Man Booker Prize winner Jokha Alharthi on unexpected fame and translating the peculiarities of Omani culture

The novelist addressed a pack session at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi

What is the flipside to winning a Man Booker International Prize? You have to fight for your time.

This is what Jokha Alharthi lamented upon during her appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi.

Last year, the Omani novelist became the first Arabic language writer to win the prestigious literary gong for Celestial Bodies, a surrealistic look at her homeland through the eyes of three sisters residing in the Al Awafi village on the sultanate.

The lack of time is not so much a complaint, Alharthi said. She is still coming to terms with how her career catapulted in the space of a year.

“Indeed, these prizes have a real effect on your life and I am first and foremost grateful for the opportunities that it is bringing me,” she said.

“But, if there is a difficult part, it would be the fact that I feel like I don’t have time to write anymore, which is really what a writer should be doing. There are festivals and interviews to do. Also, I am a reserved person, so it feels strange to go to the car park one day after work and to see people waiting for me to discuss my book or take a picture. I am not used to that.”

A novel packed with meaning

And who can blame her? The path Celestial Bodies took to international acclaim can be best described as the scenic route, with Abu Dhabi a major stop.

Alharthi began the first draft over a decade ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was studying for her PHD in classical Arabic literature. Already acknowledged as an exceptional author at the time, due to the regional acclaim of her debut novel Dream, Alharthi was moved to begin Celestial Bodies as a way to express a literary home sickness.

“I was reading so many translated works from different cultures that I missed my language so much, with its beauty and intricacies,” she said. “That drove me to begin writing the work. I had some ideas, but it wasn’t clear at first.”

It is an apt description for Celestial Bodies as whole, as it unfurls at its own meditative pace. While it spans Oman's modern transformation, having achieving independence 1951, the work's appeal is found on the micro-level of its poetic prose. At 224 pages, the novel is sparse, but it is packed with lines pungent with meaning that fuses the spiritual with the allegorical.

It was a quality that led the book to be shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2011 and for English scholar of Arabic literature, Marilyn Booth, to take on its translation five years later.

How do you describe maqboos?

The fact that Booth shared the Man Booker Prize with Alharthi is a testament to the collaborative nature of the translation process.

Alharthi admitted it was, at times, a painstaking experience filled with spirited debates revolving around some of the slightest, yet important, details of the Arabic language and general Omani culture and customs.  In some instances, Alharthi would send images of Omani cuisine like the maqboos (spiced rice with chicken) and sweets as a visual aid.

“I wrote the novel in five years and she translated it in two years,” she said.

“Marilyn would send me each translated chapter and I would read them and discuss it. Sometimes we would disagree and she is open to that. But it is also important for a writer to give space for the translator, as well, in order to express themselves and deploy their own skills.”

Looking ahead, Alharthi is excited that more audiences will get to savour Celestial Bodies. With translation rights sold to over a dozen territories including China, France, Brazil and Russia, this is one of many aspects of the Man Booker Prize she is grateful for.

“And with that, I do feel that it can give Arabic literature an even bigger spotlight,” she said. “There is some great authors here in the Arab world and if this book can help expose them, then I will be very satisfied.”

As for Alharthi’s next novel? She admits it will take a while.

“I am a slow writer,” she said. “I am always writing but these things take time for me.”

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