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Book Review

Oil and Oman’s women

Print edition : Jun 29, 2022 T+T-

Oil and Oman’s women

The book, first published in Arabic in 2016, revisits the dramatic changes, particularly in the lives of women, that the discovery of oil precipitated in Oman in the second half of the 20th century.

“Trying to use this other language, I could not say what I truly wanted to say.”

Zuhour, the narrator of Bitter Orange Tree, the Omani novelist Jokha Alharthi’s latest novel to be published in English translation, is sitting in front of her counsellor with his “blond eyebrows” (a typically delicate reminder of their difference, not just physical but linguistic and cultural) at an unnamed university in an unnamed part of the UK. What she “truly wants to say” cannot, in fact, always be expressed or at least not all the stories are finished: Alharthi’s novel builds, circles round, and comes back to its central theme and its several different stories,ending in some ways almost at its beginning.

Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth, her translator, after they won the Man Booker International Prize for the book Celestial Bodies, in London on May 21, 2019. It was the first-ever winner from an Arab country and was in fact the first novel by an Omani woman writer to be translated into English at all.
Jokha Alharthi and Marilyn Booth, her translator, after they won the Man Booker International Prize for the book Celestial Bodies, in London on May 21, 2019. It was the first-ever winner from an Arab country and was in fact the first novel by an Omani woman writer to be translated into English at all. | Photo Credit: Man Booker Prizes / Flickr

Alharthi and her translator, Marilyn Booth, won the International Man Booker Prize in 2019 for Celestial Bodies, her second novel. It was the first-ever winner from an Arab country and was in fact the first novel by an Omani woman writer to be translated into English at all. Alharthi wrote it when she was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Like Zuhour (though unlike Zuhour, she was married with a young baby), she was wrestling with the issue of writing in English, a language she speaks fluently but is not entirely comfortable writing in. In English-language interviews, she still prefers to switch to Arabic and be interpreted if she feels a particularly nuanced or complicated point demands it. She also wanted to write about Oman, a country that in many ways hardly changed—even down to the clothes people wore—until the discovery of oil in the second half of the 20th century abruptly precipitated huge economic and social change.

The shift between generations and their values and expectations—as well as their consumer goods, dress sense, and the cities they live in—is something that many Indian readers will recognise to some degree: many are in a position to compare the changes in India from, say, the 1970s, with today. However, the changes in Oman over the same period were much more dramatic, not least because they started from a very different point. And they are still going on, at quite a breakneck speed. Jokha Alharthi has spoken about how families in which women were not permitted to study with men 10 years ago are now prepared to send their daughters to attend universities in other countries and about how her own experiences and expectations are quite different even from those of a sister who is eight years younger. As a result families contain multiple experiences and lives: a complex layering of tradition, story, and language.

First published in Arabic in 2016, Bitter Orange Tree revisits those dramatic changes in Oman and particularly in the lives of Omani women. Zuhour has her own story and her own feeling of being out of place, but she is also haunted by the story of her grandmother Bint Aamir, who died just before Zuhour left Oman.

Bitter Orange Tree (Scribner, 2022)
By Jokha Alharthi (translated by Marilyn Booth)
Pages: 160
Price: Rs.699

Except that Bint Aamir was not, in fact, Zuhour’s grandmother. She was the woman who looked after Zuhour’s father and then Zuhour herself and her siblings while their respective mothers faded out of the picture for different reasons. Bint Aamir was somewhere between a servant and a relative living on family charity. And we know from the beginning that her life is not going to be one that ends in particular happiness or fulfilment. So this is not a straightforward “heart of the family” story; it is more complex and more unresolved than that. It spirals out, swooping through other people’s (predominantly other women’s) stories.

In some ways, Zuhour’s own story runs on the familiar lines of a student from one culture studying in another and unable to occupy the new space fully because of so much that drags her down from her past (for example, Yaa Gyasi’s stunning Transcendent Kingdom). Here, it is also interwoven with Zuhour’s Pakistani friend Suroor, which in turn becomes a friendship with Suroor’s sister Kuhl. Kuhl has entered into a clandestine marriage with Imran, who is also from Pakistan but from a very different family. He is a Pakistani peasant boy who hardly ever left his village until he got a scholarship to study abroad. He horrifies Suroor, who cannot imagine how her sister could have fallen in love with him, and fascinates Zuhour for the same reason. Zuhour recognises a lot of Imran’s background, and alongside that, Alharthi makes clear that she is intensely physically aware of him (and he is intensely physically aware of himself, with an unexpectedly extravagant clothes habit). Inevitably, in a novel like this, this is not simple either because her feelings for Imran extend into her feelings for Kuhl. The connection Zuhour feels with both of them—with Zuhour at the apex of a “triangle” connecting both of them—threads through her accounts of what she can and cannot say or do.

