Monthly Archives: February 2014

“The mirage shimmered before me in the wilderness of longing”: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

“Are these the people who are called peasants in books? Had I told my grandfather that revolutions are made in his name, that governments are set up and brought down for his sake, he would have laughed.”

As a classic of postcolonial literature, Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North has been extensively critiqued and reviewed (see here, here and here for samples). What I found particularly compelling – and unsettling – about this book was the shifting, ambiguous place that it occupies somewhere between realism and allegory (taking, for a moment, these categories as given). If Chinua Achebe is an exemplar of the first, and Emile Habibi of the second, then Season… is both, and yet neither. Written in the immediate aftermath of Sudan’s independence (1966), the narrative itself spans the last years of colonial rule, and then the beginnings of self-government. The political is never far away (as the excerpted paragraph above demonstrates), but it is also never in the foreground. Through the lives of the two protagonists, we are shown glimpses of the destruction that colonialism has wrought – both on the individual, and on society – but always in a subtle, indirect – almost, questioning way.

The story’s narrator returns to his Sudanese village after three years in England, writing his doctorate on an “obscure English poet” (we are never told which poet). The book begins with an atmosphere of utter tranquility, the narrator imagining that he has finally come back “home”, where everything is as it should be. This tranquility is disturbed when he meets the enigmatic Mustafa. One night, seemingly in a drunken stupor, Mustafa breaks into perfectly-accented English poetry, revealing – to the narrator’s astonishment – that he too spent years in England. On being pressed, Mustafa recounts a harrowing – and tantalisingly incomplete tale of his time in the metropolis, his destructive liaisons with European women – ending with his killing his wife – and his eventual return to his country via stops in half the capitals of the world, to lose himself in an unknown village. The next day, Mustafa disappears – presumably drowned – and the narrator is left to pick through the aftermath, and try to stave off another – inevitable – tragedy.

The life of Mustafa in England – in particular, his use of all the classic Oriental tropes as tools of seduction (he repeats “my hackneyed phrases” many times in his story), and the life of the narrator in Sudan – in particular, the dissonance between himself and his fellow-villagers, that only comes to the fore as the novel progresses – can be understood as a synecdoche for the mutual – yet always unequal – interrogation between the metropolis and the colony. When Mustafa says, for instance, about one of the women he seduced, that “I was the symbol of all her hankerings”, and then proceeds to describe his bedroom straight out of a Francis Burton work – we think immediately of Aida, of Burton himself, of Disraeli, and of the multitude of examples that we find in Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

It is not surprising, then, that Salih often resorts to the language of illusion. “One mirage kept raising us up, another casting us down, and from deserts we were spewed into yet more deserts.”  Ultimately, the book is about mirages – England, as imagined and experienced by the colonial immigrants, and the immigrants themselves, who come to occupy some nameless, shadowy, liminal space between cultures, belonging to both and to none. Perhaps nowhere is this expressed more vividly, more forcefully and more evocatively, than here:

“It was as though I were a slave Shahrayar you buy in the market for a dinar encountering a Scheherazade begging amidst the rubble of a city destroyed by plague.”

This moment of self-realisation comes in the middle of yet another series of Orientalist tropes, and with the clarity and precision of a knife, lays bare – literally – the poverty of that discourse. There are many things that the “city” could stand for here: the crumbling of the edifice of Orientalism itself, built as it is around structures such as The Arabian Nights – or the cities of the metropolis and colony, intellectually and morally crumbling from the result of their destructive interaction. Perhaps it stands for both, or neither, or many more things – but if there is one line in all of literature that, for me, simply sums up colonialism, this is it.

A central theme of the book is interrogating questions of choice and agency, individual against structure. Mustafa’s trial becomes, in the end, not about his action, but his inability to act otherwise, caught in the space between two cultures, one alien and incomprehensible, the other distant and abandoned. And similarly, the narrator’s own life back home is marked not so much by his irrelevance, but by the paralysis of thought and action that follows upon it. It is this Hamlet-like attitude of delay and deferral that ultimately leads to the second tragedy that marks the book; and leads him to cry out, in the end:

“I had lost the war because I did not know and did not choose. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me…”

And again, although colonialism is vaguely implicated in all this, there is no crude determinism at work here, but something much more subtle, complex and ambiguous. Marx once famously said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Season of Migration to the North, then, is a beautiful story about men and women, history and circumstances.


