Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi translated by Marilyn Booth

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In 2019, Omani author Jokha Alharthi won the International Booker Prize for “Heavenly Bodies”. Its multi-faceted generational history, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth, has offered English readers a rare look at Omani literature, especially Omani one-woman fiction. Indeed, amid the flurry of international attention generated by the UK prize, Alharthi noted: “People were taken aback by the book, and some even said they had no idea that a country named Oman existed.”

The second of Alharthi’s novels to be translated into English, “Bitter Orange Tree,” arrives this month and should find a primed and more informed audience. As before, the author continues to show deep sympathy for the way women suffer and survive the vicissitudes of a society that gives them little power. And fans will recognize Alharthi’s smooth treatment of timeline and setting, once again beautifully translated by Booth.

Alharthi, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh and now teaches in Oman, can simultaneously emphasize the universality of his characters’ feelings and the unique cultural context of their experiences. “Bitter Orange Tree” is a story of mourning and alienation, and Alharthi has developed a tone that captures this feeling of being suspended in the timelessness of grief.

The heroine is a young Omani woman named Zuhour who is studying at an unnamed British university. Her adventure in the West should be a time of excitement and discovery, but Zuhour is caught between past and present, Britain and Oman. His movement challenges us from the first words of the novel. One snowy morning in her dorm, she tells us, “I suddenly open my eyes and see her fingers.” These fingers, described in intimate, almost grotesque detail, belonged to Bint Aamir, a woman whom Zuhour considered his grandmother. She was the only person who ever showed Zuhour unconditional affection, and this belated realization produces some of the novel’s finest lines of tribute:

“His love seemed right there, simple, like the air that meant I could breathe, without thinking about it; given freely and generously, granted as the sun gives its light, freely enough to allow me to see my way. His love had to be deserved, it was true; but that left no obligation. My grandmother never made me feel – or made my father, my brother or my sister feel – that we were indebted to her. We deserved it as we deserve to be alive, to breathe and to turn our faces towards the sun.

Now alone and grieving, away from her family, Zuhour is heartbroken by the loss of Bint Aamir. “I was gone. And then she was gone,” Zuhour says, suggesting a grim correspondence between their departures — one geographical, the other existential. An old woman, Zuhour continues to go through the memories of their time together. It’s a process that continually comforts and torments her. “I sometimes forgot that she was dead,” Zuhour says, inspiring a new wave of grief. She had died, had fallen silent, had left the world as she lived in it, without a home, without a field, without a loved one to hold her close to her, without a brother to take care of her, and no ‘having ever had children that came out of his own body.

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If “Bitter Orange Tree” has a weakness, it’s this emphasis on static narrator grief, which can weigh on readers’ sympathy and overwhelm their interest. But thankfully, the swirling current of the narrative pushes the narrow confines of Zuhour’s extravagant mourning. In the undulating rhythms of this story, we are repeatedly drawn into the first details of Bint Aamir’s life as a woman in Oman. Driven out of her father’s home at 13 and partially blinded by herbal treatment, Bint Aamir survived shocking poverty and survived only on her wits and determination. From the fog of those harrowing years, anecdotes emerge with startling clarity.

Subjected to such a precarious existence, all Bint Aamir ever wanted was “her own little piece of land to cultivate”, but that was not the case. Instead, a kind relative on her mother’s side took her to his house, and there she lived until she was 80. The life described by Alharthi is a life of almost holy self-sacrifice. Not quite a servant or a guest, Bint Aamir nevertheless takes on the household chores and takes care of the child and then the grandchildren of her hosts, including Zuhour.

Bint Aamir was not a masochist, but there is a masochistic element to Zuhour’s ruminations. Every memory of Bint Aamir’s tireless devotion reminds the young narrator again of how cavalierly she treated her adoptive grandmother. Zuhour’s recklessness was nothing but the typical cruelty of youth – those happy years when “what we had was certainty, contentment and the enjoyment of life” – but she is haunted by the way which she was repelled by Bint Aamir’s aging body, how impatient she was with her wandering mind. What would it have really cost, she berates herself, to have responded more kindly to Bint Aamir’s little requests or to acknowledge the woman’s tireless care before leaving for college?

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Between the sheets of this sad tale of recrimination and retrospection, Alharthi gently explores Zuhour’s troubled life in Britain. The image is elliptical and impressionistic. We mostly catch glimpses – a college party with bad snacks, laughing Chinese students in the dorm. But what becomes clear is that Zuhour has fallen in love with her best friend’s husband, an anxious Pakistani who seems equally uncomfortable in England. The agony of an inextinguishable desire creates a strange emotional triangle that makes her oscillate between “fear of abandonment and fear of unity”.

“I wanted to tell them both how much I loved them,” Zuhour says. “But I couldn’t. I was frozen in my torment, mute in my destiny.

Emotional pain aside as it sounds, frozen in torment and tongue tied in fate are particularly difficult conditions to maintain in a novel, which requires at least a modicum of dynamic movement. Zuhour alludes to the same problem when she describes her sessions with a campus therapist as futile. With perfectly Western optimism, a British friend assures him that “there was a solution to every problem, even sadness”. But for Zuhour, “sadness is not a disease” to be cured. She cannot express to her therapist how she feels “bound to a wheelchair which was the inability of language to fully express me.”

This clumsy metaphor goes a long way to suggesting why this novel of exquisite sensibility spins its wheels and goes nowhere.

Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.

By Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

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