‘I Cannot Ignore the Pain in People’s Faces’: Badriyah al-Badri on Writing About Expatriate Workers in Oman

A Conversation with Katherine Van de Vate

In 2021, the Omani poet Badriyah Al-Badri made history as the first woman to win Qatar’s prestigious Katara Prize for Poetry, earning the accolade of “The Prophet’s Poet.” Al-Badri’s output, however, extends far beyond poetry. She has written four novels for adults: ما وراء الفقد (Beyond Loss), العبور الأخير (The Last Crossing), ظل هيرمافروديتوس (chosen as Oman’s best novel in 2019), and Fombi. The first is a love story set against the echoes of the Arab Spring; the second chronicles the lives of migrant laborers in Oman; the third explores transgender identity; and the fourth is about Belgian colonization of the Congo. Al-Badri is also the author of numerous award-winning collections of poetry and prose for children and young adults and is extremely active in developing the literary potential of children in Oman.

To date, almost none of Al-Badri’s work has been available in English, apart from one chapter of The Shadow of Hermaphroditus published at Words Without Borders. This is about to change, with DarArab’s 2024 publication of The Last Crossing, in a translation by Katherine Van de Vate. The 2017 novel is noteworthy for its unsparing examination of the lives of expatriate workers in the Gulf, a topic seldom addressed in Arab fiction.

You are an acclaimed poet, novelist and children’s author. Do you have a preference for a particular genre?

Badriyah Al-Badri: That’s like asking which of my children I love most! I love them all equally, though I value their differences, and I feel the same way about my literary works. Poetry has a special place in my heart because of its specificity and sense of the moment, while the novel allows access to a much wider world. When I write for children, I return to being a child who wants to learn about life and paint it in the colors of the rainbow.

To be honest, I’ve never sat down and thought up an idea for a novel or a poem. I open my soul to whatever God sends, and the idea comes to me in a particular guise—a poem, novel, or work for children. Sometimes, even in the middle of writing, I feel like I can’t go on, so I stop writing. I don’t force myself, whether I’m composing poetry or a novel. Instead, I wait until the fever of writing overcomes me. When I find myself tense and nervous, when I start overreacting or want to be alone and turn inwards, then I know it’s time to go back to writing. After a few days, my full energy for writing returns, though during those periods of idleness, it feels like I will never write again.

Your novels cover very different topics, from the Arab Spring to Belgian colonization of the Congo. How did you choose their topics, and what do you seek to achieve through your novels?  

Al-Badri: Wherever there is human suffering, my soul will also be there, hovering over it. I cannot ignore the pain in people’s faces or just walk on by and ignore those who have nobody, who are crushed by fate as they struggle to survive—those who are marginalized and full of fear, those who swallow their voices and thoughts for fear others may hear them and claim they are not entitled to the life they are living.

Wars, calamities, death and the paths, both moral and material, that lead to it, racism, injustice, hunger, oppression, and so on—these things leave me at a loss. What can I do about them? I can only wield my pen, which becomes a policeman standing in the midst of the destruction and trying to point humankind in a safer direction, towards a place filled with love, laughter, dreams, and the understanding and appreciation of others, no matter how inadequate or flawed they may seem.

Tell us more about The Last Crossing, which Dar Arab will publish next year in English translation. It is a powerful study of migrant workers in Oman, examining not only what happens to these workers after they arrive, but also what brought them to Oman.

We infer that Mukhtar, the novel’s hero, comes from Egypt. An architect, he comes to Oman to manage a building project. But when he arrives, he finds his job was a sham, and he is forced into degrading manual labour. His fellow workers, who have also been duped, come from many countries, in particular India and Yemen.

Where did you get your detailed information about the lives of migrant workers in Oman?

Al-Badri: I deliberately did not specify Mukhtar’s origins because I was concerned not with his country, but with him as an individual.

I am surrounded by immigrants, so getting information about them was not hard. Anyone can tell Omanis and foreigners apart by their clothing and their lifestyles. Here, I mean those foreigners who work in low-level occupations or positions. The ones who are well-off or influential, who have property and power in the country, were not my concern. The Last Crossing tells the story of the simple people who surround us, but whom we regard only as numbers, not as persons.

It’s no secret that expatriate laborers comprise much of the population in the Gulf countries. The latest statistics for Oman revealed that 33.5% of the population are male immigrants and only 28.7% are Omani men. These immigrants mostly work in menial jobs or positions that Omani nationals would no longer take after the oil revolution and the country’s subsequent development. These workers, who come largely from poor or densely-populated countries, are seeking a way to flee their difficult situations back home by coming to a place that’s like a dream for them. But the reality is very different. The road is not lined with roses; it’s not paved and smooth, as they thought,  but rough and rocky.

I see these expatriate workers all around me, toiling in difficult circumstances and living in cramped rooms. I see the wooden shanties constructed to house laborers until building projects are done. Much of what I see grieves me, and I think about these workers, how they have set aside their own welfare in order to provide a decent life for their loved ones, while all they can feel is their own lives ebbing away in a foreign land.

In The Last Crossing, I wanted to shine a light on a side of life to which many Omanis pay no heed. They regard expatriate workers as mere hirelings and spare no thought for the lives they left behind. Through the character of Houria, who is Mukhtar’s beloved, I tried to show my readers that beyond the expatriate worker are lives we don’t see—a fiancee who dreams, a mother who waits, loved ones who lie sleepless—while their relatives here suffer and dream of a better life.

My message was that these people are like us; they are entitled to live as we do, or at the very least to be seen as our fellow human beings. They deserve for us to treat them with respect, consideration, and fairness, not to burden them with more than they are capable of or treat them badly, as some people do.