Filed under African Writing, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

“And the room filled with pieces of shrapnel”: Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

Memories come back in a burst of images“, wrote Jean Genet about his time with the Palestinian fedayeen. Elias Khoury’s impressionistic, first-person, thinly-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War is written in and through just such a burst of images. Little Mountain is a short novel, the first four chapters of which present the lived experience of the war – street-battles, battles in the church, wounds and death – and the last, a series of broken, scattered reminiscences in a Paris metro. What binds all of this together – what conveys meaning – is neither chronological narrative (time plays little to nor role in Little Mountain), nor character (at the end, we know almost as little about the narrator as we do in the beginning), but images.

For example: We ran cautiouslyclutching rifles and dreams, writes the narrator in the beginning, – evocatively conveying, without conversation or action, through that simple image, the early idealism of the revolution, and the romance of violence. “Nothing remains in his hands save a wetness that recalls the rain.” “She laughed. It rang like a bow.” “They looked like the shadow of the old oil lantern one of them carried.” Each of these images, incredibly powerful in its context, does the work that events normally do: convey meanings (as I understood them), of loss, of love and of futility, all bound up with each other and with the war.

It is not, however, that Khoury has any wish to preserve or worship ideals. There are many striking passages about war in the book, especially the (thinly ironic) descriptions of battle in a church. And in these passages – that are at times strongly reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front, in their dispassion, detachment and seemingly unaffected attention to detail, Khoury mixes romance with dirt in a manner that the former cannot possibly survive. Consider, for instance:

The commander came running. It looks like they’re trying to overrun the street. Get ready. I followed him. I stood at the end of a street leading to the main road where we used to listen for the movement of military vehicles. He took Talal to another street, Talal alone. You’ve got to get down on the ground, the position commander was saying. He lay down on the water, shivering, as it seeped into his body. The shelling was intensifying. We’ve got to hold our ground. Water mixed with blood. This is the glory of the revolution. You are the pride of the revolution. And the pride of the revolution will stand fast. I was holding my rifle tight and firing. The shots rang in my ears, I couldn’t see them. I gripped the hand grenade and threw it. Water splashed up and the shrapnel went flying. The water gasped loudly; this is the glory of the revolution. I was down on the ground. But they weren’t advancing. Nothing but an overpowering smell. The smell of rain and brackish water and burning gunpowder. The sound of shells. I couldn’t see anything ahead. But Talal stayed down on the ground, shooting, advancing to the main road.  Nothing but shelling. The rain was stopping and masonry was beginning to crumble.”


In its choice of form (or formlessness), Khoury’s Little Mountain is similar to Latin American magic realism – in particular, it reminds one of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, that great Mexican novel. A reviewer writes of Pedro Paramo:

“The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again.”

As a description of Little Mountain, this is accurate. In Pedro Paramo, the story is of the Mexican revolution and all its accompanying brutality, but that story is never told. We can dimly glimpse it, through a glass darkly, and we must reconstruct it in some incomplete way by trying to piece together the thousand little shards of events, metaphors, characters and images that lie scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Little Mountain is ostensibly about the Lebanese Civil War, but again, the Civil War, with its larger consequences, lurks in the background, just out of reach of our comprehension. “Do you see those clouds go by?” says the character Nazeeh. “You can reach up and touch them, but you can’t hold on to them.” This could be a description of Little Mountain. 

And what is interesting is that just as Rulfo was writing back – or writing against – a literary milieu of social realism, recognising that he needed a new form to adequately convey meaning, so is Khoury. This point is made by Edward Said in the foreward to the book, where he compares Little Mountain, as well as the Rabelaisian qualities of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, to the writings of that grand old man of the Arab novel, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, Said argues, being Egyptian, was able to “able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt.”  For a Palestinian writer like Habibi, on the other hand, and a Lebanese writer like Khoury writing in societies where:

“… national identity is threatened with extinction (the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies is replicable by Palestine and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. Above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic…  Khoury’s idea about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”

Thus, the cry that the narrator occurs: “It is temporary!“, is perhaps most fitting of all. Temporariness is a theme that runs through Palestinian writing. Not just temporariness in the sense of present instability (think of, for instance, Mourid Barghouti comparing life to a hotel room in I Saw Ramallah), but also for a hope – and a belief – that this situation, in which everything is temporary, is itself temporary, and will pass. “We can’t just live like that with no reference point whatsoever. I can’t live like this, scattered to the winds”, he has his narrator say at another point, before immediately realising the futility of that wish. And if that is the dominant theme of Little Mountain, then it ends fittingly as well. “When the chapters conclude,” Said writes, “they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

In Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells an impossible story not by trying to fit events into a chronology, or by trying to impose the coherence of narrative form over reality and the order of sequence over life, but through scattered formlessness itself. And given the meaninglessness of the Civl War, this might be the most adequate – and maybe the only – way to tell this particular story.



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Filed under Elias Khoury, Lebanon, Middle-Eastern Writing