By Jokha Alharthi
Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.Tweet
Set in Oman, this is a complicated story of 3 sisters and their marriages that jumps from perspective to perspective and from generation to generation and back again. At times confusing (I had to rely on the family tree at the beginning of the book to know who was who) but always interesting in its portrayal of Omani life.
Review from our member Janice B:
This was an interesting account which spanned generations of an Omani family attempting to unpeel the layers of past traditions and beliefs showing their influence on the present and future.
The storyline follows three sisters Mayya, Asma, Khawla, and shows how their lives are not only shaped by their choice/or lack of choice of marriage partner, but also intertwined with social history and changing family values.
All three marriages are flawed and are presented to us in snapshots of past and present. Mayya’s arranged marriage to Abdullah is a central thread of the story, but is doomed from the start as both are damaged goods. Mayya pines for a long lost love, whilst Abdullah is haunted by childhood abuse at the hands of his father. Asma marries Azzan in the second arranged marriage, but she marries out of duty to family tradition, and is more in tune with her sewing machine! Khawla, the youngest sister, has the only so called “love marriage” waiting for childhood sweetheart Nasir to return from Canada. Her choice of partner, however, does not bring her happiness, as Nasir only returns when money runs out, and marries for the dowry. He then goes back to his girlfriend and life in Canada, returning yearly to father fourteen children. When he returns to Oman full-time, at the end of the book, Khawla finally has the courage to divorce him, when she remembers all the hurt she had suffered over her lifetime.
Throughout the novel, we are presented with voices from past and present creating a blend of young and old perspectives. The younger Omanis challenge ancient folklore and practices, not blindly following but making their own choices. Mayya’s choice of name for her daughter, London, is met with disapproval from the old wives, but she stands up to her beliefs and is backed by Abdullah. Khawla challenges the ancient belief of not sharing food with Mayya until 30 days after she had given birth, and looks at the holy teaching to dispute this old-fashioned ritual. Khawla and London, both seek to divorce their husbands, no longer accepting bad treatment and male dominance, highlighting more liberal views and choices and the emergence of “girl power”.
The older generation, represented by Abdullah’s father and Zarifa, grew up with established traditions of male dominance, and the pursuit of wealth. Wealth is power and driving the only car in the village brought with it great prestige in their day. We hear first-hand about slavery (abolished in Oman in 1970), when Abdullah’s father embarks on a rant about his slaves, remembering when he bought them and how much he paid. He epitomises a long-gone patriarchal era, dominating those around him, beating his slaves, goading his son. His ownership of Zarifa, his slave and mistress, spans her lifetime and her children’s and she is seen to be more of a mother figure to Abdullah, than his own mother who had died mysteriously! The standard practice of men having the right to multiple mistresses and wives is deemed commonplace by the older generation but also spills over to the present. Tension and jealousy prevail, as mistress tries to usurp wife at London’s christening celebrations. We witness women treated as second class citizens, in the barbaric treatment of Masouda, who is locked away and deemed as mad.
Overall, this was an interesting insight into the layers of Omani history, showing how the past patriarchal society of male domination and unquestioning tradition is being challenged and refuted by the younger, educated Omanis. Women are shown to have adapted to a more modern view of the world standing up for themselves, and question ill-treatment by their partners. Younger men, such as Abdullah is shown as a modern man, nurturing and supportive, able to analyse his feelings and forgive, weeping openly when his father dies, in spite of suffering at his hands. He is the total opposite to his abusive domineering father, showing that the times “they are a changing”. This marriage provides us with a reversal of stereotypical male/female roles. Abdullah is caring and understanding, whilst Mayya is remote, distant, uncaring and cruel, laughing in his face when he asks her if she loves him.
Male and female roles in this new Oman are merging to become more interchangeable and more egalitarian! Although there is great richness in tradition and drawing from the heritage of the past, the novel shows the need to challenge and draw on one’s own morality. The flaws in the novel are the confusing switches between past and present and the complicated family timelines, little aided by a family tree at the front, but overall a good read.
I enjoyed this book and read it as part of shadowing the Man Booker International Prize #MBI2019. I felt that the book was lyrical and thought provoking, providing me with an insight into a culture I knew nothing about when I first starting reading. The family structure is complex, I highly recommend digesting the family tree at the front of the book first.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Omani contemporary culture, but also to other book groups as we had a really meaningful and interesting meeting discussing this book.