BOOK REVIEWS (2013) – al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s (1966) Mawsim al-Hiǧra ilā ash-Shamāl’ (Season of Migration to the North)

13 August 2013


In attempts by western literary critics to read Arabic and African stereotypes in postcolonial terms we discern how such readings shift the “blame” for those stereotype’s actions in exactly the same way as the critic’s political counterparts shift the blame for events in the Middle East and Africa away from the effects of the colonial past. Thus, in the very eagerness of western commentators to declare the current era postcolonial (just as many now claim we live in a postracial era) we see belied simply the new face of the latest colonizing endeavor.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s (1966)[1] Mawsim al-Hiǧra ilā ash-Shamāl‘ (Season of Migration to the North)

I feel extra clueless coming at this book, not only because have I neglected the literature of this part of the world—as my socialization encouraged—but also because what information I have encountered in the western the discourse about the Islamic world I remain deeply suspicious of, which also generally stops me from moving forward to learn more. I chose this book, not because Edward Said declared it one of the six great Arabic novels in modern times, but because I trust Edward Said not to steer me wrong; I’d feel more skeptical about a recommendation from someone I felt less certain about their position regarding colonialism and orientalism. At the same time, I know that Ṣāliḥ (as well as Said, if we put it all out there) stand as accepted, established intellectuals within the culture they criticize or depict. One argues that no panopticon operates flawlessly; one may find blind spots and exploit them, even right out in the open like a purloined letter, or more dishearteningly that such seeming blind spots serve as temene (protective circles, like the kind one uses to contain and limit the reach of demons[2]) o contain such counter-narratives; the counterargument suggests—more naively, less usefully—that culture presents no monolithic image and that one finds no use in analyzing such things in this way.[3]

I want to praise this book, and I will, but some ground needs clearing. One can’t ignore, for instance, when Ṣāliḥ wrote this book. The figure of Mustafa Sa’eed represents a sort of nightmare, which the unnamed narrator carefully distances himself from; call Sa’eed a gross parody of the westerner’s (projected) fear, this will not stop a bigot from saying, “Oh, no, no. The narrator foreswears Sa’eed but he has to keep up that front” &c; Jabbar (2012)[4] attempts to turn this table by asserting Sa’eed represents the colonizer not the colonized. [5]

Ṣāliḥ toward the front of the book twice asserts no great difference between the people of England and the people of Sudan; the one sentence (second) version of this reads, “Over there is like here, neither better or worse” (49); the first version says fundamentally the same, but with more specific detail. I remember thinking as I read it how such a passage might seem endearing to the non-Arabic reader. Perhaps more saliently, the passage occurs when the retuned narrator answers question put to him by his townsfolk. I mean by this, the narrative “over there is like here, neither better or worse” offers placation in both directions (to the townspeople and to the English-speaking reader). One might reflect on this assertion of identity later anyway, as events unfold as they do.

I mean that the book provides two cases of domestic murder, one in England and one in Sudan. Between these two events, whatever remains the same here and there, cultural differences also intervene to belie the claim. I want to put off pursuing this point any further here.

Only to have to take it up again in another guise. Two recurrent notes associated with this book involve construing it as a kind of inside-out Arabian Nights(“an Arabian nights in reverse, enclosing a pithy moral about international misconceptions and delusions”) or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in reverse, where someone from the “dark” continent goes to London and all Hell breaks loose. Considering that Arabian Nights has about a billion different possible narratives, it seems a rather orientalist gesture itself to pretend that a Sudanese novel must refer to a Persian collection. Similarly, the desire to construe Ṣāliḥ’s novel as derivative of a Western model, or at the very least in principle fully approved because it participates in a tradition of western novels, seems sketchy to me.

To put this another way, fi somewhat polemically, if western readers did not “decode” this novel in its own terms—familiar as something like the exotic Arabian Nights or familiar as something like a truly great work of western literature—then would marketing the book even  remain possible? Of course, Ṣāliḥ, himself a product of two worlds (at least), most likely simply wanted to write a fucking novel, eh? In a recent Internet dust-up, a Black musician wrote a (non-musical) piece about Trayvon Martin, a white (female) feminist took issue with some of the tropes of sexism she found in it, and another Black (female, feminist) blogger, along with numerous commentators, ripped the white feminist a new one for having to insert her white feminism, relevant as it stands in other contexts, into the mist of the musician’s soulful self-exploration.

