Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Literary firsts mark a new chapter for Arab authors

Jokha Alharthi’s international win offers a window onto rarely glimpsed Omani life

Arabic author Jokha Alharthi poses after winning the Man Booker International Prize for the book 'Celestial Bodies'. AFP
Arabic author Jokha Alharthi poses after winning the Man Booker International Prize for the book 'Celestial Bodies'. AFP

This has been an exciting year of literary firsts for Arab writers. Last month Lebanese author Hoda Barakat became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Now Jokha Alharthi has joined her in the region’s growing literary hall of fame by becoming the first Arab author to win the Man Booker International prize.

Her novel Celestial Bodies, written with the poetry and lyricism of the Arabic language, touches upon difficult subjects such as Oman’s very recent history of slavery, which was only abolished in 1970. Alharthi is unafraid to explore a facet of her country’s past which could be seen as taboo and would almost certainly be inaccessible to the outsider. The refreshing honesty she brings to her writing could help open up a conversation about these themes, acknowledge the ghosts of the past and start global conversations about such sensitive issues.

Celestial Bodies is the first ever Omani novel to be translated into English, paving the way for more regional talent to be given a voice on an international platform and putting Arabic literature centre stage. The $63,000 cash prize will be split between Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth, in recognition of the difficulties of conveying the nuances of the original work into another language. But while the English version of her prose wowed judges, who appreciated her vivid depiction of life in Oman, Alharthi’s rich work cannot be reduced to a testimonial about life in an Arab country. Her novel is a literary gem in and of itself. While it is imperative for Arabic literature to be translated into other languages to reach a wider audience, one can only hope that her win will encourage people to read more in the original language. From Morocco to Egypt and the Gulf, there is a wide variety of talented writers whose work often goes under the radar, yet deserves recognition.

This is why it is important it is so important to celebrate authors when their creativity is rewarded. Alharthi’s win will have reverberations across the Gulf region and beyond and could inspire a whole new generation of writers, male and female, in the Arab world.

Updated: May 22, 2019 07:05 PM

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