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REVIEW: Love, Faith, and Shifting Traditions: Omani Women Face a Changing World in “Celestial Bodies” Novel

March 3, 2024
Jokha Alharthi


While seemingly insignificant, everyday ordinary decisions can ripple through generations, shaping not only individual lives, but also the very fabric of a culture. Sometimes, a mere few dozen hours can hold the power to mold entire lifetimes. By piecing together these fragments, we get a deeper understanding of how they continue to influence the course of our lives.

In her captivating novel, Celestial Bodies (2010), Jokha Alharthi explores how seemingly ordinary choices, like selecting an unconventional name for a child, opting for a hospital birth instead of a home birth, or even a young, unmarried woman engaging in conversations with married women, can subtly challenge and dismantle long-held societal norms and practices.

Alharthi crafts a meditative exploration of life’s rhythm for three generations within a wealthy Omani family. Through an exploration of the intimate moments within their homes and whispered prayers that hold their deepest desires, Alharthi reveals the subtle beauty and complexity of their existence, reminding us that even amidst life’s inevitable tragedies, the journey of life often unfolds not in grand gestures, but in the quiet hum of everyday moments.

The novel delves far deeper than a mere critique of married life for Omani women.

Alharthi masterfully merges interconnected personal journeys, where marital status becomes a contextual element rather than the sole defining factor shaping our understanding of the characters. With a Ph.D. in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh, Alharthi herself embodies the aspirations of these Omani women who yearn for intellectual and emotional fulfillment beyond traditional domestic confines.

Originally published in Arabic as “Ladies of the Moon” (Sayyidat Al-Qamar) in 2010, this multigenerational saga delves into the lives of three granddaughters from a prominent sheikh’s lineage. Mayya, a young mother navigating family life, embodies the challenges of motherhood. Asma, a bookish soul with a thoughtful nature, represents the intellectual aspirations of women. Finally, Khawla, a captivating beauty with an introspective mind, highlights the multifaceted nature of female identity, where beauty can be both a source of power and a complex aspect of self-perception.

Alharthi’s novel transcends the constraints of the English language in Western novels, where sentences are logically structured, her sentences are more fluid and poetic. Steeped in the rich tradition of Arabic poetry, the narrative unfolds with a lyrical grace, allowing characters’ lives to drift freely on currents of emotion. The lives of its characters, buffeted by adultery, abuse, and the shadows of a bygone era’s slave trade, float freely through a poetic voice, guiding us not just through external events, but into the profound inner landscapes of Alharthi’s characters.

Instead of solely portraying the disillusionment of Mayya, Asma, and Khawla with their marriages, Alharthi breathes life into their individual struggles and aspirations. Whether it is Mayya’s unfulfilled desire for intellectual exploration, Asma’s yearning for self-expression beyond the confines of her household, or Khawla’s grappling with the complexities of loyalty and longing, their stories transcend the label of “wife.” We enter their inner worlds, witnessing their internal battles and quiet yearnings, reminding us that even within the institution of marriage, each individual navigates a universe of their own making.

The novel opens with a deeply personal scene: Mayya, alone in her home, pours her heart out to God in a prayer about her romantic lover. This intimate act foreshadows the emotional journeys of the characters. Mayya’s uninhibited expression of love transcends a simple prayer; it speaks to the enduring power of love in Omani women’s lives, a force that persists even under the weight of responsibilities.

Through their introspection, they grapple with its true nature, questioning its purpose and impact. In their prayers, love transforms into a spiritual exploration, intertwining with their faith.

Love’s complexities are not solely explored through the women, but also through the men’s journeys. In a pivotal scene, Mayya’s husband eavesdrops on a conversation about love between her and their daughter. When Mayya doesn’t answer the question, “What do you really know about love?” but instead lets out a chilling laugh, it terrifies him.

The absence of a declaration of love hangs heavy in the air inside their home. Here, Alharthi uses love as both an armor and a mirror. Mayya’s silence shields her true feelings, leaving her husband adrift in uncertainty. Yet, in that same silence, a truth is revealed – leaving him to confront the reflection of his own desires and assumptions.

Love becomes a paradox throughout the novel, a force that can both protect and expose, conceal and reveal, leaving the characters grappling with the complexities of their own emotions and relationships.

It also delves into the multifaceted nature of love, revealing its ability to manifest in unexpected ways, even within characters deemed flawed or unconventional by societal norms. Najiya, ostracized for adultery in society, continues to harbor a fierce, unwavering love for her family and to protect them from harm. The scars etched on her skin, for instance, are testaments to countless battles fought to shield her brother from bullies at school.

When doctors dismiss her brother’s chance of recovery after an injury, she refuses to give up. Her love becomes its own form of personal therapy, as she tirelessly helps him regain his strength. Day after day, she guides him, leaning him against her as he relearns to stand. This poignant scene epitomizes the transformative power of love.

In the face of societal judgment, Najiya’s fierce devotion to her brother offers a potent reminder that the raw expression of love has the power to redefine lives and become the enduring strength that binds people together.

The novel suggests that love, in its purest form, becomes an expression of faith itself. It manifests as a selfless devotion, a vulnerability that exposes our true selves, yet paradoxically becomes a source of immense strength.


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