When Abdulaziz al-Farsi’s unusual but compelling Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs appeared in English last year (trans. Nancy Roberts), it was one of the first Omani novels to find an audience in English. But Omani literature isn’t just hard to find in English, but in Arab countries as well:
Samuel Shimon, who was recently in Oman to work on an issue of Banipal devoted to Omani literature, talked with the Times of Oman about his plans for bringing Omani literature into English and to wider Arab audiences:
I also have in mind two anthologies of Omani writers, one of poetry and one of fiction, both to be translated into English. I am familiar with the literary scene in Oman, and have many good friends here.
I will also try to encourage my friends in Oman to do some anthologies of Omani literature in Arabic, to be published in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt. This would take Omani literature out of Oman to the rest of the Arab world. We need these literary anthologies in Arabic.
In a separate Q & A, Shimon also told the Times of Oman that Omani literature perhaps didn’t get the same promotion as that from other nations:
I know a young Omani woman author who sent me a manuscript to read. I found it a brilliant novel, and immediately passed it to a big publisher in Beirut, one of the main publishers. They loved it and published it immediately. I was surprised that this novel was not entered for the Arab Booker Prize and I discovered later that the publisher did not nominate it. Let me tell you the truth, sometimes a publisher will nominate their friends and this Omani writer was a victim of this unhealthy situation. I am sure her novel deserved to be short-listed for that prize.
It’s difficult to say — he doesn’t mention the author or her book — whether the book really should have been nominated. But at least: Here’s another woman who was not put forward for the prize.
Omani writer Jokha al-Harthi was chosen for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction nadwa in 2011, so a novel of hers must have come to the judges’ attention. But, as the nominees are secret, it’s hard to guess what other Omani authors have — or haven’t — been nominated.
Among Shimon’s favorite Omani writers were, he said, poets Saif Al Rahbi, Zaher Al Ghaferi, and Mohamed Al Harthi, and fiction writers Jokha Al Harthi, Hussein Al Ibri, Abdul Aziz Al Farsi, Hoda Jowahiri, and Ghalya Al Said.
Back in 2010, al-Ibri told Sousan Hammad that “Poetry was the dominating field of literature until not long ago, and then prose was introduced during the early 90s in the form of short stories. As of now, we are facing the renaissance of fiction/ novel writing. There exists a major shift by story writers and poets towards writing novels. The signs are clear and the product is near. One now must wait with legs crossed.”
But lack of promotion and time are not the only issues Omani literature faces. Censorship and blacklisting certainly have also been an issue: Poet and playwright Abdullah al-Ryami has been blacklisted and arrested for speaking out about human rights, and more recently — in the summer of 2012 — several writers and poets were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for the crime of defaming Sultan Qaboos.
Hussein al-Ibri has also had his work seized from the Muscat International Book Fair, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), as have al-Harthy and al-Ryami. ANHRI also reported that the latter two were prevented from speaking at the event in 2010.
Promotion of Omani writing is certainly good, and better publishers — who edit the books carefully and produce the best possible editions — certainly couldn’t hurt. The same is true in Qatar, where authors recently urged more support for books. But an atmosphere that’s more open to criticism is necessary, too.
Short stories and novel excerpts by Jokha al-Harthi