Something like that seems at work here in the reception of the book. Just as the narrator reassuring his townspeople that “over there is like here, neither better or worse” (49) serves first and foremost as a message to them, not to the (white translated) readership overhearing that discussion, this book (written in Arabic) does not have “England” (&c) as its primary audience or readership. Thus, this business about “a pithy moral about international misconceptions and delusions” stands as the only pithily drawn moral about international misconceptions delusions one might find in the book.[6]

Admittedly, it has been a long time since I’ve read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; what I actually remember somewhat more vividly involves the tremendous narrative uncertainty Conrad generates for the story that typically accompanies Heart of Darkness, “The Secret Sharer”.[7] I can no longer remember to what extent events in Heart of Darkness get made ambiguous, but I think Conrad does go some way to inject uncertainty into the text. This business about the reverse version of the African going to the heart of England and … and what? For Conrad, the figure of Kurtz becomes (somehow or another) savage. With Sa’eed, even before he ever goes to England he already stands as intellect only, without any empathy. London merely gives him (through his position) the ability to practice his hunting mercilessly; one really can’t see, in fact, any change from Sa’eed as a boy in the Sudan to Sa’eed as a man in England. Whether Kurtz already had a secret savagery within him that the Congo merely allowed expression of remains unanswerable from Conrad’s text.

This ignores the bazillion other details that in no way make the texts resemble each other. In Heart of Darkness, the entire arc of the story involves an attempted rescue; in Mawsim al-Hiǧra ilā ash-Shamāl, no rescue occurs at all and Sa’eed becomes dead and out of the novel early on.[8] And again, if Kurtz “goes native,” then the transformation that Sa’eed experiences occurred in the Sudan, where a colonial education provides the first steps towards getting to London.[9]

If I find one way that the book particularly suggest Heart of Darkness, it involves the narrative uncertainty. Some people have complained that Sa’eed’s body count of lovelorn suicides in England seems preposterous. Apparently readers didn’t find it so preposterous when different reporters accuse Sa’eed of collaboration. Whereas with the suicide, I feel that I may infer the truth, I find myself less sanguine about not only these rumors but even Sa’eed’s only report about his activity in England. It has less to do with the body count and more that the people in the Sudan who accuse him of working in critical ways against the best interests of the Sudanese have heard nothing about his trial in England or that he spent time in prison. One could also say that seven years for murder seems unlikely, &c.

I might feel more sanguine but Sa’eed readily admits, on a number of occasions, that he flagrantly lied and it tickles me no end—Poe’s “Purloined Letter” all over again—that this might amount to an open confession by Ṣāliḥ himself. In any case, it reads uncertainly to me if the narrator going into the locked room represents an (in essence) necessary part of the story—that, having mentioned it exists, then, on Chekhov’s Law, that if one introduces a gun in the first act someone must fire it in the fifth, Ṣāliḥ has an obligation to take us into that room—if the room serves to dispel any doubt about the “England affair” or both.

Even once or twice the surreal notion entered my head that the narrator and Sa’eed were one and the same, but events in the book make the idea indefensible. The sense of linkage in any case seems the narrator’s uncomfortable sense of doom that he might wind up in some way as Sa’eed.

For all that people find precedents in Conrad and Persian literature, for me I more palpably felt echoes with Faulkner—Light in August first and foremost in an interracial murder (thanks to a sadomasochistic relationship), but also Absalom, Absalom to the extent that Sa’eed’s hope that the English courts would provide the death sentence he desired but would not do himself paralleled the hope between Sutpen’s two sons that the Civil War might settle the dispute between them if one (or both) of them did not survive. But also, and I’d find myself hard-pressed to formally prove this, something about a certain density of writing in Ṣāliḥ that evoked something of Faulkner’s approach as well.

