(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.
Throughout the novel’s 168 pages, we follow Ghazala’s experience living with two names and two mothers. However, she will keep searching for love all her life. At the age of 16, she fell in love with her neighbor, a violinist, and got married to him. Soon, however, this love dies out and the husband leaves her, a young mother of twins in her undergraduate years at university.
Throughout the novel’s 168 pages, we follow Ghazala’s experience living with two names and two mothers. However, she will keep searching for love all her life.
A New World
In her new world full of the challenges of motherhood, study, and work, Ghazala clings to the memories of her childhood, accompanied by Asiya, her sister, through breastfeeding. Throughout the novel, these memories appear as distant flashes, used by Alharthi to depict the paradoxes of life in a simple Omani village.
Despite the central role of Asiya in the narrative, Alharthi ends her presence early in the novel, after tragic family circumstances force her to leave the village, leaving Ghazala alone. The latter would spend her life in search of her sister until she starts imagining Asiya’s voice in radio and television programs. Although she seems certain that it is the voice of Asiya, the novel does not confirm this and keeps her fate ambiguous.
With successive disappearances of a number of the novel’s characters, their presence continues to flash back in Ghazala’s mind in the battlefield of her life.
These disappearances leave more room for Harir, Ghazala’s new friend at the university, who writes down events from both their lives in her diaries for ten years, from 2006 to 2016.
In her diary entries, Harir makes many observations about her university life, of accompanying her mother on her chemotherapy journey to Bangkok, and of meeting Ghazala at the university and becoming friends.
In her narrative, Jokha Alharthi moves between the life of Ghazala and Harir’s diary entries, with paragraphs dated by day, month, and year at the head of each page, till she reaches the present time. Moreover, her reflections on the life of her female colleagues in the university’s dormitory, reflect the broad spectrum of young women’s social and intellectual life at this stage and their contradictions.
Music and Cinema
The novel also brings together several artistic tributaries, such as music, cinema, and the visual arts, all of which play a pivotal role in the lives of the characters and those around them. One is the violinist whom the young Ghazala falls in love with, who dreamed of becoming a player in the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. The novel follows this musician since he was a child of ten, dreaming of joining the national orchestra, whose concerts are broadcast on Omani TV, up to his family’s journey to enroll him in the qualification tests of the National College of Music and Arts in London. However, with all his glamor, this violinist remains a ghost to Ghazala as she awaits his return to her and her twins.
The novel also brings together several artistic tributaries, such as music, cinema, and the visual arts, all of which play a pivotal role in the lives of the characters and those around them.
In parallel, Aunt Maliha, another of the novel’s characters, decides to open a small, low-priced movie theater in the village, arranging chairs and projecting films on the opposite white wall.
Despite her natural simplicity, the novel also reflects Maliha’s progressive and adventurous nature, introducing the idea of a small cinema for the people of her village and screening Egyptian films such as Mohamed Khan’s 1984 film “Kharag Wa Lam Ya’od” (“Missing Person”). Maliha suffers successive frustrations, however, after her family members fail to support her cinematic dream.
The character of Aunt Maliha also reflects the crisis of marginal personalities who long to become the center of events. She hopes to achieve this when she opens the small cinema and wears make-up, especially before film screenings, and waits to get the attention of her villages’ people. Throughout her life, Maliha seeks to attract the attention of her family and those around her. On the day she dies, she finally succeeds.
In another cinematic theme, the novel introduces a fantasy, long-distance love story between Ghazala and a young Iraqi comic artist based in Sweden.
To make this fantasy succeed, Ghazala does her best, through social media chatting, showing her creativity in inventing entertaining tales, sharing his passion for comics, and opening conversations about American Walt Disney films and Japanese anime film.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Features of popular culture permeate the narrative. This in itself is one of the novel’s most important themes, depicting a village in all its manifestations. The novel also highlights many rituals and folk traditions, and the customs of traditional Omani food. It depicts the broader historical context of life in the Gulf, where we find echoes of tales of pearl merchants, whose fortunes and glory faded away at the beginning of the last century.
“Harir Al-Ghazala,” by Jokha Alharthi, was published in Arabic this year by the Beirut-based publishing house Dar Al Adab. It is not yet available in English translation.