By Sharifah Alhinai
When Jokha Alharthi co-won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019 with Marilyn Booth for Celestial Bodies, a global interest in Oman and Omani literature was sparked. Although Alharthi was certainly not the first Omani author and not the first to have her literary works translated from Arabic to English, she is a pioneer in her own respect because she put Oman on the international map through her pure mastery over the written word, a feat that no one from the country had achieved before her.
Celestial Bodies, which tells the story of three Omani sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, who experience love and loss, is more than just a multigenerational tale of a family from the fictional village of Al-Awafi in Oman; it is the story of Oman’s transformation throughout the 20th century from a traditional society into a modern one. Further, the novel highlights the challenges and complexities that arise from these nationwide changes. The story is told intimately through predominantly female voices, and reveals details about Oman’s past that readers outside of Oman largely do not know, including its history of slavery and war. It was these elements, which Alharthi creatively wove together in a sophisticated historical fiction novel, that resulted in an international curiosity to know more about the ‘quiet’ Arab Gulf State, its long history and its rich culture.
In turn, Omani writers and authors are ready to quench inquisitive readers’ thirst through masterful literary works in both Arabic and English that tell and recount various dimensions about Oman’s history, culture and society in their own unique voices and perspectives. These have included the recently translated works by Omani authors such as Younis Al Akhzami, Badria Al Shihhi and Haitham Hussein, to name a few. However, there is one Omani author among them that has been making a strong mark on the literary scene not only in Oman, but also within the wider Arab world, particularly with her 2021 Arabic novel Dilshad, which award-winning Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi recently described as ‘a novel that is as magnificent as Oman itself.’
Bushra Khalfan, the woman behind the new popular historical fiction novel Dilshad, is a retired journalist who has been captivated by writing short stories and poems since her youth. ‘I began to write, as a driven twenty-five-year-old, to express myself. I found out, in the process, that the words, which I always loved to read, were the most ideal way for me to express my thoughts,’ she recounts. ‘It was a need – a need to release tales hidden deeply in me that may have suffocated me if I didn’t write them.’
In 2004, Khalfan published her first collection of Arabic short stories, entitled Rafrafa. Two more short story collections and two poetry collections soon followed, in addition to two essays. In 2016, Khalfan broke her own norm when she published her first Arabic novel, Al Bagh, which was widely read in Oman and the Arab region. The book, like Alharthi’s, is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of largely forgotten chapters of Oman’s modern history, including the 1950’s Jebel Al Akhdar War and the 1960’s to 1970’s Dhofar Rebellion, primarily through the perspectives of a brother and a sister, Rashid and Rayya.
In the five years since Al Bagh was published, Khalfan worked on her second masterpiece, Dilshad, which Kuwaiti Publishing House Takween published in early 2021. Dilshad, which is set in Muscat and Muttarah in approximately the early to mid-20th century, a time of economic hardship in Oman’s history, revolves around the lives of three generations of one family as they navigate through the life challenges during a period of literal hunger, disease and desperation.
Khalfan says that ‘many things’ had inspired her to write the nearly 500-page novel, which, as the reader will discover in the book’s final pages, is only the first book of a forthcoming series. These have included, as Khalfan explains, ‘Oman’s history, as well as stories that I had heard here and there from various people about Oman’s social history. I was also inspired by my desire to write about the truth that so many people had shied away from discussing. When I say “truth,” I mean the period of hunger that Oman experienced before the relative abundance that we live in now.’ For the Omani author, she boldly revisits the past, a fact that is apparent to all readers of Dilshad and Al Bagh. ‘I think it’s my attempt to understand – to understand the present by uncovering the knotted threads of the past,’ she says.
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