Alharthi’s narrative is not linear; it moves backwards and forwards and sideways, through different countries and languages and cultures, coming and going in stories that loop round. We go from stories that read almost like folk tales or legends to stories about contemporary Western student life. A woman runs away from a husband who worships her and her comfortable life with him in a house back to the desert with its camels and lizards; Zuhour goes to a party where all the food is vegan and there is not much to drink. Minor characters appear from all over the world. Bint Aamir’s story interweaves with that of Zuhour’s “real” grandmother and her mother, women both incapacitated in other ways. Names change, roles change, relationships and stories change. There is a lot we do not know. (“What were the pills for? I never asked.”) Two potentially central characters have gone away from Oman, and we expect to see them again but do not. And on the other hand a character who is almost mythical, referred to as someone who may or may not have existed—a potential other story for Bint Aamir—does return, and that causes devastation in its own way.

The promenade at the harbour of Muscat. The shift between generations in Oman and their values and expectations—as well as their consumer goods, dress sense, and the cities they live in—is something that many Indian readers will recognise to some degree: many are in a position to compare the changes in India from, say, the 1970s, with today. 
The promenade at the harbour of Muscat. The shift between generations in Oman and their values and expectations—as well as their consumer goods, dress sense, and the cities they live in—is something that many Indian readers will recognise to some degree: many are in a position to compare the changes in India from, say, the 1970s, with today. 

However, importantly, Bint Aamir is not, or is not just, a victim. This is something Alharthi has been at pains to point out about the Omani women in her other novels too. We know from the beginning that Bint Aamir will end her life with so many of her dreams—to have her own plot of land, to have the lost sight in one eye restored, possibly even to be loved and cared about—unfulfilled. (It is only much later on, after she has made a failed attempt to get her eye cured, which ironically was damaged by herbal remedies, that her “son” even buys her glasses, which had seemed out of her reach before now.). But there is an important incident early in her life where she could very easily have ended up being assaulted or worse (and it is set up in a way that makes the reader expect it), but in fact, she fights back: the girl “retrieved some pride, as the daughter of the father who had thrown her out”. It sets the tone for the rest of her life as much as anything else does. Bint Aamir, Zuhour recognises, is what made the happy solidity of their childhood possible. Without her, the family breaks apart, and Zuhour, in particular, feels broken. “Her dead body looked nothing like her. It looked a lot like me. When they laid out her corpse in our sitting room, I saw myself.”

The style of Bitter Orange Tree would probably have challenged a less skilful translator, but Booth’s translation of this novel is as impressive as one would expect of a translator with her track record (she is now a professor and director of research in the faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford and an active literary translator). Sometimes, especially with songs or rhymes, Booth directly transliterated the Arabic first, with a translation afterwards, so that English-speaking readers can get a sense of what the original sounded like. Sometimes, she delicately clarifies things—food, clothes, and so on—that a non-Arabic (maybe even a non-Omani) reader will not recognise. With a sentence like “her bright-coloured coloured cotton tarha and the black tunic that fell below her knees, embroidered at the bodice, with light, colourful sleeves, and her closely fitting sirwal trousers underneath”, we cannot, as readers, actually tell what has been translated, what has been clarified or added, and so on, and yet it reads naturally, which is particularly important for the UK market, of which translated fiction is a very small part.

In the year that Celestial Bodies won the Man Booker, sales of translated fiction rose but still made up less than 6 per cent of the overall market. Most of that is in European or Nordic languages, and a lot of it is crime fiction (“Nordic Noir” has become an enormously popular genre in the UK). Translations from Arabic are slowly on the rise, but it is still only a small part of this already small number; for instance, the independent publisher And Other Stories, which champions literature in translation and is run by a translator, is only just bringing out its first translation of an Arabic novel. (It is also notable that the book jacket of Bitter Orange Tree has the wrong spelling of both Zuhour’s and Bint Aamir’s names, probably the result of a minor oversight somewhere along the line, but it does make us wonder whether a European name would have slipped through the net like that.)

Bitter Orange Tree loops round and ends not far from where it began. In some ways it is too elusive; we do not, as readers, know what will happen or even really what has happened to Zuhour. But it is also a good novel and one that deserves to be widely read.

Radhika Holmström is a freelance journalist and writer based in London. She is also the editor of the magazine of the UK’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting.