The early to mid-20th century was a turbulent period in Oman's history.
The country was ravaged by mercurial rule as well as a series of conflicts that culminated with the 1963 Dhofar Rebellion, a civil war that ended 14 years later with the consolidation of the state under Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
In the midst of the unrest, poverty and hunger spread.
Omani author Bushra Khalfan has excavated the prevailing scars of the hunger in her novel Dilshad, shortlisted for the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The 500-page epic opens in the early 20th century before encompassing three generations of the Dilshad family in Muscat and Mutrah.
The novel’s titular protagonist and family's eponym, Dilshad, grows up in an impoverished Baluch neighbourhood in Oman’s port capital. “Dilshad is a well-known Baluchi name,” Khalfan tells The National. “But the protagonist doesn’t have a direct inspiration from any real figure. I moulded him completely in fiction, and to fit the story within the novel.”
The novel is as much about Dilshad as his descendants, a generation of clever, stoic women including Mariam “who face life and its pain with a resounding laugh,” Khalfan said, during an interview with Ipaf, following the shortlist announcement. Laughter, in her novel, is a reaction to debilitating pain and bewilderment, she said. “A tool to deal with misery in its different forms, a way of facing death, loss, sadness, misery and hunger.”
Dilshad is the second novel by Khalfan, an author of nine books including poetry and short story collections, and revisits a time period that the author explored in her debut work Al-Bagh, which is set during the Jebel Akhdar War and the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Dilshad distinguishes itself with the themes it explores, and which are often unexamined,” Khalfan says. “The polyphony of voices used in the novel was also a new literary challenge for me.”
Khalfan spent considerable time researching the Baluch language and culture, while working on the novel. The research happened in two phases, first in a library followed by conversations with Baluch women, particularly the elderly who could recount the oral folklore.
“Folktales are one of the ways to approach the culture of any society and its contextual references. They reflect society’s vision of itself, its value and its most important characteristics, real and imagined, both ugly and good aspects," she told Ipaf.
"Also, through these tales, we can gain insight into the material and psychological state of this society. For this reason, I used folktales in Dilshad to say what I wanted about cultures, without falling into the trap of writing a report. They also enabled me to highlight the richness of these numerous cultures.”
In the novel, hunger is described as an illness infecting the blood. Its corporeal symptoms may disappear, but its psychological effects persist, “deep and hidden.”
“Within that dungeon of hunger, societies develop in a certain way, due to scarcity and the struggle to remain alive, and social classes form as a result,” Khalfan said. “Hunger results in illnesses which can only be cured after years of the stomach being full.”
Several of the novel’s characters, male and female, are orphans, yearning for a mother’s tenderness. Khalfan said she’s always been keen on exploring the concept and realities of motherhood.
“The subject of motherhood is important to me. Motherhood not only in its biological sense or role, but in how it is the origin or source of everything, how it is reflected in the relationship of peoples with the nation and with their original culture.”
With Muscat being a port city, sitting on the Gulf of Oman, the sea also has a seminal presence in Dilshad, wrought with contradictory symbolism.
“The sea is absence, new opportunity, adventure with its latent challenges. It is a fresh new lease of life through changes in time and place.”
Following Dilshad’s excavation of hunger, Khalfan is working on a sequel title, which will examine the state of satiety. The novel’s protagonist will be Farida, daughter of Mariam Dilshad.
“I am not sure where Farida is going to take us, but I can say confidently that I know her well and I know that she is the daughter of Mariam Dilshad, and whoever has known Mariam can imagine what Farida will be in the second part of Dilshad.”