeared in 2010 and marked the arrival of a major literary talent. Initially titled “La-dies of the Moon” (Sayyidat al-Qamar in its original Arabic title). Translated by Marilyn Booth and published as Celestial Bodies in 2018, the work was suddenly in the spotlight after having had a quiet existence for years.
Today, it is being translated into more than two dozen languages including Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Malayalam, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, catapulting the author’s career to world level and putting Oman on the ‘great women of literature’ map. Going back to the start… Jokha was living in Edinburgh (Scot-land) in the early 2000s with her husband and young child.
After publishing a novel and a collection of short stories, she realized the Omani literary market was too small to sustain a career solely based on that and decided she needed a secure profession. So, she went for a PhD in classical Arabic poetry. Studying Arabic in a foreign country gave her perspective, a different outlook on her culture. And yet, writing academic prose in English just didn’t feel right to her. She missed the ‘warmth’ of her native language and started thinking about a different life and a different language. That, combined with her love for Arabic, drove her to revert to her own language. She began writing a new novel…
Little did Alharthi know at the time that she would affect the future of literature in her country. Although Sayyidat al-Qamar won a prize for the best Omani novel in 2010, it remained under the radar until 2018. And that’s how Oman saw its first women author flourish and raise the country’s literary profile internationally.
The Omani writer is as daring as she is talented. Her fiction-al writings, whether novels or short stories, have the ability to win over hearts and minds equally. Alharthi professes that “[…] literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues.” In-deed, her works are steeped in her country’s history; clearly, she isn’t one to shy away from talking about taboos and deep topics such as alienation and freedom, or Oman and the wider world, subjects that recur in her stories.
In her book The Body in Arabic Love Poetry: The ‘Udhri’ Tradition, she assesses the relationship between love, poetry and Arab society between the 8th and 11th centuries, avoiding com-mon clichés about the purity of love in ‘Udhri’ poetry, a bold take on the Arabic counterpart to the western medieval concept of unconsummated courtly love. Jokha Alharthi has also won the best Omani children book in 2010 with Ushsh lil-Asafir or “Nest for Birds”, and was shortlist-ed for the Sheikh Zayed award for Sayyidat Al-Qamar in 2011.