It may prove, once I read enough Arabic literature, that Ṣāliḥ’s “style” shows up characteristically in Arabic literature. And just as comparisons with Heart of Darkness my finally reek of “white insertion,” invoking Faulkner deserves similar skepticism. Yes. But in part the “style” (echoes of Faulkner in my head notwithstanding) stands as the reel topic I think the book embodies or addresses.

In one passage that these days could only get seized on by certain people eager to offset defamations of the Arabic world, a discussion occurs regarding female circumcision. Some stand for it; some prefer it, but the “teaching moment” involves the point made, in the course of the discussion, that female circumcision doesn’t happen everywhere and does not everywhere have Islamic attestation. In other words, the monolithic construct of Islam or Africa as everywhere chopping women’s clitorises off  represents propaganda, whether voiced by feminists or racists.[10]

‘Circumcision is one of the conditions of Islam,’ said Bakri.

‘What Islam are you talking about’ asked Wad Rayyes. ‘It’s your Islam and Hajj Ahmed’s Islam, because you can’t tell what’s good for you from what’s bad. The Nigerians, the Egyptians, and the Arabs of Syria, aren’t they Moslems like us? But they’re people who know what’s what and leave their women as God created them. As for us, we dock them like you do animals’

My grandfather laughed so hard that three beads from his string slipped by together without his realizing (81).

To cut to the chase, Ṣāliḥ one might almost say naively describes the truth, and since we in the west stand ever ready to positively or negatively Orientalize not-the-West, one may already imagine different ways this depiction of the actual state of things will get distorted, suppressed, &c., for the sake of some agenda. For example, since “no one thinks female circumcision is a problem, we can ignore Africa” &c; or “Just because a bunch of men and one old woman don’t acknowledge the problem of female genital mutilation, based in Islam or not” &c; we can declare that Nigeria, Egypt and Syria respect women and show civilization while elsewhere, not so much, &c.

In this respect, probably a most “shocking” aspect of the book for a reader today involves the almost completely absent or invisible presence of Islam—by which I mean, whatever images of overbearing cleric-types or other stereotypes the media accustoms us to do not appear in the book. The narrator’s grandfather provides the most devout image of a believer in the book, and this takes the form first and foremost of fingering prayer beads. The narrator does single him out as a figure of extreme health, spryness, and wisdom, so that it seems striking when, after the murder suicide in the village, the narrator describes him as talking about in a funk and taking swings at things with a stick. After frank and bawdy discussion of sex, everyone who spoke does declare “I ask forgiveness of Almighty God” (84). Those who see superstition in this have already forgotten that they were “shocked” by the content of the sex discussion, I’d wager. Once again, the truth we see: Moslems converse, like anyone else, just as they like, and if afterward they remind themselves also of serious things, it clearly does not serve as a warning or deterrent  for future such conversations. &c.

This kind of point seems obvious, of course, and would warrant no mention at all were it not for the steady diet of misinformation, lies, and gross simplifications broadcast into our world daily by the media keenly interested in making sure we never feel loyalty, solidarity, or anything but politically neutralized sympathy (pity) for Africa-and-elsewhere. (Nobody, for instance, except ideologues reads novels from the US and finds themselves stunned by the absence of religious profession in people who generally identify as Christian or Jewish.)

Certain stock phrases get deployed by people as oaths or formulae, and Ṣāliḥ utilizes this technique in a few places in his book for literary purposes. Sa’eed, for instance, repeats the phrase, “The train carried me to victoria Station and to the world of Jean Morris” (33) so it becomes a poetic refrain. And, in fact, generally, in reconstructing the narrative, which at least at the outset appears formally addressed to some people—“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence” (1)—the narrator fluidly shifts between dialogic transcription, paraphrase, summary, and so forth. These categories do not always blur, though at other times (I want to say of “stress” in the narrative) an almost impenetrable wall seems to come up that obscures the actual events. It feels as if experience itself overwhelms the narrative, so to speak, so that the transcription of the experience opaques events themselves. It sometimes feels almost like a blackout—although, obviously, the words keep going. Perhaps the two most striking examples of this occur when the narrator meets with Hosna (when attempting to persuade her to marry Wad Rayyes), and the room literally becomes pitch dark (even as it seems unclear whether this denotes a “psychological” blackout or a literal one, as if the sun had set); the second involves the nightmare or curious experience at the end of the book when the narrator swims in the Nile.

