Season of Migration to the North

Reviewed by Abdul Hai

First published in 1966, Season of Migration to the North by the Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih is a fictional novel based in the village of Wad Hamid on the Nile in the 1950s. The novel was considered by many Arab writers and critics as the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.

The novel is narrated by a young unnamed narrator who returns to his native village of Wad Hamid after completing his study abroad. Upon returning to his village, he quickly reconnects with the people of the village once again. He sees a new face in the village, upon enquiring, he was told that it was a newcomer to the village; his name was Mustafa Sa’eed. He bought some land and was living with his wife, a local girl, and two kids. There was some curiosity on the part of the narrator regarding the identity of Mustafa Sa’eed, as he looked troubled and was always uncomfortably silent. After some time, the narrator discovered that Mustafa Sa’eed was not who he had claimed to be, rather there was a darker side to the man. One night, after a drink with the narrator, Mustafa Sa’eed recited a poem about the First World War in English. At this point in the story, the narrator is filled with mixed emotions towards Mustafa Sa’eed: being somewhat fascinated and at the same time feeling frightened.

This signalled the beginning of an investigation, not only that of Mustafa Sa’eed’s life but to some extent the life of the narrator. During the journey, a friendship and trust are established between the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed. The real Mustafa Sa’eed was a 12-year old, cold-hearted young boy, who was emotionally distanced from his mother and moved to Cairo with the help of local government officials to study English. In Cairo, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, a couple who showed extreme care and love toward Mustafa; in fact, Mrs. Robinson after meeting him, gives him a welcoming kiss, He says:

[…] all of a sudden I felt the woman’s arms embracing me and her lips on my cheek. At that moment, as I stood on the station platform amidst a welter of sounds and sensations, with the woman’s arms around my neck, her mouth on my cheek, the smell of her body — a strange, European smell — tickling my nose, her breast touching my chest, I felt — I, a boy of twelve — a vague sexual yearning I had never previously experienced.

After learning to write and read within two weeks, Mustafa travelled to London to further his studies. He becomes a professor, a poet, an economist, a historian, a writer and somewhat of an Englishman. Thereafter, Mustafa further discloses that he developed an uncontainable desire for sexual activities with white women. For Mustafa, everything surrrounding white women seemed to be about sexual adventure. He becomes a beast, violently desiring white women’s flesh, becoming the living reality of the imagined oriental fantasy, created by the West. Mustafa  notes that Sausan, a student of oriental studies, would confirm her fantasy and tell her: “[…] that in the blueness of her eyes I saw the faraway shoreless seas of the North”.

He becomes a believer in that much imagined oriental fantasy and builds his reputation upon it. To the white women, he was their imagined, undiscovered, erotic master, and enjoyed playing that role. He would very often quote poets like Omar Khayyam, Abu Nuwas, and others . Mustafa could quite simply be described as a pathological liar who seduces white women to his bed by fulfilling their oriental fantasies. He becomes the master and the white women become his  slaves. The decoration of his bedroom further confirmed the imaged and exotic oriental as it is described to be filled with confirmation of imagined Arab fantasy. Whilst seducing Sausan, he describes his bedroom as follows:

In London I took her to my house, the den of lethal lies that I had deliberately built up, lie upon lie: the sandalwood and incense; the ostrich feathers and ivory and ebony figurines; the paintings and drawings of forests of palm trees along the shores of the Nile, boats with sails like doves’ wings, suns setting over the mountains of the Red Sea, camel caravans wending their way along sand dunes on the borders of the Yemen, baobab trees in Kordofan, naked girls from the tribes of the Zandi, the Nuer and the Shuluk, fields of banana and coffee on the Equator, old temples in the district of Nubia; Arabic books with decorated covers written in ornate Kufic script; Persian carpets, pink curtains, large mirrors on the walls, and coloured lights in the corners. She knelt and kissed my feet. “You are Mustafa, my master, and my lord,” she said, “and I am Sausan, your slave girl.” And so, in silence, each one of us chose his role, she to act the part of the slave girl and I that of the master.

