(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
In her new novel “Harir Al-Ghazala,” Jokha Alharthi, the Omani laureate of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, relives many of her country’s customs and traditions.
Featuring echoes of Omani traditions, and women’s secret worlds and transitions in different times, the novel begins with a shocking scene that connects themes of birth and death in a memorable moment. In the midst of her neighbors’ mourning, a mother learns of her husband’s sudden death and decides to give up her newborn baby. That abandoned infant becomes the novel’s protagonist, whose memories lead the narration in the novel’s four chapters: “The Orchestra Concert,” “The Bloom of Life,” “The Queen’s Singer,” and “The Year of the Elephant.”
Alharthi won international fame in 2019 after her novel “Sayyidat al-Qamr”—“Celestial Bodies” in Marilyn Booth’s translation—became the first novel originally written in Arabic to win the Man Booker International Prize. (See a related article, “Arab Women Writers Struggle to Get the Readers They Deserve.”)
An Early Separation
Her new novel—whose title combines the names of two principal characters and could also be translated as “The Gazelle’s Silk”—starts in a fateful moment when the baby girl discovers she has two mothers: Fathiya, her biological one, who passed out upon learning of her husband’s death, and Sa’da, her adoptive mother, who took the infant, relieved her hunger and crying, breastfed her and became her mother from that moment on.
The circle of confusion only gets wider when the adoptive mother calls her Ghazala, and her biological mother officially registers her as Layla on the birth certificate, upon retrieving her. The protagonist remains known as Ghazala to everyone. Nevertheless, she could not escape feelings of confusion about the nature of the mother-daughter relationship.