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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.”
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the May 2019 issue

Unsettled: New Writing from Oman

As we put together this issue on Arabic-language literature from the Sultanate of Oman, a country located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, our aim was simple: provide a space for underrepresented literary voices. The writing of Omani authors is scarcely circulated in translation, especially when it comes to book-length work, a sterling exception being Jokha Alharthi, who is featured in this issue. Similarly, Omani authors are barely featured in anthologies dedicated to the geopolitical space their country is often subsumed within: the Arabian Gulf. One particularly important anthology of literature from “Modern Arabia” featured but one Omani author in an ensemble of ninety-five. 

The task we’ve laid out for ourselves becomes fraught when we consider the presumptuous nature of delimiting a political space through which to typecast these diverse writers. We are certainly aware of the clunky convenience of this kind of methodological nationalism, which renders literary culture legible only within the container of the nation-state. We do not, in fact, expect that any of these authors write first as Omanis and then as novelists or poets. 

Perhaps we are making waves where none belong. Perhaps we ought to consider ourselves akin to the medieval anthologists of the classical Arabic tradition who organized their massive compilations geographically, linking littérateurs to their regions of origin, to their patrons’ courts. In which case, our attention, rather, should turn to the exceptional qualities of this issue and the literary merits of these authors who just happen to hail from Oman. While a few of these five authors are international trailblazers in contemporary Omani literature in their own right, we are especially excited to feature several writers whose works have never been translated. Further still, despite the primacy of poetry over prose in Oman, two of the contributions to this issue are novel excerpts that demonstrate the growing popularity of narrative fiction among Omani authors. Regardless of genre, each author exhibits a distinct style, displaying the wide spectrum of Oman’s contemporary literary scene. 

And yet, though each author exhibits a distinct style, we hope readers will perceive the common theme of unsettlement across the works. Unsettlement, a lack of centeredness, manifests itself throughout each work as relocation to a foreign country (Alharthi), foreignness within one’s own body (al-Badri), mournful loss of a beloved (al-Saifi, al-Omairi), as well as the self-reflexive displacement of the poet from poem in the act of writing (Allawti). These authors engage with the precariousness of identity, how our settled selves are always under threat from without and within, and in effect subvert their own neat categorization within a national literature. 

In a particularly demanding text, Badriya al-Badri’s excerpt from The Shadow of Hermaphroditus portrays the stream of consciousness of its transgender narrator. The reader is pulled deeper and deeper through their personal crisis via kaleidoscopic memories, impulsive observations, and future schemes. While expecting that these recollections of a troubled childhood and the seeming impossibility of living as their true self will ultimately consume Suad, in a veritable sleight of hand, al-Badri places tragedy at another character’s doorstep. Alongside al-Badri’s contribution, and marking the second collaboration between novelist Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth (the first being the 2019 Man Booker International Prize-winner Celestial Bodies), an excerpt from Alharthi’s novel Bitter Orange follows its narrator, an Omani student studying in London, as she grows entangled in the personal dilemmas of her fellow international students. The brief selection touches on issues of class and morality as the narrative weaves in and out of the present to recount the narrator’s family history. The imperative of speech to drive narrative forward is not wasted on the narrator, who seeks to verbalize only what is essential. She finds herself troubled by this, reluctantly explaining her grandmother’s troubled past after a thoughtless remark: “Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside of ourselves? But there are no threads attached to our words. What’s done is done.” Both narrators, internally and externally unsettled, must navigate the precarious terrains of personal and social identity. 

In Aisha al-Saifi’s poem “Like Any Messiah Taken Unaware by Death,” mourning serves as the basis for exploring the polysemy of loss. The loss of one’s father or of one’s country, though recurring referents, are, by al-Saifi’s admission, “too much for poetry.” In her recent book-length poem, Electronic Thorns (2017), Reem Allawati meditates on the poetic process, presenting a self-reflexive poetic voice. Our selection from Electronic Thorns’s untitled second section finds Allawati grasping at the mystery of writing: “My hand is a cage that forgot to lock its door / So speech flew away.” Allawati’s provocative line breaks and dramatic spacing between clusters of verses utilize the page’s negative space to reflect when the poetic voice goes quiet. Lastly, Abdulaziz al-Omairi’s “Repentance” displays a thoughtful engagement with the Classical Arabic poetic tradition. While the poem begins with the poet’s recollection of a departed lover, written outside the classical double-hemistich, though perhaps with a nod to the nasīb (amatory prelude), al-Omairi interpolates metered verse halfway through, signaled by variations of the Arabic root (f-ʿ-l). “Mafāʿilun” and “fāʿilātun” are references to the device in Arabic prosody used for memorizing meter paradigms. Though not in an iconoclastic gesture, al-Omairi abandons meter yet again, allowing himself to embrace his longing for what lies outside the chains of the hemistich.  

We have proposed a sense of unsettledness as one way to read the work of the authors here. Lest this unsettledness become just another unsatisfactory category, the writing here ought to remind us of our own responsibility as readers to apprehend this unstable ground not in opposition to our own groundedness but as a reminder of the shifting modes of identification that are common to all experience. In their striking range—of narrative strategies, neoclassical pastiche, and lyricism—these pieces offer, more than mere shifts in literary devices, modes of reconsidering what we think we know, whether about Oman, our own countries, or the uses of literature.

Read more from the May 2019 issue
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