In the end, Mustafa becomes obsessed with one particular white woman and they get married; however, the marriage does not turn out as Mustafa had planned. After some time the relationship become sour and the woman refuses to have sex; after sometime, she finally gives in to his demands. During their sexual encounter, he plunges a dagger into her heart. He is then sentenced to 7 years in prison. After his release, he returns to his native country Sudan, gets married, and has two kids. Whilst starting a new life in a small village, he meets the unnamed narrator. After telling part of his life, Mustafa Sa’eed asks the narrator to take care of his wife and two kids in the event of something bad happening to him. Soon after Mustafa Sa’eed drowns in a rare flooding of the Nile, which  is very strange for that part of Sudan. The reader is left unsure as to whether Mustafa Sa’eed had taken his own life or that he really did drown in a freak natural disaster; this is left unclear in the novel. Months later, Mustafa Sa’eed’s widow desires to marry the narrator but with no success. She is forced to marry an older man, who has other wives. After the marriage ceremony, the old man attempts to consummate his marriage, but she refuses to do so. Instead she stabs her new husband to death and then kills herself. This bizarre act of murder makes the narrator feel guilty for refusing to marry Mustafa Sa’eed’s wife and tries to take his own life. However, at the very last minute, the narrator changes his mind, giving life another chance.

A major theme of the novel is colonialism. It is argued that the season of migration is a response to the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In the novel, Mustafa Sa’eed is somewhat similar to Kurth in Heart of Darkness. Mustafa Sa’eed is not after resources or slavery-like Kurth but he is after sex with white women. Every white woman Mustafa Sa’eed sleeps with, it is like conquering, a display of superiority. Mustafa Sa’eed’s relationship with white women is like that of master and slave. A black Sudanese man travels to London and overpowers white women. Just like colonisers have created a lie about themselves and their culture, Mustafa Sa’eed also exoticises himself and plays into the imagination of the white women; thus controlling them and their worldview. Sexual conquest for Sa’eed has the same meaning as the military conquest for the coloniser. In a strange and perverse parody, Sa’eed believes that he can  ‘liberate Africa with [his] penis’.

Another tool that Sa’eed employs is to master the English language; the same tool that had seduced the natives into believing the colonisation project was something good for them. However, Sa’eed uses his new language skills to lure women to believe that he is the ultimate reality of their imagination. There is another side to the novel that highlights the relationship between men and women, Sa’eed’s sexual conquering of white women also symbolises the coloniser’s attitude toward women of the land they colonised. Colonisers not only took land but also took women as sexual objects. It can be argued that Sa’eed’s fantasy and obsession with white women mimics the coloniser’s fantasy and obsession with the ‘veiled women’.

Sa’eed’s narrative of himself as the mighty and exotic oriental does not have the same influence over his late wife, whom he kills. In her, Sa’eed sees rebellion and a sense of self-awareness. He very soon realises that he is not all-powerful, and he is not in total control. His weakness is shown just before he kills his wife in the following dialogue:

Once I found a man’s handkerchief which wasn’t mine. “It’s yours,” she said when I asked her. “This handkerchief isn’t mine,” I told her. “Assuming it’s not your handkerchief,” she said, “what are you going to do about it?” On another occasion I found a cigarette case, then a pen. “You’re being unfaithful to me,” I said to her. “Suppose I am being unfaithful to you,” she said. “I swear I’ll kill you,” I shouted at her. “You only say that,” she said with a jeering smile. “What’s stopping you from killing me? What are you waiting for? Perhaps you’re waiting till you find a man lying on top of me, and even then I don’t think you’d do anything. You’d sit on the edge of the bed and cry.”

The above conversation highlights the deep connection between the rebellion of Sa’eed’s wife and the rebellion of the colonised people against the coloniser. Sa’eed, as a coloniser is no longer in control or power, thus returning to his native country symbolises the end of colonisation.

Although colonisation in its physical form has ended, and many in the Muslim world claim to have independence, a colonial mentality – one of cultural inferiority – still lives on. Tayed Salib’s novel is more relevant today than when it was first published. Although Mustafa Sa’eed is a mere fictional character, he, however, represents a deep social problem within the Muslim youth, especially those in the Middle East. Sa’eed was only able to have control over the white women because they fantasised about him as an exotic entity. Sa’eed in the eyes of white women is incapable of being anything other than their fantasy. Nowadays, it is the Muslim who fantasise about occidental beings. In his eyes, the white woman is incapable of being imperfect; with her white flesh, her botox lips, her reddish complexion, and her enlarged breasts making her the mistress and the modern Muslim man the slave. He is unable to go beyond her flattering smile, her exotic body movement, and her soft hypnotising voice. He goes far as to deny the very existence of his glorious past. He goes even further, he becomes the very body and the soul of his mistress, and he can no longer relate to his own history, culture, and identity. His existence is worse than that of Mustafa Sa’eed as at least he was able to return to his native land and somewhat repay for his mistakes. However, the young Muslim is unable to return and acknowledge his mistakes, nor does the mistress fully acknowledge his humanity. He is the one whom Allah (May He be exalted) described in his book:“He has lost [this] world and the Hereafter. That is what the manifest loss is”. 

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