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Season of Migration to the North
by Tayeb Salih
translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies
New York Review of Books, 2009
Tayeb Salih, who passed away earlier this year, first published Season of Migration to the North in 1969, during the waning years of European colonialism. Prominent Arabic-English translator Denys Johnson-Davies brings this thoughtful, colorful, and distinctly African novel alive. One woman’s voice is “saw-edged like a maize leaf,” while the voice of a deceased man rose from the beyond like “dead fishes floating on the surface of the sea.” An inky sky is peppered with stars like “nothing but rents in an old tattered garment.”
But the novel is much more than exquisitely descriptive. It is colorful—I laughed aloud while reading it. It is also sexual, and violent, and often both simultaneously. But what really makes this eloquent story compelling is its seesaw-take on the colonizer and the colonized, the Self and the Other. Colonialism, it seems, is often in the eyes of the beholder, especially when viewed from the perspective of the individual.
Season is a Sudanese post-colonial novel that examines the influence of the Outsider on a culture. Of post-colonial Africa the theme is tried and true—Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, to name just three African authors, have written in this vein to great success.
Vastly older than the post-colonial genre, however, is the phenomenon of one people striking out in search of new lands, people, resources and cultures to exploit. Or, to be more precise, colonization. Our pre-historic ancestors began the practice thousands of years ago. Inhabitants of ancient Western Syria, for example, sailed west around 9000 bce to colonize what is now known as Cyprus (see Steven Mithen’s After the Ice, Harvard Univ. Press 2004). Many thousands of years later, adventurers and learned people from the area of modern Sudan and Egypt made headway in Greece (see Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, Rutgers 2006) long before the West, predominately Britain, began to swing the colonial pendulum back to Africa. Recalling the protracted history of colonization and, in this case, African ventures to the West (in light of Western capitalization of Africa more recently), puts such cyclical human practice in some perspective. In striking out for new places, humans have always struggled with the question of otherness.
After years of study in London, the young narrator returns to his homeland of Sudan sometime in the 1960s. There he meets a mysterious stranger, Mustafa Sa’eed, who inexplicably takes the young man into his confidence by sharing his own history of his time in London and his eventual return to his native land. Sa’eed then disappears, leaving the young narrator in charge of Sa’eed’s family and estate—without explanation. Fluidly combining narration of Sa’eed’s past with the narrator’s present, Season tells a brilliant story of a Sudanese’s exploits in London, the British exploitation of Sudan, and the uncertain path on which the African country soon embarks.
Typical exotic and pejorative (and hopefully, by now, passé) Western stereotypes of the African populate Salih’s story. In recounting a sexually frenzied episode with a white woman in London, for example, the enigmatic Sa’eed recalls, “There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungles.” It is a point of interest that these thoughts of feeling like a savage or sense of backwardness are always conveyed in Salih’s novel by Africans. While there are a few narrative opportunities for Salih to take the reader into the minds of Londoners and British colonials to gauge their sentiment of the African Other in their midst, it does not happen. For instance, we do not know if Sa’eed’s lover actually envisioned the primitive carnality to which he alludes or if she felt the implied sense of superiority for which she is suspected.
Yet throughout Season, Salih brilliantly turns the colonial discourse on its head. Upon the return of the young narrator to his homeland, local villagers are curious of the other land (London) and people and quiz the unnamed student on his homecoming. “They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.” One need only replace “Europeans” with “Africans” and the same thought sounds as if a proud Victorian explorer was recounting to his parlor friends a recent jaunt across the Dark Continent. In these scenes—which come near the beginning to set the tone for the rest of the novel—the young student underscores how much humanity shares in common in the trappings and desires of everyday life. In doing so he also illustrates our common bewilderment that They are just like Us.
When the Sudanese villagers question their worldly friend about the Other people, are they flipping Orientalist discourse on its head and practicing a form of Occidentalism? Here is a brief exchange between the narrator and his friend:
“Are there any farmers among them?” Mahjoub asked me.
“Yes, there are some farmers among them. They’ve got everything—workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us.” I preferred not to say the rest that had come to my mind: that just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams, some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.
Or, in other words, the Other is not much different from the Self, as Laila Lalami reports in her introduction to the novel. The most striking instance of the sentiment of “reverse-colonialism” is exemplified in a London courtroom. In a flashback to his criminal trial, Sa’eed likens the courtroom drama to that of a cultural ceremony being performed for the benefit of the visitor. During the proceedings, Sa’eed felt superior to his British counterparts, likening a very serious legal proceeding to a “ritual” being held for entertainment purposes. The trial, he recalls, “was being held primarily because of me; and I, over and above everything else, am a colonizer, I am the intruder whose fate must be decided.” The sole African in a London court, Sa’eed’s feelings of superiority in the midst of a local spectacle demonstrate how, from the individual perspective, colonial attitudes are in the eyes of the beholder.
But his sense of supremacy quickly devolves into one of bitterness toward the colonizers of his homeland.
The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns, not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history…
Nevertheless, more prominent throughout Season than the idea that Sa’eed or the narrator, as students (ethnographers?), were somehow pioneering colonizers from Sudan in the UK, is the anger, bitterness, and confusion wrought by the white colonizers in their beloved homeland. “The English District Commissioner was a god who had a free hand over an area larger than the whole of the British Isles and lived in an enormous palace full of servants and guarded by troops,” recalls a retired Sudanese bureaucrat. “They used to behave like gods.”
Emotions are hardly straightforward. Ruled by outsiders for so long and then left to define its place in the modern world and to re-discover a sense of self-identity, Sudan and its population (in the immediate post-colonial era) faced existential and identity crises, to say the least. Unwitting hypocrisy of the ruling class abounded. Leaders would condemn and vituperate in their best anti-imperialist bravado the political, social, and economic ways of their former colonizers, only to take leave of Sudan in private jets to their villas on Lake Lucerne or shopping excursions at Harrods in London. How to define the Self in such circumstances? Borrow the best elements from the pre- and colonial past to create a new future? Begin anew? The tension such questions cause within the Sudanese state and in the Sudanese individual persist through Season with no resolution.
In the end, after a violent episode in which Sa’eed’s private library of British culture is destroyed, the young, confused narrator swims to the middle of the river. Each bank is equally out of reach. Much like Sudan after their imperial leaders left, he treads water, his head barely above water, unsure of which direction to pursue, and screams for help.
September 24, 2009
frontispiece: ancient Nubian pyramids (Univ. of Chicago)