“Bitter Orange Tree” by Jokha Alharthi

Jokha Alharthi Jokha Alharthi

In this lyrical follow-up to her Man Booker International prize-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi explores love, desire and language through three generations of an Omani family. 

The novel starts in the modern day. The narrator, Zuhour, is a young and lonely Omani studying at an unnamed British university. The woman she considered to be her grandmother, who in reality was a distant relative, has just passed away. Zuhour is full of regret that, busy with studies and preparations for her new life, she left Oman for the UK without paying due attention to the severity of her grandmother’s illness.

While Zuhour is tormented by remorse, her Pakistani friend Suroor has her own problems. Suroor’s sister, Kuhl, has married a fellow medical student, Imran, in a traditional (and temporary) mutaa contract. Kuhl is keeping the relationship secret from her rich parents in Karachi as they would consider Imran, a poor village boy, to be a completely inappropriate husband. Going against stereotype, Kuhl and Suroor have already rebelled against family wishes by choosing to wear hijab, horrifying their liberal, Westernized mother.

Soon Zuhour is drawn into the conspiracy. As she becomes infatuated by the lovers, particularly Imran, her story is entwined with that of her grandmother, Bint Aamir. Cast out by her father after the death of her mother, Bint Aamir is eventually taken in by her mother’s relative, Salman, and his wife. She adopts the role of housekeeper and nursemaid to the family, abandoning any ambitions of her own for a celibate existence of service. Mansour, Salman’s son and Zuhour’s eventual father, becomes her favorite.


Bitter Orange Tree, Jokha Alharthi, Marilyn Booth (trans) ( Scribner UK, Catapult, May 2022)
Bitter Orange Tree, Jokha Alharthi, Marilyn Booth (trans) (Scribner UK, Catapult, May 2022)

Unlike a conventional family saga with a chronological timeline, author Alharthi chooses to blend the stories of the three generations. Sometimes the scene changes seem random; at other times they are prompted by Zuhour’s thoughts or dreams. This lends the novel an air of magical realism as well as playing into one of its major themes: how the actions and experiences of previous generations affect their successors.

These stories of the elders, so beautifully imbued with elements of Oman’s landscape and culture, present as myths, allowing Alharthi to demonstrate her literary flair and ponder the qualities of their composite parts, namely language. Alharthi has plenty to say on this topic. For her, words are tricky customers. Once said or written, they are immutable and determine the lives of mere mortals, especially women. Alharthi writes about “life’s law” as understood by the father of Mansour’s first wife, who didn’t want to lose his daughter to another man:


He did not show how bitterly betrayed he felt. He knew what people would say, if he did … Sunnat al-hayat. Marriage is God’s plan for our lives. It’s the way of the world. It’s written for her. The seeds of her womb – that’s her destiny.


Zuhour herself often feels “the trap of language” where she cannot marshal the words to fully express her meaning and prevents herself from controlling her own fate. She is also surrounded by women who have been effectively silenced by a marriage or lack of one, including her sister who gives up speaking as a result. However, Alharthi portrays these women as noble in their suffering and not as victims.


What can challenge the terrible power of language? Alharthi shows that desire—an emotion so intense that it cannot be put into words—is a strong contender. Orbiting the lovers, Zuhour conveys both the strength of feeling which has prompted them to rebel against their parents and its magnetic force for herself.


I was longing to tell the two of them how much I loved them. But I couldn’t. I was frozen in my torment, tongue-tied in my destiny. In the proximity of Imran’s hair, so close to my fingers, in the tone of his skin, in Kuhl’s dimples, so prominent and rosy whenever she had the bliss of being together with her beloved, the essence of this first and elemental desire for union that eludes all description.


In this instance, desire is not enough to overcome the obstacles facing the lovers. Other characters find solace in unselfish love for children or religion but never perfect happiness. Like its title, the novel ends on a bittersweet tone. Its tragic heroes are all the more memorable for it.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.