“Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih

This article is also available in: Italiano

Given our Sudan-themed week, it seemed interesting to bring this book once again, considered by Banipal the most beautiful novel ever written in Arabic. Tayeb Salih’s text, complete in every respect, is considered by many to be the indigenous “Heart of  darkness”.

Season of Migration to the North

After years of study in Europe, the young narrator of Season of Migration to the North returns to his village along the Nile in the Sudan. It is the 1960s, and he is eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country. Back home, he discovers a stranger among the familiar faces of childhood—the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed. Mustafa takes the young man into his confidence, telling him the story of his own years in London, of his brilliant career as an economist, and of the series of fraught and deadly relationships with European women that led to a terrible public reckoning and his return to his native land. But what is the meaning of Mustafa’s shocking confession? Mustafa disappears without explanation, leaving the young man—whom he has asked to look after his wife—in an unsettled and violent no-man’s-land between Europe and Africa, tradition and innovation, holiness and defilement, and man and woman, from which no one will escape unaltered or unharmed.

A fresco of postcolonialism

Small premise: taking advantage of the article already present by Noemi Linardi, we will concentrate above all on some points of the novel, leaving aside many other equally significant ones. The advice that we give you right now, however, rather than reading both articles, is to buy the book;

The English prefect of the district was an omnipotent god in a larger piece of land than all the British Isles put together and lived in a long and wide castle, full of servants and surrounded by soldiers. They acted like gods. They used us, small local officials, to collect taxes, and people complained about us and accused us of the English prefect. Of course he was the one who forgave and pity.

tayyeb salih
Tayyeb Salih

So they instilled in the hearts of the people hatred for us, children of the country, and love for them, foreign colonizers. Rest assured of these words, my son. Is the country not independent now? Have we not become free in our country? Rest assured that the most ignoble men have cultivated. The most ignoble are those which occupied large districts at the time of the British.

In a few lines, Tayeb Salih describes in a complete and exhaustive way the modus operandi of most of the colonial powers. The power exercised by these countries for a long time on their possessions was in a certain sense original and aimed at a total disintegration of the occupied civilization, trying for the first time to penetrate the minds of the people. Sun Tzu said that the greatest of the generals is the one who triumphs without needing to fight, since the subjugation of the minds is even more powerful than that of the swords. The invaders did just that, creating a psychological subjection still very strong in these places and which, unfortunately, has not yet finished to ripen the last fruits.

tayyeb salih
Khartoum, the capital of Sudan

Come as a conqueror

When they brought Mahmud Wadd Ahmad to logs in Kitchener, after the defeat of Atbara, he said to him: “Why did you come to bring destruction and plunder my country?”. It was the stranger who told the man of that land, and the man of that land bowed his head and said nothing. And so also for me with them. In this court I hear the roar of the Roman swords in Carthage, and the clatter of hooves of Allenby’s horses that trample the ground of Jerusalem.

A scene from “The Lawrence of Arabia”

Ships plowed the waters of the Nile for the first time carrying cannons, not bread, and the railways were built primarily to transport soldiers. They founded schools to teach us to say “yes” in their own language. They brought us the germ of the greatest European violence that the world had not seen equal, that of Somma and Verdun, the germ of a murderous evil that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes gentlemen, I came as a conqueror to your home. A drop of the poison that you have injected into history. I am not Othello. Othello was a lie.

In this passage, the character of Mustafa Sa’id gives the reader a reflection that has its origins in the difficult relationship between the South and the North of the world, not once again sparing fiery criticism of the colonization in full. The parallelism, however, is above all between the figure of Sa’id and that of past leaders. Tayeb Salih in this case gives us a new stimulus, creating a paradoxical connection and showing us the “first globalized man”.

This man, unlike his predecessors, was “infected by the western germ” and, above all, it is he who is in a foreign land. His cultural references are mainly European, but this does not mean that he has forgotten the pain he suffered, indeed fortified by the latter. For the first time, then, it is the man from the South who travels to the North, a change that today seems to us to be a small thing, but that until a century ago was almost unthinkable.

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