I also wanted to emphasize that even if an immigrant faces difficulties in Oman, he will also find someone to help him. In general, Omanis are kind people, and it would be wrong to focus only on the negative.

The Last Crossing is imbued with the cadences of Qur’anic Arabic and the Hadith. Does this reflect Mukhtar’s upbringing, his education, and his struggle to hold onto his faith?

Al-Badri: I wanted to show that when a person feels at his lowest, despair may cause him to lose faith in everything, even religion and morality. Mukhtar had a religious upbringing, but abandoned his faith when he felt that God had deserted him and not supported him.

This could happen to any of us. We all need someone who understands us and takes us by the hand, not someone who just blames us. This is particularly the case for those who are weak and impoverished, who can’t find any psychological support and rarely have access to counseling.

As for those who shout about their principles but observe them only insofar as it serves their interests, they should take a good look at themselves and rethink their behavior, since life doesn’t always go our way.

Tell us about your writing process.  

Al-Badri: I don’t usually begin a novel until I have a full idea of its overall theme, I have noted down all the details I plan to include, and I know how its plot will unfold. However, sometimes I make changes as I write, and I might even change the ending if I think that’s appropriate.

Your style in The Last Crossing is clearly influenced by poetry. Did you choose to write that way or does it come naturally to you?

Al-Badri: I like this style of writing. I don’t like rigid language, perhaps because I’m a poet, and I believe the poetic style reaches the heart more quickly than a style lacking in emotion.

What challenges did you face while writing The Last Crossing?

Al-Badri: With each work I write, my greatest challenge is convincing myself to publish it. I always ask: How is this book contributing to humanity? Will it make a difference to the human condition? I don’t publish a book until I find that working on it has changed me for the better. How can I expect it to influence others if it has not changed me first?

It was not difficult to write The Last Crossing, because I was very familiar with the information I wanted to include in it, and I had personal experience of much of what I was writing about. By contrast, I had to conduct extensive research for my novels In the Shadow of Hermaphroditus and Fombi, since I was unfamiliar with their subject matter.

Tell us about the Omani literary scene. Over the last 15 years, Omani fiction has exploded onto the international scene. From having no representation on international awards lists and in translation, it has gone to suddenly winning the International Booker Prize, the IPAF, and many other awards.

Why has there been a movement toward the novel in Oman, and why has it been so successful in Oman in particular? Do Omani writers support one another?

Al-Badri: In spite of Oman’s progress after Sultan Qaboos’ ascension in 1970 and the scientific and cultural renaissance that followed, Omani literature did not establish its presence as expected. No one focused attention on it or promoted it abroad or even at home. That may have been because the media made no serious, organized effort to showcase Omani literature or give it the attention it deserved. Furthermore, certain literary forms like the novel were new to Oman. The Omani novel was absent from the Arab literary scene. Oman did not export any prominent names or influential examples, though some authors were well-known at home. The same was true for poetry, in my view, though a few Omani poets were known regionally.

In the past, Omanis were unfamiliar with novels, or perhaps uninterested in them. But around the time that Oman began to open up, Abdullah al-Taie published the first Omani novel, ملائكة الجبل الأخضر (Angels of the Green Mountain), in 1965. He wrote it between 1958 and 1963 while living in Bahrain and Kuwait. The second Omani novel was الشراع الكبير (The Mainsail), also written by Abdullah al-Taie, whose children published it in 1981, eight years after his death.

In 1988 the novel رمال وجليد (Sand and Ice) by Saoud al-Muzaffar appeared, as well as two titles by Sayf al-Sa’di: خريف الزمن  (The Autumn of Time) and جرح السنين (The Wound of the Years). In 1999, we saw the first novel by an Omani woman, الطواف حيث الجمر (Circling the Coals), by Badriyah al-Shihhi. After this tentative beginning, the Omani novel began to develop and expand its reach. I believe this was a conscious response by Omani writers to the Arab and international literary production to which they were being exposed.

I can’t say why Omani writers turned toward the novel. Previously, most of them wrote short stories. It was a particular idea that motivated me to start writing a novel, and I imagine most writers are the same.

Literature in Oman has mainly been a solitary pursuit, but prizes have definitely played a role in encouraging the publication of novels. These include the Muntada al-Adabi Prize, a domestic prize which stopped a few years ago and didn’t generate many works, and the Sultan Qaboos Literary Prize. These two prizes are fairly recent; they were followed by the prize of the Omani Society for Writers and Literati, awarded only to Omani publications.

All these prizes encourage writers to improve their craft to promote their writing and make it known to readers outside Oman. I myself participated in a workshop on the novel that was organized by the Cultural Club in cooperation with the Arab Booker Prize for writers from Oman and other Arab countries. Other Arab institutions are now running events for Arab writers and poets, for example the “Mu’tazilat al-adab” organised by the Saudi Ministry of Culture.

As for support, writers in Oman usually work on an individual basis. I haven’t personally had such support. But I try to stay abreast of the overall Omani literary scene; I read at least one work by every author and publish my impressions about these books, especially the best ones, to bring them to the attention of Omani and Arab readers.

The international standing of Omani literature has also been affected by the weakness of the translation movement in Oman. Without the attention of translators from Oman or elsewhere, the reach of Omani literature has been limited, both at home and in the Arab world, apart from a handful of works that have won international prizes. As more books become available in translation, readers from elsewhere will be able to discover the incredible wealth of modern Omani literature.

Katherine Van de Vate translates modern Arabic literature into English. She previously worked as an Arabic curator at the British Library and as a US diplomat, serving tours in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, the UK, and Syria. Her translations have been published in ArabLit Quarterly, Words without Borders, and Asymptote. Her translation of Badriyah al-Badri’s The Last Crossing is forthcoming from Dar Arab.