Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Sandstone Press, June 2018, 243 pp

Sandstone Press, June 2018, 243 pp

But the one text she had found truly memorable and compelling was the passage she had memorized without even really understanding what it meant. Something about spirits or souls that were perfectly round once upon a time but had been split apart. For as long as they were separated they would search out their other half until they found it. That is how she imagined love: a meeting of spirit-twins.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth, taps into the age-old theme of love by traversing several generations of an Omani family in the gradually changing society. It deals with slavery, religion, gendered roles, travel, but above all with love, which is the one thing that hasn’t quite changed over the course of centuries. Into her novel, Alharthi has woven excerpts from classic Arabic literature in which love appears as something consisting of two halves, often in celestial proportions. Asma, the book-enthusiast sister of Mayya and Khawla (all three are important characters in the novel), reads a passage from one of the old books, a passage which she has memorized in childhood:

Some of those who fancy themselves philosophers claim that God, Mighty is He, created every soul in the shape of a ball. And then He split every one of these spheres into two, and apportioned to each and every human body one half.

What made Celestial Bodies an intriguing read for me was the way it’s unabashedly a story from another culture, faithfully translated into English with only a brief introduction. There’s a character who appeals to God all soliloquy-style right on page 5, and the idea of slaves brought from Africa is not as distant as it might be in the European context today (not to belittle how much there is still modern slavery all over the world). On the other hand, the story is relevant and relatable in the Western context (hence the Man Booker International nomination) because with a theme as universal as love you are evidently dealing with the general human condition.

By focusing on these planetary metaphors of love, I’m talking about a rather tiny section of the novel. There is a big cast of characters with varying life experiences and interests. At least one character bluntly rejects all the talk of “poetry, flowers, the moon, nights of conversations, stars… – this isnt big on rationality.” There is no grand narrative pull, so adjust your reading goggles that way and enjoy as Alharthi paints an interesting picture of (mostly high-class) Omani life through these 240 pages or so. The thread I personally enjoyed following the most was indeed the search for soul union. Near the end of the novel, Asma, right before her wedding procession, may finally find what she has been looking for:

She looked the mirror-figure in the eye, and both of them shivered. It was the thought that she was about to join the other half of her, the self which had been separated from her self ever since earliest creation.

I’m drawn to this theme because it coincides with a book I’m reading for research very slowly, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s massive Spheres trilogy, where he charts, among other things, the ways human life has been depicted in images of spheres – i.e. round spaces that collide and coalesce – in art. It’s a fascinating book that enriched my reading of Celestial Bodies.