One of the best parts of reading translated literature is going to the places it will take you, even if only in your head. I have never been to Oman, on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. I have never eaten dates with my coffee for breakfast, or worn silver bangles and earrings and anklets, but I have had my hands hannaed, and I thought the designs were beautiful. The whole culture intrigues me.
Celestial Bodies is a novel of life in al-Awafi, a small and poor village outside of Muscat, the largest city and capital of Oman. There is the mother, Salima, and her three daughters: Mayya, Asma and Khawla (who loves lipstick and Harlequin Romance novels). There is Silima’s husband, Azzan, who secretly sleeps with a Bedouin woman named Qamar, the Moon. And, there is Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, husband of Mayya, whose voice is interspersed with each chapter of the novel. He tells us of the terrible fear he had as a child, being hung upside down in a well filled with darkness and snakes by his father who would not hear his screams.
Perhaps most interesting of all is Zarifa, the slave who becomes Merchant Sulayman’s secret lover, and Abdallah’s mother after his birth mother has been killed in complications having to do with a basil plant. Zarifa is a large woman, of heart as well as girth. Her story tells of a whole different strata within the many layers of this society.
Each parent, each child, each cousin, sister, aunt, uncle and grandparent has a life which is intricately woven within this novel. It is an intriguing story, and a fascinating depiction of a world I know little about. I found it well written and multi-faceted, as every book long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize ought to be. (Celestial Bodies also won the 2010 Best Omani Novel Award.)