In this excerpt from 2019 Man Booker International winner Jokha Alharthi's novel Bitter Orange, an Omani student dredges up her grandmother’s troubled past and grows entangled in the personal dilemmas of her fellow international students.
I open my eyes suddenly and see her fingers. One by one I see them, fleshy, wrinkled, the nails rough. A single silver ring; her thumb with its thick, tough black nail, preserving the traces of a bad injury that all but severed it.
I didn’t see that strange fingernail as strange. She always asked me to cut it but the heaviest nail clipper wasn’t strong enough. Every time I tried, she would shake her head. “Khalaas. Forget it—try the knife.” And a small knife really would appear, all of a sudden, from nowhere. I didn’t attempt it, though. I cut the rest of her nails, the ordinary, healthy ones, leaving to her the business of the hard black nail on the thumb deformed by injury.
Waking up to see the snow falling outside my window, I would climb out of the narrow bed in my top-floor room in the university residence hall and stand barefoot on the wooden floor in my long nightgown, staring into the snow and the darkness. And suddenly what I was seeing was not the nighttime landscape but the hard, black, crooked nail. It was right there, plain before my eyes, leaving me wakeful with remorse. I would go back to my narrow bed, and finally the voices of my Chinese classmates in the kitchen would fade away and the loud music from my Nigerian classmate’s room would grow faint, as I tossed and turned in an agony of regret.
I could have done something for the black nail instead of leaving it to grow so long, neglected and askew. It was possible for the word ignore not to exist. But it did. It existed and it grew and it got longer, just like any confident, healthy fingernail, one long enough to leave a scratch or not, like this nail of mine, still bearing the varnish I’d put on for a Pakistani friend’s birthday party the day before. Yes, the word ignore could go on and on—without a nail clipper, without any polish even, and when I felt like I was suffocating, wrapped up in my long nightgown, in my little bed on that snowy night, it was the remorse, the guilt, that choked me. Neglect. Negligence. Looking the other way. Pretending not to notice.
Was there ever a day when I asked her, “What happened to your nail?” Maybe, but if so, I don’t remember what happened. I was collecting the rough slivers cut from the healthy fingernails, ready to toss them out. She wanted me to bury them in the dirt but I ignored that. I pretended not to know that was what she wanted. She’d tug out her white pouch of medications from beneath her outstretched leg and hand it to me. There was nothing there one could read, not really, perhaps a couple of lines of ink on a plastic bag. The white pills twice a day, the pink ones three times a day. What were the pills for? I don’t know. I never asked. There were twenty problems in my math textbook that I had to come up with solutions for: I wasn’t about to start asking about the medicine bottles with hurriedly written lines of ink sprawling across them.
I forget the fingers. I forget the medications. Then, one night—on a good night, when I’m not dealing with insomnia, or grief, or memories—one night, any night, I’ll see her in a dream.
Sitting, the way she always was during those last ten years, her face sweet and all wrinkles, her smile radiating goodness, her arms reaching out for me. When she extends her arms toward me like that, the long, bright-colored tarha draped over her head cascades into dozens of little folds and pleats, and the silver ring on her healthy, straight little finger flashes with light, concealing the afflicted black nail. And then I fall into her embrace.
It would already have been autumn, when I had that dream. The large trees ringing the university residence would have gone yellow and the leaves would have fallen. The caretakers sweep the yellowed leaves from the pavements, and the female students show off how well they are enduring the colder weather by choosing to wear their shortest skirts. But just a moment ago, I was there: before I opened my eyes and autumn plunked itself down in my consciousness. I was in her embrace. I was smelling the scents she’d worn, the extracts, and ancient soil. We were switching roles. I was repeating the words that she’d always said over and over: “Don’t go.” No, we didn’t exchange places exactly, because she was smiling softly, sympathetically. I hadn’t done that back when she was the one saying “Don’t go.”
For I had gone. I went. And it wasn’t possible to change anything. What was written, was written. “All your tears and begging don’t erase a single line of what is written.” I went, and I went without smiling. I just went, in my cocky presumption that I could look the other way. That I didn’t know; that I didn’t need to know. Remorse, harsh regret, making me more fragile than the brittle autumn leaves crumbling under the janitor’s broom beneath my window.
