Introduction: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Are the greatest books mostly tragic and depressing? Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih is the author’s best known book. The story has an excellent start,
“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. I learnt much and much passed me by – but that’s another story. The important thing is that I returned with a great yearning for my people in that small village at the bend of the Nile. For seven years I had longed for them, had dreamed of them, and it was an extraordinary moment when I at last found myself standing amongst them.”
And the end is quite compelling,
“All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge….”
And there are some brilliant moments between the story start and end, but whichever way I look at Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, for me, it is a tragic and depressing story. I am in the middle of pursuing my informal liberal arts education, and some of these books are draining me because they are so depressing to read.
UPDATE: First Published February 2014
First published in English in 1969, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih follows the life of two Sudanese men who pursued their education in the West, in London, England. The author is regarded as one of the most important fiction writers of the Arab world. The main characters are the unnamed narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed. At the narrator’s homecoming, there is a man present who he has never met, and he is fascinated by the man who doesn’t say much. The narrator inquires about Mustafa Sa’eed, but all he can learn is that he is from the Khartoum area. Sa’eed is not very forthright about himself, nevertheless he is respected in the community he has chosen to live in.
One evening after having a few glasses too many of alcohol, he loosens his lip and starts to recite poetry in English. This gives the narrator some insight into this mysterious man’s life. At their next encounter, Sa’eed tries to downplay the significance of what happened, but the narrator is determined to find out the man’s story. Sa’eed finds himself in a difficult situation and decides to share his story, but first the other man has to agree to not repeat what he learns.
Sa’eed starts to recount his story, starting from when he was a boy, and the reader knows that the story will not end well. Sa’eed is highly educated, well-traveled, but he is also arrogant, ungrateful and cold. His father dies before he is born, and he is not nurtured by his mother who treats him as an equal, even from a very young age. To make a family unit work, there are distinct lines between mother and child, and the role that each plays. Government officials force parents to enrol their children in school, but Sa’eed is curious about the opportunity, and makes good use of it. He has a razor-sharp mind, and is a child prodigy, so in no time he has to leave Sudan to get the kind of education that he needs.
After leaving Sudan at 12 years old, he arrives in Cairo, where the Sudanese government officials have made arrangements for him to stay with Mr and Mrs Robinson. They are a warm couple and Mrs Robinson hugs him, not something he is accustomed to receiving. Although her hug is innocent, for Sa’eed, it’s his first sexual feelings. There is nothing improper about her behavior, she is acting in the role of guardian, and she introduces him to the music of Bach, the poetry of Keats, and the literature of Mark Twain. It’s interesting that while he is attending school in Cairo, a student falls in love with him, but she finally sees him for who he is, “You’re not a human being. You’re a heartless machine.” In three years, Sa’eed leaves for London on another government scholarship.
I disliked Mustafa Sa’eed intensely, and had no warm and fuzzy feelings toward him. Tayeb Salih cleverly uses flashbacks to tell Sa’eed’s story. Mustafa Sa’eed grew into the worst kind of womanizer imaginable, and perhaps worse than any would ever imagine. The choice of words that the author uses, foreshadows what’s to come in the story.
“My bedroom was a graveyard that looked on to a garden…. My bedroom was like an operating theatre in a hospital. There is a still pool in the depths of every woman that I knew how to stir. One day they found her dead…”
I am supposed to be reviewing and summarizing Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, but my readers know that I am an active reader, so I was in the story – I am totally disgusted with the character Mustafa Sa’eed. He pursues women relentlessly, saying whatever he has to say, to get them to sleep with him.
The women had a choice, and some may say they exercised poor judgment when they got together with him. To him, these women weren’t people to be cherished, they were pawns in his sick game of conquering and dominating women. There was one woman, Jean Morris, who he had a hard time of getting her to pay any attention to him and he pursues her relentlessly for three years. When the two finally get together, Jean tells Sa’eed to marry her, and the reader clearly sees that this is a great tragedy in the making.
“Everything which happened before my meeting her [Jean Morris] was a premonition; everything I did after I killed her was an apology, not for killing her, but for the lie that was my life.”
Two women, Sheila Greenwood and Isabella Seymour commit suicide after being with Sa’eed because he betrayed them. After marrying Jean Morris, she withholds sex from him, and finally when she is ready for him, he stabs her while they are in the act.
During his trial he doesn’t show any remorse, “I am no Othello. I am a lie, Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill a lie?” He is sentenced and after serving his time, he returns to Sudan where he marries and has two sons.
Shortly after Mustafa Sa’eed shares his secret with the narrator, he dies and it is not clear if he commits suicide or drowns. But conveniently before his death, he puts his house so to speak in order and leaves the narrator as guardian of his two boys and wife. The narrator doesn’t want the role and does the minimum. Sa’eed leaves him a key to a private room and it takes him years before he actually goes inside. Additionally, one of his grandfather’s friends, Wad Rayyes wants to marry Bint Majzoub, Mustafa Sa’eed’s widow.
She turns him down and he is not happy about it because in his mind, women belong to men. Bint Majzoub tells the narrator that if she is forced to marry Wad Rayyes, she will kill him and then kill herself, but he doesn’t take her seriously, and does what he usually does, which is nothing. His indecision and inaction cause another tragedy.
Final Thoughts: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics) by Tayeb Salih is a surprise because there is a lot of graphic sexual references in the second half of the book, which is unusual because Sudan is an Islamic country, which frowns upon such things. Incidentally, Season of Migration to the North is among the List of the 100 Best Books of All Time.
Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics)The Wedding of Zein (New York Review Books (Paperback))Tayeb Salih: Ideology and the Craft of Fiction (Middle East Literature In Translation)The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (African Writers Series)The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories