Translated By Marilyn Booth
Jokha Alharthi’s Man Booker International Prize–winning Celestial Bodies, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth and out this month with Catapult, follows the stories of three sisters—Mayya, Asma, and Khawla—and their families in a rapidly changing Oman. In the excerpt below, Mayya, who has just given birth, is cared for by her mother, Salima, as she receives her first visitors, including Zarifa, a former slave who is now in charge of Mayya and her husband’s household.
As the sun came up, Salima suddenly felt a warm sense of contentment, as though the sun were beaming its rays directly onto her heart. She was a grandmother. True, this reddish lump of flesh with the odd name had none of her beauty; but after all, the lump was her granddaughter, and one way or another it made her proud. She swept the courtyard and freshened it up with a sprinkling of water across the packed-dirt surface. She dragged the rolled-up red Persian carpet from the storeroom, shook it hard to expel the dust, and unrolled it along the length of the reception room. In the middle room, she took down the elegant china that always sat in the high dormer-like apertures punctuating the thick plaster wall, and rubbed each piece to a shine before carefully setting them back into their niches. She spread out new bedding on the floor for Mayya and the newborn. She didn’t summon clumsy Khawla to bake; she preferred to do it herself, for the bread a recovering new mother needed was very special. She mixed together the pure country butter and mountain honey to spread on the bread, and after all of these preparations, she made certain that Mayya ate every last bite on the plate and drank the milk boiled with fenugreek to the last drop. She made coffee laced with cardamom for the occasion and set out a platter of fresh fruit and dates. She arranged two bottles of rose water and a small cup of saffron on a gilt tray with the incense burner, and put the coffee, plates, and tray of scents in the room ready for visits from her neighbors. She knew the women would soon come round. She bathed herself in water steeped in her special blend of herbs—since the day she was created, soap had never touched her body. She put on her best robe and knelt down beside her silent daughter.
Suddenly a loud, gruff voice filled the entire courtyard. Bismillahi . . . ma sha’ allah . . . allahumma salli ala n-nabi . . . allahumma salli ala l-habib . . . bismillahi . . . In the name of God, the One who is merciful and compassionate. May blindness strike the eye of the envious one! Ma sha’ allah, it’s God’s will, this is right! The first one’s a girl, and a girl comes to raise her little brothers. Ten boys will follow her, God willing. Bismillahi . . . allahuma salli ala n-nabi. Prayers be on the blessed Prophet!
At this voice, Salima gave her daughter a little warning slap. Don’t even think about getting yourself up, not for just anyone, girl! Not for her. It’s only the old man’s sweetheart, that’s all.
Zarifa strutted down the long room, pausing deliberately and methodically, the name of God streaming incessantly from her mouth. She dug her toes energetically into the Persian carpet to test its depth and softness. She shoved aside the thin, almost transparent cloth that protected the tray of fruit and dates, and sized it up with a swift glance. She jiggled the tiny silver spoon in the cup to assure herself that it really did hold thick, solid threads of saffron. Only then did she continue on her way toward the middle room.
Welcome, Zaruuf, muttered Salima, with no attempt to keep the derision from her voice. My, my, you’ve come so early! If only you had waited awhile, say ten days or so. Now you’ll have to excuse me, my leg is giving me trouble, it’s painful enough that I can’t get up to greet you.
Zarifa heaved her massive body to the floor at the foot of Mayya’s bedding. She sucked in a slow breath. Relax, dearie, just keep yourself where you are resting, milady! Anyway, when did you ever get up for Zarruuf? She twisted the huge silver ring on her right index finger and leaned into the mat slightly. How are you doing, Mayya? Good girl, you’re safe and sound, blessed with a good strong body and the baby, my girl . . . I’m so sorry, I couldn’t come any earlier, because my boy Sanjar, just now he’s got another baby girl.
Mabrukeen, Salima said. Double congratulations on your blessed addition! We didn’t hear the news.
Zarifa leaned more heavily over the recumbent Mayya. Only yesterday. The viper Shanna had a girl, another daughter for Sanjar. We had our hands full.
Opposite Zarifa, Salima’s response was to bend closer over her daughter. And today? she asked. Where’ve you been since dawn? You couldn’t come to see your master’s daughter? But of course, we have to remember the proverb-giver’s words: The feet walk fast for the loving heart’s sake, but when you feel no longing, your feet drag and ache.
