“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.

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2 Comments

Filed under African Writing, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

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

  1. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary on this work.

    As you describe it the allegorical parts of this book sound like they are constructed and work work very well.

    I am determined to read more literature from authors of non – European origin this year. Tayeb Salih sounds like a good pick to add to my list.

  2. Him, and Naguib Mahfouz should be at the top. 🙂

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