Posted on April 30, 2019
"Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside ourselves?" asks the young woman narrator of Booker finalist Jokha Alharthi's recent novel Bitter Orange. An excerpt, translated by Marilyn Booth, appears in the May issue of Words Without Borders.
The novel's protagonist, Zuhur, grew up in Oman and is now studying in the U.K. (a narrative path not unlike the author's own.) An interesting aspect of the novel is its portrayal of Muslim culture within a multicultural world, embodied in the dormitory where Zuhur lives with students from China, Niger, and Columbia, as well as her "svelte Pakistani friend," Sorour.
Alternating between the present day and Zuhur's childhood memories and regrets, the narrative's abrupt changes in time create a sense of dislocation:
Sorour didn’t wear any makeup; her tears were pure, clean drops, not darkened by kohl or tainted by face powder. They were large drops, glistening, and they looked perfect—my tears were thin lines edging down my dirty face—as she rubbed them off with her black-nailed thumb, handing me her walking stick and saying, “Go after them! Give them a good beating will you.” . . . She was still walking then, every late afternoon, between our house and the orchards, crossing through all of the narrow lanes where we played.
The "she" in the second part of the passage is not the narrator's university friend Sorour, but her grandmother, memories of whom Zuhur constantly revisits. She is racked with remorse: for not taking more time with her grandmother, paying closer attention to her health, and for ultimately leaving her behind in Oman, where she later died.
The story "The Father’s Platter," in the second part of the excerpt, describes the young adulthood of the narrator's grandmother, after she and her brother were turned out of their home by their father. Her brother died soon afterwards; she always dreamed of farming her own plot of land, "but her dream never came true, nor did any other dreams she had."
Below, you'll find specific resources and ideas for teaching these eye-opening stories.
- Country profile of Oman from TeachMideast.org
- A photo essay and poetry about Oman, created in collaboration by two women, German photographer Anja Menzel and Omani author Lubna Al Balushi.
- Shaykh: an Muslim honorific referring to a religious or community leader.
- Tarha: a headscarf.
- Lubna’s beloved Qays: Referring to a seventh-century poem by Qays ibn Al Mulawwah recounting his love for a woman named Layla, forcibly married to a different man. The story of Qay and Layla is sometimes called an Arabic Romeo and Juliet, which may be part of the reason Sorour, who disapproves of her sister's secret romance with a man from a different class, might balk at the narrator's quotations from the poem.
- Mutaa marriage: in Shia Islam, a private, verbal temporary marriage contract; literally, a "pleasure marriage."
Pairs Well With…
On Words Without Borders:
- "The Guest": Another story about a narrator's memories of a grandmother, from Egyptian Bedouin author Miral Al-Tahawy (translated by Samah Selim)
- Other stories organized under the theme "Leaving Home" on WWB Campus
- "Green Sour Orange," Iranian author Neda Kavoosifar's story of very different, but equally powerful, childhood memories, to be published on WWB Campus later this year (translated by Sara Khalili)
- The Canadian author Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women
- The Grimms' "Hansel and Gretel" (of which "The Father's Platter" seems to contain echoes)
- Memoir: Write about a far-off friend or relative.
- Short story: Write a short story in which memories of the past intrude on the present.
- Literary Essay: Analyze the relationship between present and past in this chapter. What do the narrator's thoughts about the present and the past suggest about her state of mind?
- Personal Essay: Interview an older friend or family member about his/her/their life dreams. Tell the story of how these dreams did or did not come true.
- Performance: Stage a scene in which Zuhur's memories of her grandmother intrude on her present-day life.