Season of Migration to the North: By Tayeb Salih (1969)

“Everyone starts at the beginning of the road, and the world is in an endless state of childhood.”

It’s the 1960s, and we find ourselves in a village on the Nile. The narrator, a young man who has just finished his studies of English poetry abroad, returns home to discover a newcomer, Mustafa Sa’eed, has moved into town. At first somewhat suspicious of this stranger, the narrator becomes infected with the mystery of his story. Mustafa Sa’eed is from Khartoum and, although we are never certain what his academic role was, we learn that he studied in England and lectured as an economist there.

We are then taken on a journey as the narrator’s intrigue leads him to piece together the secrets of Mustafa Sa’eed’s past. In moments of confidence that seem to be laid out intentionally for the narrator to follow, Mustafa Sa’eed stops short of confessing involvement in the mysterious suicides of the women in his life in England. He recounts his trial there and his return home to Sudan; and before disappearing without a trace, Mustafa designates the narrator caretaker of his wife and sons.

The narrator, like Mustafa Sa’eed, is caught between two worlds in an attempt to reconcile an identity interrupted and brutalized by colonialism:

“The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future? Sooner or later they will leave our country, just as many people throughout history left many countries. The railways, ships, hospitals, factories and schools will be ours and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude. Once again we shall be as we were — ordinary people — and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

The duality is almost maddening as it becomes duality upon duality, and the reverberations of Fanon — whether there intentionally or not — are potent. At times they are distant thunder underfoot, and at other times they are deafening clashes. When the narrator speaks to an Englishman in Sudan who knew of Mustafa Sa’eed’s work at Oxford, he is met with a cynical assessment of Sa’eed as an unreliable economist whose statistics were not academically sound.

The Englishman said that Mustafa Sa’eed was

“… one of the darlings of the English left… It was as though they wanted to say: Look how tolerant and liberal we are! This African is just like one of us! … If you only knew, this sort of European is no less evil than the madmen who believe in the supremacy of the white man in South Africa and in the southern states of America. The same exaggerated emotional energy bears either to the extreme right or to the extreme left. If only he had stuck to academic studies… He would have certainly returned and benefited with his knowledge this country in which superstitions hold sway. And here you are now believing in superstitions of a new sort: the superstition of industrialization, the superstition of nationalization, the superstition of Arab unity, the superstition of African unity. Like children you believe that in the bowels of the earth lies a treasure you’ll attain by some miracle, and that you’ll solve all your difficulties and set up a Garden of Paradise. Fantasies. Waking dreams. Through facts, figures, and statistics you can accept your reality, live together with it, and attempt to bring about changes within the limits of your potentialities.”

The narrator retreats into his thoughts: “What was the use of arguing? This man — Richard — was also fanatical. Everyone’s fanatical in one way or another. Perhaps we do believe in the superstitions he mentioned, yet he believes in a new, a contemporary superstition — the superstition of statistics.”

As Richard and a Sudanese friend continue the debate, the narrator observes: “They were not angry: they said such things to each other as they laughed, a stone’s throw from the Equator, with a bottomless historical chasm separating the two of them.”

The novel is a magical realist tale complete with scandal, murder, sex, passionate love, salacious humor, strong women, postcolonial politics, identity crises, soul-searching, and penetrating metaphors. The timing of the novel is crucial to the development of the story, as it is not told in chronological order; but Salih is a master of this device. The narrator recalls bits of conversation with Mustafa Sa’eed as they come to mind, but at times it feels as though we are hearing Mustafa’s voice as it emerges in the narrator’s mind, without it being an explicit memory. The silences are important too; what is said and what is not said, what is implied and what is left unanswered.

Considering this novel was originally written in Arabic, the translation is really impressive. You can tell Salih worked closely with the translators in interpreting this from Arabic idioms and language into English. Most of the metaphors are not lost, so far as I can tell, and the imagery is, at times, stunning:

“The blood of the setting sun suddenly spilled out on the western horizon like that of millions of people who have died in some violent war that has broken out between Earth and Heaven.”

I am no literary critic; I have no training in reading between the lines of literature or properly placing a work of fiction within the life and circumstances of the author or the time period in which it was written. The introduction to the New York Review of Books edition (2009) by Laila Lalami is very good and I would recommend reading it either before or after reading the novel.

Largely from my own imagination, I think, there may be a loose metaphor in the novel, in which Mustafa Sa’eed is colonialism anthropomorphized. While Lalami, in her introduction, points out the metaphor of colonialism as an infectious disease in much of Salih’s imagery, Mustafa Sa’eed, too, seems to infect people, and with disastrous consequences. Colonialism and Mustafa Sa’eed, in the novel, are both misguided, mentally unsound, mysterious, intriguing, and manipulative; and they both lead those they claim to love to death and madness — which also calls to mind Fanon. Lalami hints at this metaphor when she excerpts the defense attorney from Mustafa’s trial: “These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago.” (This is in reference to the Roman invasion of Britain, which Britain became infected by and subsequently spread to its own colonies.)

The book is vaguely reminiscent, in its intimacy and depiction of oppression, of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). It’s been a long time since I read that novel, but it aroused many of the same emotions in me and recalled some of the same kind of imagery. There is also a striking similarity in both novels’ endings.

What I would love is for someone with literary expertise, with more time than I have, to look at both novels and parse the colonialism, gender, and power dynamics of these novels to see what kinds of things they are saying, how they are saying them similarly and how they are saying them differently.

Season of Migration to the North is a beautiful novel that I would recommend not just to students of African literature, but to anyone who enjoys great novels. Little wonder that in 1976 Salih was declared the “genius of the Arabic novel” and in 2001 the book was chosen by Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.

It’s one of those rare books in which you finish it and think, “I have to read that again.”

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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2 Responses to Season of Migration to the North: By Tayeb Salih (1969)

  1. Cordoned says:

    One of the best reviews I’ve ever read. Great work!

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