Season of migration to the north

Season of migration to the north

William Armstrong -
Season of migration to the north

AP Photo

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (New York Review Books, 139 pages, $14)

“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence - seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe - that I returned to my people.”

Thus begins Tayeb Salih’s 1966 book “Season of Migration to the North,” one of the best-known and most important Arabic novels of the 20th century. The story describes an unnamed narrator’s life upon returning to his native village on the Nile after years studying in England. Despite his eagerness to contribute to the new postcolonial life of Sudan, his experiences present a tragic parable of the clash between tradition and modernity. Exploring the destructive clash of East and West from a peripheral setting may now seem rather clichéd, but Salih did so with clarity and precision that remains fresh today. Barely a word is wasted over 139 pages, and 50 years later “A Season of Migration to the North” is still worth reading.

Season of migration to the northThe opening words are spoken by an unnamed narrator, who has returned to the small and remote village of Wal Hamid. There, he meets the mysterious and enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed, who catches his attention one evening by quoting from British poetry in perfect English. It turns out that Mustafa has made a similar journey to the narrator, and he describes his life in London, where he was an attractively exotic face among bohemian circles. A voracious womanizer, the egotistical Mustafa exploited orientalist clichés to woo his targets, admitting that his “store of hackneyed phrases is inexhaustable.” Describing one of his sexual conquests, he says, “I related to her fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another ... I told her that the streets of my country teemed with elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it.” Over the course of the novel, this self-interested self-orientalizing leads to a series of bitter tragedies.

Salih was writing with the weight of experience. Born in northern Sudan and educated at the University of Khartoum, he briefly worked as a teacher before moving to London to work at the BBC Arabic Service, and later to the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. His peripatetic life - and the trajectory of both Mustafa and the narrator in the novel - was in many ways archetypical of a generation of first-generation elites in postcolonial countries: A European education followed by a return to the native land as part of the post-independence ruling class. 

“Othello” is one of the novel’s key intertexts, (I’m trying to avoid postcolonial jargon). Like Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Season of Migration to the North” shows us the full destructive force of alluring delusions. As in the best tragedies, the sheer force of circumstances seems to drive the narrative inexorably to its inevitable, traumatic conclusion. The clarity and crispness of the novel occasionally leads to jarring didacticism. Characters sometimes speak in declamatory, rhetorical, unnatural sentences - a hallmark of an earnest first book. 

“Season of Migration to the North” is one of the archetypal examples of postcolonial literature written amid the wave of post-war decolonization. Postcolonial theory has tried hard to obfuscate much great work down the academic rabbit hole, but it is always good to come back to the towering texts themselves. Many of them remain relevant. Migration from North Africa to Europe is today more commonly associated with desperate refugees sinking in boats in the Mediterranean, but this book still has much to say 50 years after it was first published.