In an engrossing book published last spring called Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, the Australian writer Jane Alison makes a trenchant observation about the “dramatic arc” long considered the foundation for plot. Swelling to a climax and then deflating, it resembles nothing so much as a phallus: “Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison’s book offers alternative possibilities for fiction based on patterns found in nature, such as the spirals of fiddlehead ferns, seashells, or whirlpools; the meandering path of a river; the radiating shape of a flower; the self-replication of trees or clouds; or the cells in a honeycomb. These structures aren’t necessarily feminine—as it happens, Alison’s investigation of them is inspired by her reading of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a work of fiction written by a man with predominantly male characters. But if the dramatic arc has often been associated with the “hero’s journey” model of fiction writing (a lone man goes off on a quest to conquer something), it stands to reason that a novel centered on the stories of women—often communal, connected, operating on many layers—might best be served by a different narrative form.
I found myself frequently returning to this thought while reading Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, a rich, dense web of a novel, which has just been published in the United States. It was originally published in Oman in 2010 and recently became—with the help of translator Marilyn Booth—both the first novel by an Omani woman ever to appear in English and the first Arabic novel to win the Man Booker International Prize. (The list of Omani men published in English is nearly as brief.) Told in short sections—often only a few pages—that shift in perspective among at least a dozen characters, the novel is a family saga that meanders through a period of more than a hundred years, starting from the last days of the slave trade that brought East Africans to the Gulf and ending with the contemporary clash between a younger generation of Omanis and their more traditional parents.
The structure of Celestial Bodies might be described as labyrinthine, with characters retracing similar paths again and again, retelling old stories from changed perspectives or revisiting past wrongs after acquiring new information. There are dark secrets at the heart of the labyrinth, but the point of the novel is not necessarily to find one’s way to them—much about the plot ultimately remains cryptic. Instead, Alharthi constructs a tapestry of interlocking lives, some seen over the course of decades, others at just a single pungent moment. Rarely have I encountered a work of fiction in which form and idea were so inseparably, and appropriately, fused.
Literally translated, the novel’s title is Ladies of the Moon, which in some ways better reflects its content: the stories here are primarily the stories of women. In a patriarchal culture that works hard to suppress such stories, the characters’ act of telling them feels explosive. Looking at the meager collection of books her grandfather handed down—the Mustatraf, a compendium of aphorisms meant to guide proper behavior; Kalila and Dimna, a classic volume of animal fables; books from the Ministry of Heritage about religious laws—a young girl in the novel wonders why not a single book among them addressed “motherhood as the radiant experience it must be.” Are there truly no books on the subject? Or were they simply of no interest to her grandfather? She is genuinely confused.
But Celestial Bodies is not a book about the radiance of female experience. It is a book about patriarchy and how women both uphold and resist it; about the ways in which women, stripped of political or financial power, exert control in whatever ways they can—social, maternal, or sexual; about women as the victims of the most thoughtless and arbitrary acts of male cruelty. More than anything else, it is about the danger of underestimating women’s strength. “Contemplate the state of the moon until you know it well,” a religious leader counsels in a book of teaching:
Its soundness is the strength of all things, its ruin the corruption of all things. If the moon moves closer to another celestial body then it gives more force to whatever that body can tell us or give us. When the moon moves away from another body in the firmament it weakens that sphere’s power.
The world of Celestial Bodies comprises two distinct but related solar systems, each with its own planets orbiting a sun. First is the household of Salima, member of a distinguished “shaykhly” family and, with her husband, Azzan, the mother of three girls who come of age in the early 1980s: Mayya, Asma, and Khawla. The novel opens on the figure of Mayya, in her late teens, sitting quiet and still at the Singer sewing machine that is her main source of joy as the bustle of the household swirls around her. She “heard everything in the world there was to hear,” Alharthi writes. “She noticed the brilliant hues life could have, however motionless her body might be.” Mayya’s silence conceals a secret passion for a man she barely knows: she prays for another glimpse of him as she once saw him during the date harvest, in a startlingly erotic image, “with his hand pressed against the tree trunk, his mouth working the pit out of a date.” If God grants her wish, she vows, “I will not tell anyone about this sea inside of me when the silt rises to choke me.” Such a sea exists inside every woman, the novel reminds us, even thin, passive Mayya, who reveals her passion to no one.