My svelte Pakistani friend’s fingers were perfectly symmetrical and polish never touched the nails. Her name, Sorour, means “happiness” and she was the picture of happiness. With that jet-black hair rippling down her back and her dazzling smile, she reached with her slender fingers, with the precisely clipped nails, to comb through that beautiful hair of hers. Her nails never left a scratch on anything, as if existence itself had stowed her away for safekeeping on a remote ledge, protected from storms and high winds. No scratches, no swellings, no scars. I was always teasing her: “You are made for love, Sorour.” She would laugh. I quoted the ancient Lubna’s beloved Qays:
Love’s signs etch themselves, the youthful body grows thin
Love strips from the lover’s hands the very bones in his fingers
Sorour didn’t like that—“the very bones in his fingers”—and she wasn’t a lover. Her sister was. On her birthday—the day I painted my nails bright red—Sorour’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. For her lover-sister had married her beloved in a secret temporary marriage. No one knew, and Sorour, the little sister, had to conceal that severe secret, a heavy, heavy weight on picture-of-happiness Sorour. Born in her father’s luxurious villa in Karachi, speaking nothing but English all of her carefree life, Sorour was overwhelmed by the secret. She didn’t understand how her sister could have gone from a few silly flirtations to the calamitous business of marriage. And for whom? A boy with only secondary school English he had learned in a remote village somewhere on the mysterious wild borders of Pakistan. His father wasn’t a distinguished banker like hers was, and his peasant mother had never heard of a city called London. But in her final year studying for a medical degree, Sorour’s sister Kuhl found a shaykh who was willing to bind her and her beloved in a mutaa marriage. And Sorour, on her twenty-second birthday, was bearing the secret, dragging it around with her like a mutilated finger with a misshapen black nail.
Her long black hair loose on her shoulders, she sobbed, “Just imagine, Zuhur, imagine! My sister . . . my very own sister, marrying that peasant!” Sorour was prettier than her sister; she resembled their mother who had grown up in London and would probably have become a star of the stage if it hadn’t been for her marriage. Sorour didn’t wear any makeup; her tears were pure, clean drops, not darkened by kohl or tainted by face powder. They were large drops, glistening, and they looked perfect—my tears were thin lines edging down my dirty face—as she rubbed them off with her black-nailed thumb, handing me her walking stick and saying, “Go after them! Give them a good beating will you.” I would pretend to go off, but I would hide in the prayer room at the back of the house, that was in the summer, before the time when she was always having to sit. She was still walking then, every late afternoon, between our house and the orchards, crossing through all of the narrow lanes where we played.
One day, she witnessed a scene that had happened many times before, but without her knowledge of it. Me, sprawled on the ground, and Fattum rolling my face in the dirt, her brother Ulyan yanking at my hair, and tears running uncontrollably in dirty lines down my face. Suddenly she was there: her massive frame, distinctive height, full body, and the walking stick that always supported her came down on Fattum and Ulyan. They scampered away and she followed them but they slipped into their house. So she swung that cane upward and thwacked the wood door, nearly splintering it. When Abu Ulyan opened the door, it was a miracle that he escaped having his eyes gouged out by her cane. “If you don’t punish those kids of yours,” she said, “we will.” And she turned away and marched to the house without so much as a glance at me.
There was some birthday cake still, on the table, and paper cups. Few classmates had shown up: Sorour didn’t serve alcohol. She was studying Arabic through classical texts; and for a while now she had been more at ease reading the medieval scholar al-Tabari than she was reading the newspaper. Reading the scholars’ interpretations of the Qur’an, she’d become convinced that her father was wrong to have served drinks at his boisterous parties, whether at the Karachi villa or in the London flat. I was thinking that we ought to clean the place up, but Sorour just went on moaning about her sister. “He’s a peasant. His mom and dad are illiterate. A farmer.” But he wasn’t a farmer. He was a student pursuing a university degree in medicine, just like her sister.
“My grandmother would’ve given anything to be a peasant.” I said it abruptly. And then I was immediately sorry I’d said it. Sorour raised her head. “Your grandmother?” Right. The words had come out and they couldn’t be put back. And I had said “my grandmother.” Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside ourselves? But there are no threads attached to our words. What’s done is done.
The Father’s Platter
It all happened during World War I.
Shipping was at a standstill in the Gulf, and goods were hard to come by. The price of a sack of rice shot up to a hundred qirsh—the old Maria Theresa thaler that was Oman’s currency—and a bag of dried dates cost thirty. A woman’s cotton tarha couldn’t be had for less than two whole qirsh. Famine struck. The irrigation canals dried up, the date-palms were dying, and villages emptied as people left, heading either to other parts of the country where life was more affordable or to the east coast of Africa.
