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  • Catriona Fida

Season of Migration to the North


“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. ‘I am no Othello. Othello was a lie.’” Season of Migration to the North follows a young man who has just returned from his studies in Europe to his native village in Sudan. On his return, he discovers a new face in his otherwise unchanged village, that of Mustafa Sa’eed, a stranger who has recently moved to the village and married a local woman. While he is popular amongst the locals, not much is known about his past. That is, until one fateful night when the narrator obtains a confession from Mustafa about his education and experiences living in the West. What Mustafa and the narrator share (and the reason for his confession) is through them both being the outcome of a colonial education. While he barely knows Mustafa, he is chosen to hear his story because he too has had to balance Eastern and Western influences from when he was studying poetry in England. Reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 poem, ‘The Ballad of East and West’, this text explores what really happens when East meets West. Mustafa’s story is a haunting portrayal of the impact of British colonialism on contemporary Sudanese culture and identity and an exploration of how women have been rendered collateral damage in this age-old conflict. Salih’s biggest credit is of course his stylistic prose which switches between the viewpoint of the narrator and the storytelling of Mustafa. Mustafa’s ingenuity is what affords him access to the Western part of the world but his knowledge of classroom subjects has not made it any easier for him to adapt to life in Europe. Taking advantage of how he is considered an exotic novelty, Mustafa takes brutal revenge on the decadent West through becoming a womanizer. Mustafa compares himself to Othello, who was also black, had attempted to become Western and had killed his wife. To me, this is an interesting comparison when considering how Shakespeare, the creator of Othello, is arguably the father of Western prose. Each woman Mustafa encounters and, in turn, destroys represents another aspect of his conflicted mental state. For instance, the last woman he meets is the main reason for his downfall because she forces him to sacrifice his original identity through destroying his most treasured Eastern relics in exchange for her body.. His return to Sudan demonstrates his ultimate defeat by the West and an attempt to reconcile his misdeeds. As well as this, the novella is also a reflection of the social changes during the 1960s, the period in which Salih wrote this text. The novel is ultimately an exploration of relationships between men and women during the sexual revolution in Europe. In the West, as in the East, women in this text are presented as dispensable and subject to ruin by their male counterparts. In exchange, European women degrade and exoticise Eastern culture and African men. Some of the misogyny Salih addresses within his novella did shock and even repulse me at times but I do believe this was for good reason. Tayib Salih is known for being very critical of the position of women and marital customs in Sudan and I think in this text he has perfectly depicted the faults of both cultures. Even though the book is more than 50 years old now, it doesn’t read as dated in the slightest since the themes of gender and colonialism are still rife within our own contemporary. Unsurprisingly, the text was banned in Sudan for a number of years due to it being considered insulting to religion and pornographic. Now though, it is considered to be one of the best Arabic books of the 20th century. With all translated works of fiction, I am always fearful of meaning not being conveyed accurately but it was comforting to know that Salih had actually worked very closely with his translator, Denys Johnson-Davies. I do not speak Arabic myself but I always appreciate good translations so that I can gain an uncensored insight into other cultures without the narrative being disrupted. I am, however, a little disappointed that many of his other works are still yet to be translated as I would be very interested in reading more from Salih. Sometimes I look for a book with lyrical prose, sometimes I look for a compelling plot and other times I look for social commentary. Fortunately, this book catered to all three criteria. This book is dark and tragic, certainly not a feel good read, but it is a classic for a reason and I would recommend it to anyone. 9/10. (If you get the chance to read this book, I would also strongly advise you read the foreword by Salih which offers some insight into the text and the reception it received).

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