Mayya will have to repress her ardor, because her mother is about to announce her betrothal to Abdallah, the son of the powerful Merchant Sulayman, who has made his fortune through trade in both dates and slaves. (Oman, a center of the East African slave trade starting in the sixth century CE, did not abolish slavery until 1970.) Like all the traditional marriages in the novel, it’s a match made by families rather than individuals: if Merchant Sulayman decides that Mayya must marry his son—whom the novel does not even name until after the couple’s first child is born—neither she nor he has anything to say about it. The couple will find themselves in a kind of limbo between the world of their parents and that of the next generation, upholding certain traditions and rejecting others.
Mayya scandalizes the entire village of al-Awafi, where much of the book takes place, by giving her infant daughter the name London. “This is the name of a place, my dear, a place that is very far away, in the land of the Christians,” says a relative, trying to gently talk her out of it. Abdallah, the only character who speaks in the first person (we are privy to his internal monologue as he drifts in and out of sleep on an airplane), becomes the target of his relatives’ scorn for, in their perception, indulging her. The reader will eventually discern that he has his own reasons for rebelling against the culture of his parents, though he doesn’t share those reasons with his wife. But for Mayya, the choice is motivated less by a desire to be modern than the need to assert her independence: “Mayya did not speak much but she would not imitate anyone…. London’s clothes would not look like anyone else’s just as her name echoed no other girl’s.”
The other solar system in the book is centered on Zarifa, a former slave who now occupies a powerful but fraught position as concubine to Merchant Sulayman. A kind of surrogate mother to Abdallah—the merchant’s wife died under mysterious circumstances a few weeks after giving birth to him—and devoted companion to his father, Zarifa annoys the upper-class women by assuming certain privileges, such as eating off the same platter as they do. “Everyone recognised” her status, Abdallah reflects later, “even if no one ever said anything.” Though her own position is unorthodox, she is quick to judge others who deviate from tradition, and has a proverb ready for every occasion. “When the ass’s belly is full of food, then and there he kicks you good,” she says of an ungrateful daughter-in-law.
Brash and sharp-tongued, Zarifa is the novel’s most interesting character, if not the most sympathetic. Abdallah, whose thoughts circle around his grievances against his father, remembers both her concern for him and her cruelty. Worried that he was insufficiently interested in women as a teenager, she sent the household servant girls to seduce him. But when his father punished Zarifa for some offense by making her marry Habib, “the most eccentric and aggressive slave he had,” she took out her rage on Abdallah, pouring the contents of an entire container of pepper down his throat—one of the many ways in which this novel depicts crimes of parents being visited on their descendants.
The primary sin of the past is slavery, which continues to exert its legacy. Habib was brought forcibly to Oman from a village in Baluchistan and vividly recalls the journey:
the local gangs that attacked their village wanting money, or perhaps to pay old scores; the merchants, a jumble of Baluchs and Arabs, who bought them, there on the plains; the filthy crammed ships those merchants packed them into; the eye disease that spread fast from one child to the next on shipboard; his mother’s screaming for her other children, who’d been shoved onto other boats; the nursing baby who died of smallpox while on her breast.
He mocks Zarifa when she refers to Oman as the country of her ancestors:
Your ancestors aren’t from here. They were as black as you are, they were from Africa, from the lands from where they stole you, all of you, and sold you.
It’s useless, Zarifa, to try telling this man that no one stole you…slavery passes to you from your mother.
Later, Zarifa’s son, Sanjar, will scorn her for acting as if she were still a slave: “The world has changed but you just keep on saying the same words over and over: ya hababi, ya sidi, my master, my honoured master.” But Zarifa’s status is more privileged than it appears: she is not only Merchant Sulayman’s mistress but the person in charge of the household. She remains loyal to the family that enslaved her ancestors because, owing to her relationship with the patriarch of that family, she is one of the few women in the novel to hold real power. Still, when she dies, no one bothers to tell Abdallah, who by then has acceded to his wife’s demands to move to the capital and leave the village behind.
Celestial Bodies takes place almost entirely in the domestic sphere, the world of women: in living rooms and courtyards, in bedrooms where adolescent girls are hidden from the curious eyes of men. As if to answer the question of where all the books about motherhood are, the experience of childbirth—another battleground where the old ways come into conflict with the new—is prominent. Salima recalls how a midwife made her stand up, holding on to a pole, “as tall as a grand mare,” when she gave birth to Mayya. Mayya, by contrast, insists on giving birth in a hospital, though she submits afterward to the traditional postpartum remedies: bread baked especially for the new mother, with butter and mountain honey, milk boiled with fenugreek. She is astonished when Abdallah shows up with cases of baby food and powdered formula: “no one in al-Awafi fed their babies such things.” Zarifa remembers her own difficult labor with Sanjar, which her mother tried to assist with various potions: water mixed with the dirt from a grave, or collected from the floor of a mosque; honey over which verses from the Qu’ran had been recited.
As in Western culture, folklore and witchcraft become a source of power for women who are otherwise bereft of it. After the women of the household give birth, Zarifa follows the tradition of offering a platter of food to placate a jinn who might attack them. Like her mother before her—another woman whose “hard dark face concealed an awesome and voracious appetite for living”—Zarifa also participates in the monthly “zar exorcisms,” ceremonies to drive out demons that possess mainly women. “The ecstasy of it all lifted her outside of herself, beyond consciousness,” Alharthi writes. She cautions Abdallah not to go to sleep thirsty, for fear that his soul will leave his body in search of something to drink and get trapped in a water jar; for years he continues to drink several glasses of water before bed.
But legends like that also become a way of obfuscating difficult truths, of concealing information from those who are not meant to have it. Abdallah is tormented by confusion over what actually happened to his mother. To his bewilderment, his aunt, Masouda, told him that the basil bush in the courtyard killed her. How, he wonders, could a basil plant kill someone? Zarifa refuses to answer when he asks her; later, he hears a more elaborate story involving his mother offending the Shaykh of the Jinn, who lived beneath the bush. Yet another relative tells him that his mother is still alive but was bewitched, and now wanders on the outskirts of town as a servant to a wizard. The reader finally learns the truth, but Abdallah is left to wonder.
Another way for women to assert control is through sex. In a startling episode, a Bedouin woman who goes by the names Najiya and Qamar—the latter is the Arabic word for moon—seduces Azzan, Salima’s husband, kicking off a passionate affair. Her friends caution her that he won’t leave his wife, who is, after all, the daughter of a shaykh. “Who said I want to marry him?” she retorts.
Qamar doesn’t let anyone give her orders. I wasn’t created to serve and obey some man. Some fellow who would steal what should be mine and keep me from seeing my brother and my girlfriends!… He’ll come to me when I want him, and he’ll go away when I say so.
Maryam, the widow of Judge Yusuf, recalls the way her mother cautioned her, as the judge’s fourteen-year-old bride, to use the heavy bracelets she wears to defend herself against her husband’s ministrations: “don’t be a juicy watermelon just waiting there for him.” She fought him for a month as he cajoled her, promised he wouldn’t force himself on her, and finally asked in incomprehension why she hated him so much. “I didn’t hate him at all, he was a lot better than my father or my brothers or anyone else…. I was just listening to my mama, only doing what she said to do. Trying not to be a soft watermelon.”