Ṣāliḥ also uses memory in a striking way. When Sa’eed tells his tale, at times the text slips out of quotation marks per se, or the levels of quotation marks gets blurry. But whatever the curiousness of this, which sometimes made me lose track of who’d said what, later in the book, in Sa’eed’s room, the narrator remembers whole portions of Sa’eed’s story, quoting him verbatim, and even as this exactly reprises the earlier style of report, Sa’eed of course does not actually speak these things in the presence of the narrator; he spoke them. Nonetheless, the narrator repeats them with exactly as much precision as we encountered it previously—this helps strongly to create vertiginous moments when the possibility that the narrator and Sa’eed become one seem plausible; then it passes. At other times, in the middle of a paragraph, a phrase (usually from Sa’eed, or something related to the narrator’s love for Hosna) will recur.

As an example of narrative density, at one point the narrator hires a car out into the desert for reasons I failed to follow. The whole chapter (pp. 105–15) offers a marvelous set piece of past and present, but I reproduce only the very end of the chapter as an example:

And so we continued on, while every vehicle, coming or going, would stop and join us until we became a huge caravanserai of more than a hundred men who ate and drank and prayed and got drunk.

We formed ourselves into a large circle into which some of the younger men entered and danced in the manner of girls. We clapped, stamped on the ground, and hummed in unison, making  festival to nothingness in the heart of the desert. Then someone produced a transistor radio which we placed in the centre of the circle and we clapped and danced to its music. Someone else got the idea of having the drivers line up their cars in a circle and train their headlights on to the ring of dancers so that there was a blaze of light the like of which I do not believe that place had ever seen before. The men imitated the loud trilling cries women utter at festivities and the horns of the cars all rang out together. The light and the clamour attracted the Bedouin from the neighbouring wadi ravines and foothills, both men and women, people whom you would not see by day, when it was just as if they melted away under the light of the sun. A vast concourse of people gathered.

Actual women entered the circle; had you seen them by day you would not have given them a second glance, but at that time and place they were beautiful. A Bedouin MN brought a sheep which he tied up and slaughtered and then roasted over a fire. One of the travellers produced two crates of beer which he distributed around as he called out, ‘To the good health of the Sudan. To the good health of the Sudan.’ Packets of cigarettes and boxes of sweets were passed round, and the Bedouin women sang and danced, the night and the desert resounding with the echoes of a great feast, as though we were some tribe of genies. A feast without a meaning, a mere desperate act that had sprung up impromptu like the small whirlwinds that rise up in the desert and then die. At dawn we parted. The Bedouin made their way back to the wadi ravines. The people exchanged shouts of ‘Good-bye, good-bye’, and everyone ran off to his car. The engines revved up and the headlights veered away from the place which moments before had been an intimate stage and which now returned to its former state – a tract of desert. Some of the headlights pointed southwards in the direction of the Nile, some northwards also in the direction of the Nile. The dust swirled up and disappeared. We caught up the sun on the peaks of the mountains of Kerari overlooking Omdurman (113–5).


[1] Ṣāliḥ, al-Ṭayyib (2009). Season of migration to the north. [trans. D. Johnson-Davies] Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, pp. 1-169. Original title: موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال

[2] Even more precisely:

temenos (Greek: τέμενος) is a piece of land cut off and assigned as an official domain, especially to kings and chiefs, or a piece of land marked off from common uses and dedicated to a god, a sanctuary, holy grove or holy precinct: The Pythian race-course is called a temenos, the sacred valley of the Nile is the Νείλοιο πῖον τέμενος Κρονίδα, the Acropolis is the ἱερὸν τέμενος (of Pallas). The word derives from the Greek verb τέμνω (temnō), “to cut”; plural: τεμένη, temene. The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek te-me-no, written in Linear B syllabic script (from here).

[3] Huntington (1996)* notes, “The west won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do” (51).

Huntington, S (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

[4] Jabbar, WKA (2012). The mimetic discourse in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. The Rocky Mountain Review of Literature and Language, Special Issue 2012: 130–43.