Zarifa stretched herself out and narrowed her eyes. No, that’s not the right proverb, habba! Listen, milady. You know perfectly well, the old bubber only eats Zarifa’s bread. And the proverb-maker says: Who’s fond of you, love him back, who shoves you away, shove him back, who keeps himself from you, give him the sack. Well! I see no one’s been here to see you yet, no one whose coffee we’d be pouring out right now. Hand over the little girl, Mayya, I’ll say some prayers for her, make some pleas up there.
The little girl wants to nurse, Salima interjected. Zarifa smiled and wiggled her shoulders lightly, like a dancer. Fish are good for her, you know, they’ll make her milk come. Not so good when she’s just given birth, Zarruuf, Salima snapped. Zarruf guffawed and sang out, The proverb-giver says: Give the sick what they yearn for, but it’s God alone will restore. But why not some salted fish, since dear Abdallah already brought her forty hens? She must have her strength back! Even that viper of Sanjar’s—he brought her a live chicken out of the goodness of his heart, and honey and butter too, and still she doesn’t want me to cook for her. The proverb-spinner says: When the ass’s belly is full of food, then and there he kicks you good. She’s forgetting those days when she didn’t even have a dishdasha to cover her body, way back before she married my boy. Ya ayni alayk, you poor boy, my Sanjar. Your luck took a wrong turn with that viper!
Get up, Mayya, sit up now and nurse the girl, muttered Salima, showing her disgust with her guest. Mayya struggled into a sitting position.
The viper who’s with my boy nurses lying down, Zarifa sang out. Like a bitch dog. Won’t even sit up. And she named the girl Rasha. My wretched son didn’t say a word—well, what’s he going to say? She’d bite the boy’s flesh and poison him if he so much as said a word. Instead of naming them Habiba or Maryam or Fatima, they give them these names—Mervat, and Rabab, and Naabaab, Shaaakaaab, Daaaadaaaab, or maybe, why not, She-who-gouges-out-Satan’s-eye? What a world it is! And you, Mayya, now what’s your baby named?
Mayya was staring into the baby girl’s face, nestled at her breast.
There was a sudden silence. Zarifa dropped her head. Then she heaved her immense body off the floor. Must get myself moving, she muttered. Have to make lunch for you. She got to her feet heavily and headed for the kitchen.
Salima let her breath out slowly. She was worried that the oily hue of the walls in here was darker and heavier than it ought to be for a new mother. Still, she preferred to keep her recovering daughter in this room because it was warm, and guests would see the shelves made by the little wall-openings stacked with fancy plates. The mandus, the old, elegantly worked wooden chest with its brass fittings that she’d had since her own wedding, added some grace to the room as well, especially since it had recently acquired a fresh gloss and a new layer of gilt paint on the fixings. And there were the cushions and the carpets embroidered and sewn with Indian silk. Salima was always very careful with decor and adornment, except when it came to her own body.
When the voice of the muezzin’s wife sang out, asking permission to come in, Salima hurried over to the open end of the reception room to meet her. At the same moment, Zarifa emerged from the kitchen, which sat at the eastern corner of the courtyard in front of the house. Well, just look there! Salima’s legs are all better now, she can get up after all! she muttered loudly.
As Salima and the muezzin’s wife were greeting each other with obvious warmth, Zarifa’s loud hoarse voice sailed across the courtyard. The proverb-maker says: Morning or sunset, the beloved’s loved ever, but no welcome for the other, though proud and clever! She slapped her palm across her thigh and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Years ago the muezzin’s wife had come here from the town of Sama’il deep in the interior. Her own name was long forgotten since people had started calling her simply Muezzin-Wife. She and Salima launched themselves into a conversation that meandered and branched off into new tales, becoming ever more engrossing. Mayya stared at her nursing baby, her gaze silent and neutral.
Asma came in and sat down next to them. Listen, Mama! You have to make up this mixture for Mayya, just like the writer of this book Fruit for the Wayfarer said to do it. It’s got—
With a laugh, Salima interrupted her. I don’t need any of your medicine books or those fancy dukhtoors teaching me what to make for my daughter. I brought up five living healthy souls, I did, and no one had to teach me how to do it. Those books will make your eyes pop out if you keep on reading them all the time. Come on, time for some coffee.
