Book Review: ‘Bitter Orange Tree,’ by Jokha Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth

It could have been a story of triumph. A Bedouin horseman’s daughter, born soon after World War I and cast out as a young teenager, she supports herself through the filthy work of making charcoal. Taken in by a relative, she raises generations of the family, sustaining them through bouts of madness and despair. She dreams of founding an orchard on their plot in the Omani desert, full of aloe and jasmine.

But among the first things we learn in Jokha Alharthi’s novel “Bitter Orange Tree” is that this woman, Bint Aamir, has died — abandoned by her grandchildren, stripped of her dignity and left utterly alone.

The circumstances haunt her granddaughter Zuhour, our narrator. No one ever saw the “intelligence, determination and magic in her gaze her,” Zuhour thinks. “She carried herself tall like a date palm or a stallion, and then she withered like an ancient tree, unseen by human eyes and untended by human hands.”

Alharthi’s 2010 book “Celestial Bodies” (translated by Marilyn Booth in 2018) was the first novel originally written in Arabic to win the International Booker Prize. Reviewers praised Alharthi’s formal invention, which drew on classical Arabic literary tradition — Alharthi, who is from Oman, has a Ph.D. in the subject — and slipped easily between time periods, often within the same paragraph.

That the Booker achievement went to a writer from Oman, Alharthi has said, made it especially gratifying: For years, cities like Beirut and Cairo were considered the literary and cultural centers of the Arab world, in stark contrast to the Gulf. Alharthi notes that Omani culture appeared to change little until the late 1960s and ’70s, after a new leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, overthrew his father his and invested heavily in infrastructure, education and diplomacy.

How generations are shaped by this period of compressed change — what unfolded over centuries in other societies came to Oman in decades — is central to Alharthi’s writing. “Bitter Orange Tree” offers plenty of detail about Omani life between world wars, evoking a time when the sultan’s reach was so extensive that he decided which citizens could travel for medical treatment or even wear eyeglasses.

Readers learn very little about Zuhour outside of her grief. She’s at university somewhere in Britain, though her physical distance her from home her seems to affect her sense of belonging her less than Bint Aamir’s death her does. Her primary engagements her with the world are with two Pakistani sisters : Kuhl, the elder, has secretly married a man she met at the mosque, and her sister her deems the match completely inappropriate. Raised in a rural village in Pakistan’s interior, the man appears unsuitable for a wealthy banker’s daughter who grew up among Karachi’s elite.

Zuhour, though, is more understanding, and in time becomes nearly inseparable from the couple — to the point that Kuhl’s desire for her husband (spiritual, physical) overtakes Zuhour’s own subconscious.

But her primary emotional alignment, ultimately, is with Bint Aamir, whose unfulfilled dreams — a home of her own, an orchard to nurture — follow Zuhour throughout the story. Those thwarted desires? They do n’t disintegrate along with the body, it turns out — they ‘re passed among generations, and part of Zuhour ‘s penitence is reliving each of her grandmother ‘s disappointments her. Conjuring up the image of Bint Aamir’s corpse, Zuhour thinks: “Her dead body looked nothing like her. It looked a lot like me.”

As claustrophobic as this is for Zuhour, it makes for evocative reading, helped by Booth’s translation. “The fragile bird of life took us along,” Zuhour thinks. “We clung to its wings so hard that they dissolved in our grip; and so we tried to put those feathers on ourselves.”

This grief serves another purpose: Committing Bint Aamir’s life to writing transforms her story into one that inspires reverence, rather than pity. Bint Aamir takes on a mythic quality — rumors circulate that she “drowned a scorpion in her breast milk”— and her unchanging appearance her, wearing the same garments all her life, gives her a sense of permanence amid the sudden changes in her country her. In Alharthi’s world, it’s not only the future that holds promise; the past has possibility and opportunities for revision, too.

Joumana Khatib is an editor on the Books desk.

BITTER ORANGE TREE, by Jokha Alharthi | Translated by Marilyn Booth | 214 pp. | Catapult | $26

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