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Celestial Bodies (2010)

by Jokha Alharthi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2711171,296 (3.31)37
"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."--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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English (10)  Arabic (1)  All languages (11)
Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Jokha Alharthi, born in 1978, is an Omani writer and academic. She was educated in Oman and in the United Kingdom. She completed a PHD in Classical Arabic poetry in Edinburgh and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman. She is the first Gulf writer to win the Man Booker International Prize (2019) and the first female writer from Oman to be translated into English.

This is a family saga which follows the story of three sisters in Oman as the cultural landscape of the nation evolves. The stories of three generations are interlinked and though it is sometimes a bit confusing and one has to often refer to the family tree at the beginning of the book, the glimpses into a culture relatively little known are extremely interesting.
This book confronts Oman’s history of slavery, which was only abolished in the country in 1970. We witness how its dark complexities affect the families at the heart of this novel. “It is a sensitive subject and kind of taboo,” said Jokha Alharthi in an interview, “but I think that literature is the best platform to discuss sensitive issues. And slavery is not exclusive to Oman – It is part of human history”.
This is a most interesting book. CT
  AAGP | Jun 30, 2020 |
I really wish publishers would stop messing about with the titles of books in translation. The Arabic title of this is literally translated as "Ladies of The Moon" which makes a lot more sense - given the importance of a relationship between one of the main characters and a Bedouin girl he refers to as his "moon", his shining light, his muse. Celestial Bodies carries none of the same overtones, and means hardly anything in English.

That rant over with, this really is very good. But don't expect a neat, plot driven narrative. And regardless of the blurb, this is not really about the three sisters Mayya, Asma and Khawla that its claimed to be. What it is is a multi generational tale, told from multiple points of view, of the approach of modernity to rural Oman. This is the story of the pull of the city from the village, the pull of other countries from one's own and what that means for identity, the pull of modern values over traditional ones and, most poignantly, what freedom from slavery actually means in a rigid, patriarchal society.

And being set, mainly, in the village of al-Awafi, it is also about rumour, gossip, innuendo and the breath of scandal. Mayya, Asma and Khawla represent changes to the fabric of village life; Mayya dutifully marries, but her act of rebellion is to name her daughter "London" , to the confusion of all. London has all the opportunities of a modern education and outlook. But does it make her happier? Asma agrees to marriage and moves to Muscat, where here life becomes surprisingly traditional despite the modern environment. Khawla waits patiently for the return from Canada of her feckless teenage love. When he finally returns she does not get the life she expects.

But there are multiple other voices and stories being told here, skipping decades and generations every few pages. Some are more compelling than others; the former slave Zarifa and her family is probably the most compelling. This fragmented structure initially can be confusing , and the reader finds himself frequently consulting the helpful family tree at the beginning of the book. The problem with this is that the family tree reveals relationships that the narrative has yet to reveal. Ah well.

Also, don't expect every narrative thread to be resolved; some relatively important ones are not, at least not definitively. And on a much less important note, I still don't why Salim was being chased through the streets of Muscat by a dude in a Porsche.

But all in all I found it a very interesting narrative well worth the investment of time. As anyone who has visited Oman will know, its a fascinating country and this book is recommended as a way to start to understand some of the stories of its people ( )
  Opinionated | Jun 30, 2020 |
In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, there are three sisters who are choosing different paths for their future. Mayya and Asma have taken the decision to marry, one out of duty, one after the man she loved broke her heart. The third sister, Khawla, heads to Canada after her beloved emigrated there. As Oman society goes through the changes from a traditional, slave-owning society, and into its current modern and complex version, Mayya gives birth to a girl. Rather than choose from the traditional names and she is heavily pressurised to do so by her family, she picks the name London.

This new child is the prism that shows Omani society. The Oman that she grows up into is changing but still remains very traditional in its outlook, with control from the patriarch of the family. The story is told from a variety of different perspectives each chapter, which occasionally can overlap and get a little confusing. It is not bad overall and is a fast read. What it does do well on though is an insight into Omani culture and customs and the complexity that that arises from family matters. ( )
  PDCRead | Apr 6, 2020 |
An insight into village life in Oman.
I loved this book! But I was, sadly, the only one in my book group who did. While I can see why others were less keen, for me, it was just so atmospheric. I should add that I was listening to the audio by Laurence Bouvard and I think this version truly enhanced the book.

It does skip in time (a lot) and this can be pretty confusing. It may have helped that I listened over a few days; I'm sure if I'd taken a break in the middle, I'd have forgotten half of the characters, of which there are many. The book version has a family tree at the beginning, I could really have done with that, but obviously this would not have been compatible with the audio format.

The narrative is basically a bird's eye view of the life of a small community in Al Alwafi, Oman. It covers three generations. The grandparents' generation own slaves and think it quite normal. Their offspring's generation is living in amongst the slaves but no longer owns them. They may work for the family, but they are technically free. By the time we get to the most recent generation, about 40 years ago, many of the slaves have moved off to seek their fortunes, in a very similar way to some of the offspring of the villagers.
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is growing and causing a 'pull' to many of the younger villagers. It offers little by today's standards, but it's considerably more than what is available back home.

Village life is a microcosm, virtually closed to non Arabic speakers, and this book was a wonderful insight into the way people lived and how they saw the world. While travelling in Oman, I have had the occasional opportunity to join with an Omani family for coffee or breakfast, and this book opened up the hidden world behind my fleeting glimpses. Already the concrete dwellings are showing signs of age, but the vacated mud brick houses are washing back into the soil and returning to the dust whence they came.

As well as an insight into village life, I learned about a war that took place in Buraimi (now just over the Omani border from Al Ain, in the UAE). And another that took place on Jebel Aktar, a mountain range currently enjoyed by hikers, climbers and holiday makers to Oman.

I highly recommend the audio version of this book for the spoken Arabic (which I would have just skimmed) and the way the narrator enhances the characters.
Wonderful. ( )
  DubaiReader | Jan 23, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jokha Alharthiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Booth, MarilynTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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."--Provided by publisher.

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