Season of Migration to the North

The back cover of Tayeb Salih.’s novel Season of Migration to the North, first translated into English in 1969 (having been published in Arabic three years earlier) has an assertion from Edward Said that it is “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” This made me want to know what he thought were the other five. The history of the novel in Arabic is short and dominated by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.


In 2001 the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus was less equivocal than Said in judging it “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” I am dubious about the accolade from Said, and even more that this book by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) is the best, though the Arab novelists other than Mafouz whom I read write in French (Abdellah Taïa, Tahar Ben Jelloun) or English (Laila Lalami), and Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone is generally classified as “autobiography.”

Though it has some lyrical passages (and some that strike me as ‘florid’), there is much in the very disjointed short book that seems to me unbelievable. The jagged fragmentariness may be anti-narrative “modernism” rather than incompetence, though I suspect the latter.

The book opens well, with the return from postgraduate studies in England (of English poetry) by the narrator to his natal village on the Upper Nile in downstream from Khartoum.

The never-named narrator’s grandfather is among the most respected village elders, a spry octogenarian. During the narrator’s seven-year absence, a man not native to the village has bought land, married a beautiful local woman with whom he has produced two sons. Mustafa Sa’eed has aided villagers in co-operating to end dependence on provisioning by riverboats. He refuses office, but is relied upon for advice in improving the lot of the village. (It may be a backwater, but socioeconmic change has been occurring in what is not “timeless” rural life.)

The narrator is very curious about this man who in some ways has taken on the role of rural-urban liaison that should have been his by virtue of his elite/foreign education. Slowly, the narrator learns that Mustafa Sa’eed was a wunderkind, the first student from the Sudan to become a success in the colonial metropole. Along with publishing a number of books on economics, Mustafa Sa’eed was both figuratively and quite literally a “lady-killer.” English women in extravagant numbers swooned and were ravaged by him. The body count — and I mean corpses, not conquests — seems ludicrously high to me.

Many committed suicide after being “corrupted” by the Sudanese Superfly, and he eventually killed a woman who repeatedly rejected him (double penetration: phallus and knife). No one else in the village knows of the triumphs, crimes, and prison term of Mustafa Sa’eed in England.

About midway through the short (169-page) novel, Mustafa Sa’eed disappears in a sudden flood. The narrator suspects that this was suicide, I suspect that he went off to start yet another life.

Mustafa Sa’eed had gotten his affairs in order and left a sealed letter for the narrator with the key to a room in his house that somehow was built without anyone else having seen the room or its contents (in a village house???). The letter also asks that the narrator look out for his two sons. His widow, Hosna, is in her husband’s judgment quite competent to make economic decisions.

Ah! but regardless of her competencies and wishes not to be remarried, a lecherous old man is forced upon her. The narrator’s best friend reminds him ” how life is run here: Women belong to men, and a man’s a man even if he’s decrepit.” The narrator coulda/shoulda married her (he only has one wife), but leaves for Khartoum. Hosna does what she said she would do, and there is a second knifing in bed, this time without other penetration.

The narrator returns and goes into Mustafa’s room, where he finds more about Mustafa’s life in England, but nothing about Mustafa’s life (and marriage) in the Sudanese village.

IMO, the novel is padded with lists and with documents from Mustafa’s English period of corrupting and being corrupted (in a rather Victorian and very sex-negative mindset) with too many too large lacunae (the narrator’s romantic/domestic life in both countries, for instance).

What happens and what it is supposed to mean are both confusing (and I don’t blame myself). Salih himself wrote some other novellas, married (and stayed married to) a Scottish woman, worked for the BBC and UNESCO, and did not return to live in the Sudan (in which civil wars and genocide have been raging most of the time since 1955, the year before independence from England, though there was a hiatus from 1962 to 1973, the time during which Salih wrote the book). I don’t know enough about him to hazard a guess about whether Mustafa’s lethal conquests are fantasy or exaggeration of experiences of African students in the era leading up to decolonization (followed by betrayals as shown in the novels of Ghanian/Igbo writer Chinua Achebe; Man of the People, his fourth, also first published in 1966, and the first of Achebe’s with a first-person narrator, though his previous ones had conflicted characters in colonial and postcolonial situations)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray


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