[5] Such an assertion takes a very polemic an literal reading of the book, where the narrative Sa’eed offers of himself receives not even the smallest grain of doubt about its veracity. At one point, Jabbar (2012) goes to considerable lengths (several paragraphs) to dismiss (only one) of two points where one might construe Sa’eed as a ‘postcolonial figure’: “In this deprecating context, the notion that Mustafa is a postcolonial figure who avenges his colonized country dissipates and what emerges instead is a new reconstructed image of Mustafa who is part of the ongoing colonial pretension (140). All of this—and I reproduce by no means all of Jabbar’s paragraphs here—to account for the five-word phrase that Sa’eed would “liberate Africa with [his] Penis.” Better that Jabbar should observe that critics who read Sa’eed as a postcolonial figure (rather than a would-be colonizer who failed to assimilate completely) shift the “blame” for his actions in exactly the same way their political counterparts shift the blame for events in Africa and elsewhere, that in their eagerness to declare the era postcolonial (as many now try to claim we live in a postracial era), they only belie the new face of the latest colonial endeavor.

[6] Jabbar (2012) takes this further, citing the specific longer section specifically:

“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 … just like us” (5). The novel sets to negate the narrator’s assumption of people sharing the same human experience and condition, an affirmation that the Occident and the Other are almost the same. The narrator himself refers to these early days as those of sheer innocence: “I was happy during those days, like a child that sees its face in the mirror for the first time” (5). The implication is that there is more than the eye can see when it comes to east versus west.

I sympathize with this point, but I discern more polemic than persuasion here. Even the word “exactly” in “exactly like them” doesn’t seem enough of a red flag to so unambiguously put forward this argument. On a note stupid or naïve level, one may emphasizes the similarities of people everywhere without pretending the differences don’t exist simultaneously; this phrase strikes me more as a statement of such similarities (by Ṣāliḥ or the narrator) more than a knowing wink or piece of the narrator’s youthful delusion.

[7] Even the title remains ambiguous; if this someone who shares a secret or a sharer that the narrator never really exposes?

[8] Multiple people speak of Sa’eed’s disappearance. For me, I have no doubt that he committed suicide, but for whatever reason Ṣāliḥ allowed the decorum of the book to make this coy—or maybe it just seems coy to me. Nonetheless, we have not only the clear and unambiguous preparations that Sa’eed makes just shortly before his “disappearance”. More tenuously, the way he speaks of the trial, he fully expected the English court to put him to death, thus doing what he had not had the courage to do himself. One might say that because he has settled down in the narrator’s town, we’ve no reason to believe he suddenly, finally decided to off himself. But his shrine to his English life, which reds something like a locked and secret cancer inside of his house to which only he allowed himself access, suggests he might have often gone into that room and exacerbated his old wounds in the giant presence of Jean Morris’ portrait an all of the white people he’d read—“Not a single Arabic book” (137). He has divulged his secret to the narrator; this puts the cat out of the bag, or the djinn out of the lamp; the pressure of the story being loosed might finally have made the difference. But lastly, the parallels of the murders suggests itself as well. It seems, on the evening of murdering Jean Morris, that Sa’eed should have killed himself as well, but did not (cowardice or sociopathy). By contrast, Hosna suffered from no such cowardice; she murdered Wad Rayyes, then killed herself. This shows the cowardice of Sa’eed at that critical moment in England; his widow in the Sudan shows more strength of character than the sociopathic playboy who’d lived in London.

[9] Jabbar (2012) asserts, “Given his English-oriented educational background, arguing that Mustafa has highly sought to live in England and call it home negates the prevalent perception which positions Mustafa as the vindictive colonized subject who travels to England seeking to avenge his colonized country” (130). Yes. And, at the same time, he asserts, in contrast to most critical reactions that see Sa’eed as a vengeful colonial subject, “Mustafa’s character not as a neurotic avenger in the west as it is generally conceived, but as a colonizer who seeks to go native, that is in this case, to become completely westernized” (130, emphasis added). Jabbar further asserts this does involve a complete transformation from colonized to colonizer, thus a going native, like Conrad’s Kurtz.

[10] Not that these categories necessarily remain mutually exclusive.


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