She and her brother were born a little after the war in one of these villages staggering under the burden of inflation and drought. Her mother had died of fever only a few years after giving birth to her. That was when people were circulating rumors whose source no one knew, about an English company that had been given oil drilling rights. Her father was a horse trainer, skilled at training and taming race horses for the course. But his new wife had tamed him, and she convinced him that it was best for the two of them, and for their children, to expel the previous two whose mother had died. And so that is what happened. As his son was reaching out his hand for a bit of food from the shared platter, the father slapped his arm, and the precious grains of rice flew from the fingers of the fifteen-year-old boy. His sister, two years younger, started shivering and stopped eating. The father shouted. “Shame! Don’t you feel shame eating at you father’s table? Eat from the hard work of your own arm! He’s not always going to be here for you.”
The boy left, his sister on his arm. They walked out of their father’s home.
She told me this story the day she roughed up Fattum and Ulyan, rescuing me eternally from having my face rubbed in dirt and my hair torn out. Yet I didn’t believe her. I imagined my own father gripping my brother’s hand and then putting my hand in his, and expelling us from the house. It wasn’t possible. Surely such a thing could not possibly happen. But she told the story countless times after that, and every time, one little tear from her one good eye would roll down her face. Not because they’d been kicked out as two orphans but in memory of her brother who had not been able to endure the misery and pain of working as a day laborer building mud-brick houses. He died less than two years after their expulsion.
“Your grandmother?” asked Sorour. “She wanted to become a peasant?”
Yes. It’s not possible to yank words back, there are no threads. “She wanted to own some land,” I responded. “Even just a tiny patch. With date-palms growing on it, even if there were only five or so. And a few little fruit trees—lemon, papaya, banana, bitter orange. She could even plant those herself. She could water them and take care of them. And eat from them. And rest in their shade.”
My friend was silent. She probably didn’t have a clue what I was trying to say. We gathered up the cups and plates and wiped the tables clean. The party had ended. Sorour would go to sleep, suppressing the thought of her sister’s marriage. My grandmother’s dream would remain, wakeful and alive.
She went on dreaming of the tiny plot of land that she would tend, living off its proceeds, until her death. But her dream never came true, nor did any other dreams she had. Even when she climbed into the Bedford lorry that took her from her village to Muscat for an appointment with Thomas, the famous missionary doctor, reviving the fantasy of regaining her sight completely in the one eye that the herbal remedies of the ignorant had obliterated. But Thomas obliterated her dream. He told her that the pain in that eye would go away on its own, but the herbal infusion that had been repeatedly applied had caused permanent loss of sight in it. No surgery that he could perform would bring it back. She had to be satisfied with her one good eye, he said. She would have to make do. So she was satisfied. She made do. She climbed back into the lorry, without a word, and returned to the village.
And I, my sight still misty and blurred in the fog created by her open arms held out to me, forget that she has died. I get up to look for her. I search the corridors between rooms. I can hear my Chinese classmates arguing, and the little screams of my Nigerian neighbor having sex with a Colombian student she’d taken a liking to recently. I find myself wandering barefoot into the ice-cold kitchen. The snow hasn’t stopped. Finally I remember that she is dead, and I stop searching the corridors.
Kuhl tried to convince Sorour to give up her room now and then, so that she could be alone with her husband. He was living in a tiny flat with five other Pakistani students, so it was impossible for her to go there. Kuhl lived with a relative’s family, since their flat literally abutted the college of medicine while the college’s student residence hall was very far away. Even if she tried, she wouldn’t be allowed to apply to live in that residence hall before the end of the term. They’d used up all their funds on cheap B&Bs, and her father the banker was not going to increase the amount he transferred monthly to his two daughters. Sorour said no at first, but finally she gave in, leaving the key for her sister and spending those hours at the university library or trying to study in the garden. In the end, though, she couldn’t abide the thought of it. She confided to me that it made her feel filthy. Their parents weren’t stingy with anything. And here the two of them were, so far away, conspiring behind their parents’ backs. She couldn’t stop thinking about what the two of them were doing in her room. About that hand—that rough peasant hand—on her sister’s soft, smooth throat; his thick lips on her pampered body. This was torture, she said. She couldn’t stand it.
From Narinjah © Jokha Alharthi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Booth. All rights reserved.