Look here, Mayya, said Asma. Modern medicine has established that dates are very good for a woman who has just given birth, and that was revealed in the Qur’an, too, after all, when Our Lady Maryam shook the palm tree and the dates fell down on her, and all around. She was in childbirth and in the Qur’an she was told, “If you shake the palm-tree trunk, toward you, it will bring you fresh ripe dates.”
Asma pronounced the word rutban in the classical way with its proper grammatical ending, hoping to dazzle Muezzin-Wife. But her mother’s firm hand around her arm yanked her away from her sister. Leave Mayya alone! She’ll eat on her own, by herself, when she wants to.
Why? asked Asma. Muezzin-Wife had an answer ready and she intoned it half under her breath. Because she is unclean inside. It is not proper for people to share her food. It is not permitted to eat from the same platter as an unclean woman.
Asma was annoyed. She was certain there was a hadith on this. She was convinced that God’s Messenger had said or shown somehow, in his own life, in what he told others, that a woman could eat and drink in company no matter what her condition. But in the presence of the muezzin’s wife she could not say anything, since the woman might think she was criticizing the Faith.
Zarifa came in to pour their coffee. She had always been the only woman of slave origins who ate from the same platter of food as the free women did. In fact, she’d given herself this privilege, imposing it on the ladies. But no one had ever objected, or started an argument with her over it. Now she began tossing chunks of the sweet oily delicacy that marked special occasions into her mouth, licking the oil left on her fingers with obvious pleasure.
Take it easy on yourself, Zarifa, Muezzin-Wife muttered. Remember about your diabetes. Your body—ma sha’ allah!—I wouldn’t say it’s exactly scrawny.
Zarifa cackled. What should scare me about being sugar-sick? Death comes when it comes, milady dear. No need for us to torture ourselves over it. And my body—ma sha’ allah!—is just fine. May the envious one go blind! I don’t listen to what those dukhtoors say. Sukkari, they say! Well, diabetes or no diabetes, I don’t mind them. Anyway, as the proverb-maker says: The flesh of youth? Old age devours it! She refilled her cup and sipped, her bulging fingers slipping around the cup.
Muezzin-Wife smiled thinly. Seek God’s forgiveness, Zarifa! The flesh of youth is devoured by old age? How much older, Zarifa? May God’s forgiveness always be there, since humans have such tall hopes! You’re at least fifty now.
Zarifa shrugged. So, what’s fifty, ya habba! Fifty is the summit of youthfulness, I say. And my son’s only just had a child. I didn’t become a grandmother before I was even forty, like some folks do.
Salima acted as though she hadn’t been paying attention and didn’t understand the gist of the remark that Zarifa had flung her way. She busied herself eating orange sections. It did not bother her that she had become a grandmother while still in her early forties, and she made a little show of her indifference to Zarifa’s comments. But Muezzin-Wife persisted. True, Zarifa, wAllahi, you aren’t really elderly, but you were in too much of a hurry anyway. You married off your boy so young.
Zarifa sat up straighter, swallowed the sweet, and looked the muezzin’s wife straight in the eye. Mercy be! she said. I didn’t realize Shanna was such a viper. Her father had just died, and one shows mercy to the dead. Her poor miserable mother, Masouda, went mad. The girl is a relative, I told myself. There’s a connection from the womb, God forbid we abandon her. And I ask you, anyway, was it better to marry off Sanjar or to leave him to the mercy of all those men who know exactly what they’re after?
Salima gave her a sharp look and Muezzin-Wife shook her head hard. Seek God’s forgiveness for such talk, she exclaimed hastily.
More women’s voices could be heard, asking leave to enter. Salima gave Asma a sign. She got to her feet sluggishly. Asma was not at all convinced that she had no right, as an unmarried girl, to sit with the married women and listen to their conversations, especially since the “experience of life” that this custom of theirs tried so hard to keep from her was something she could obtain easily enough from books. Aah, the books! The thought of the enormous pleasure of books quickened Asma’s pace. It was a good moment to lose herself in their joys.
Excerpted from Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, published by Catapult. Copyright © 2010 by Jokha Alharthi. English translation copyright © 2018 by Marilyn Booth. By arrangement with the publisher.
Published Oct 15, 2019 Copyright 2019 Jokha Alharthi