As this anecdote demonstrates, women often find themselves in the position of upholding the very standards that restrict and oppress them. The novel’s mouthpiece for traditional religion is not one of its shaykhs but a character called only Muezzin-Wife, who cautions Mayya about being in an “unclean” state after birth, to the annoyance of her sister Asma, who is frustrated by the contradictory rules she reads in the books of religious laws on the family shelf. How, for instance, is she supposed to adhere to the instruction to “do one’s intimate business on a soft surface rather than a hard one,” when bathrooms have only hard surfaces? When she brings up evidence from a book of prophetic traditions that the Prophet Muhammad was willing to have contact with his wife during her menstrual cycle, the Muezzin-Wife accuses her of trying to “revise the faith.” The skill of critical thinking, at least on this subject, is not appreciated by the older generation.
Asma’s favorite book contains a legend that preoccupies her throughout her life: that human beings were originally created as spheres and split in two, leaving each person to scour the world in search of his or her missing other half, without which they will always feel incomplete. (The legend will remind Western readers of Aristophanes’ tale in Plato’s Symposium, from which it is likely derived.) Not surprisingly, her own marriage, to a man who obsessively paints horses, falls short of that ideal. Indeed, there are no perfect pairs to be found here. Even London, who marries for love against her parents’ wishes—they are aghast that her fiancé is the son of peasants—has no greater success: he turns out to be abusive. Her own independence will become a double-edged sword: she is reluctant to reveal the abuse because she feels she has to stand by the choice she made.
With the sparest of transitions, Celestial Bodies jumps nimbly between generations, from the marriages of Mayya and her sisters in the 1980s to London’s experiences as a young woman in the early 2000s, and back to the characters’ prehistory during the time of the slave trade. As with Mayya sitting mutely at her sewing machine, much of the action lies beneath the surface. Objects or images appear, disappear, then reappear fifty or a hundred pages later with a different meaning, seen through someone else’s eyes. The significance of Salima’s dislike of jewelry, mentioned early on, does not become clear until late in the novel, in a heartbreaking detour into the humiliations she suffered as a child after her father’s death, which left her at the mercy of her paternal uncle. Throughout the novel, the villagers persist, to her great distress, in calling her by the nickname “Bride of the Falaj”; we ultimately learn that this hated nickname has its roots in an act of great cruelty he perpetrated against her.
Marilyn Booth, the translator, has done a wonderful job of conveying a lyricism I can only assume is present in Alharthi’s original. A lipstick—a forbidden and thus treasured item—is “concealed by its awesome shell.” When Asma becomes a mother, “every birth confirmed to her that this was what her life meant: hearing the sharp scream of life from a tiny body, so finely sculpted in all of its details.” By her forty-fifth birthday, her body has “sprouted fourteen young plants, living for light and colour.”
The extended cast of characters and the nonlinear plot can make Celestial Bodies challenging to follow, and the confusingly drawn family tree at the start doesn’t offer much help. Plot strands are begun, dropped, and picked up again. Stories are told in different ways by different people, who may have incomplete or incorrect information. The fluidity of the style at times resembles stream of consciousness, with no quotation marks to demarcate speech from thought or action. The reader is made to wait not only for resolutions to the novel’s central mysteries but also for definitions of words such as falaj, which appears multiple times before its meaning (“canal”) is explained. Booth must have had her reasons for deepening the novel’s ambiguities, though she doesn’t explain them in her laconic translator’s note.
“I’m here! I’m Masouda and I’m in here!” This is the periodic cry of Merchant Sulayman’s sister, one of the novel’s most haunting characters. After her daughter tells everyone that she is insane—is she really? we don’t know—Masouda is confined to a tiny dirt-floored room in her brother’s compound, with only a mat of reeds for her comfort. When she hears the iron door leading to the outside world scrape open, she shouts her assertion of identity. Masouda’s shout stands in for all that the novel’s other women mutely endure: Salima’s humiliation by her uncle, Zarifa’s servitude, even Asma’s dismay at not finding her own experience in the books on the shelf. I’m here! I’m myself! I’m in here! The chorus of voices that arises from these pages, at once harmonious and dissonant, constitutes nothing less than the assertion of the right to exist and to be recognized.
December 5, 2019
‘I Just Look, and Paint’