Jokha Alharthi made history in May by being the author of the first book originally written in Arabic and translated in English to win the Man Booker International Prize for her novel “Celestial bodies.” The novel talks about the journey of three Omani generations and the transformation that took place in Oman throughout time.
She is not only the first Arab author to win the award, but also the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English.
The winning novel is Alharthi’s fourth novel. She has already published two short story collections and a children’s book. She is not only the first Arab author to win the award, but also the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English.
The Winning Novel
Describing the novel, Bettany Hughes, English historian and chair of judges for the Prize said, “It starts in a room and ends in a world.” She added: “Through different tentacles of people’s lives, loves and losses, we come to learn about society,” in this case the Omani society.
“Celestial Bodies” was originally published in Arabic in 2010 as Sayyidat al-Qamar, which translated literally is “women of the moon.” It tells the story of three sisters living in the Omani village of Al Awafi. The novel according to Amazon spotlights the choices they make in their lives regarding love and marriage. While Mayya, marries Abdallah after a heartbreak, Asma marries “out of duty.” As to Khwala, she turns down many marriage proposals waiting for her beloved to come back from Canada.
Another main character in the novel is Abdallah, who is also the narrator. Through his story and vivid memories of the events, the reader witnesses the transformation of Oman from past to present through his troubled relationship with his father.
The novel sheds light on the history of slavery in Oman. Zarifa is a slave who chooses to remain with her slave-owning family even after slavery ends in Oman. The author goes back and forth in time documenting different events.
“To me, time has a revolving effect. You cannot distinguish between present and past. The past is filtered through our memory.
“To me, time has a revolving effect. You cannot distinguish between present and past. The past is filtered through our memory. It is open to all possibilities, like the future. Therefore, the characters cannot be removed from their past,” Alharthi said in an interview to Asia Times.
Jokha Alharthi was born in Oman in July 1978. Her love for the Arabic language started at an early age. Her grandfather was a well-known Omani poet, and she grew up listening to him reciting classical Arabic poems to friends at his home. She obtained her PhD in Classical Arabic literature from Edinburgh University, at the time that she started working on “Celestial Bodies.”
Alharthi won the Sultan Qaboos award for Culture, Arts and Literature in 2016. Her novel was also shortlisted for the Zayed Award in Abu Dhabi in 2011. Her work has been translated into English, Serbian, Korean, Italian, and German. She currently works as an associate professor in the Arabic Department at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman.
Since 2016, the International Prize has been dedicated to foreign novels translated into English.
The Man Booker literary prize was founded in 1969. Nominations were originally limited to authors from Great Britain and Commonwealth states. In 2005, the Man Booker organization introduced the International Prize which allowed authors outside of Britain to compete for the award. Since 2016, the International Prize has been dedicated to foreign novels translated into English.
The Man Booker International Prize comes with a cash award of 50,000 pounds (about $64,000), which is split between the author and the translator. Alharthi shares the prize with her translator Marilyn Booth, who is an American, UK-based author and was one of Alharthi’s academic supervisors for her Ph.D. at Edinburgh University.