Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a novel about the existential experiences of two men, the story’s unnamed main narrator, and the character of Mustafa Sa’eed; what brings these two life stories together is the remarkable similarity between the experiences of the two men. These experiences are above all defined by a theme of post-colonialism: both characters are brought together by their shared intelligence which has led them to study abroad in Great Britain, after which they return home to their native Sudan. What emerges in these life journeys and what makes them harmonious with each other is that there is a clear theme of cultural hegemony at stake in the narrative: the colonized peoples of Sudan look to the West for their education and thus culture.
But this itself becomes a rejection of the value of Sudanese culture and life: in Mustafa Sa’eed, the narrator sees himself, and thus sees the problems with attempting to fit with a Western world-view and a Western culture, an attempt to assimilate which means the loss of a particular cultural identity, in this case Sudanese cultural identity. The alternation of points of view in narration therefore reflect the schizophrenic feeling the young Sudanese intellectual feels in relation to the West: this is an ambivalent relationship, whereby the West, although it offers opportunities for intellectual advancement, only does this at the expense of one’s own cultural background. The structure of the narration shows precisely this sacrifice and the trauma it creates.
At the very outset of the book, the narrator introduces himself as having returned from England to the Sudan, clearly proud of his new education. He feels a certain superiority to his countrymen, now that he has made advancements in a Western world that is perceived as more “civilized.” This opening character voice of the narrator thus establishes the basic ideology that the West represents a higher cultural form of life: one enters this form of life and then sacrifices one’s own “inferior” background. The very first sentence of the novel establishes this tone, as the narrator states: “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.” (Salih, 1) Here, the narrator almost takes on a colonial style of discourse: he uses the typical term associated with higher western values, “gentlemen”, to address his audience. Although he does state that he “returned to my people”, the narrator nevertheless seems to approach throughout the opening chapter his homeland as the colonialist ethnographer approaching his subject matter. It seems like he has been distanced from his homeland, and now sees his homeland through western eyes and a western point of view.
This point is further supplemented when we consider the switch in narrative to that of Mustafa Sa’eed, who has gone through many of the same experiences as the narrator, such as studying in England. The reaction to Sa’eed is one of shock: the narrator feels that he is superior to his countrymen because he has been abroad for studies. But to see someone else who has accomplished these same goals, and that this affects him in a negative manner, shows that he has viewed his time in the West as a symbol of his status as more civilized than his countrymen. He is not fascinated by his own world, but that someone else as part of this world may have also had accessed to the privileged and elite world-view of the West. This is, for example, shown when Mustafa Sa’eed’s background is explained by another acquaintance: “With a combination of admiration and spite, we called him “the black Englishman.”” (53) These words could also easily be attributed to the narrator in relation to Sa’eed: Sa’eed attempted to become more English than the English themselves.
This entails that he both rejected his own Sudanese identity on the one hand, and, on the other hand, also fully “bought” into the narrative that the West presents a superior cultural paradigm. The reason why the narrator arguably finds the encounter with Mustafa Sa’eed to his own personal subjectivity is that this is exactly his story: he has also bought into the narrative that Western cultural institutions and the West in general are superior to the social institutions of Sudan. Mustafa Sa’eed is someone who has already lived the narrator’s life, and thus the narrator begins to feel the emptiness of his own existence, having fallen into the same traps as Sa’eed.
But the narrator is in constant denial over this fact, a denial which symbolizes and re-iterates his own denial of his own Sudanese culture. As the narrator states, “But I would hope you will not entertain the idea, dear sirs, that Mustafa Sa’eed had become an obsession that was ever with me in my comings and goings.” (60) This is a deeply ironic statement, since the majority of the book’s narrative is focused on his relationship to Mustafa as a reflection of himself. The reason why the narrator is obsessed with Mustafa Sa’eed is because Mustafa anticipates and foreshadows the life story of the narrator. That Mustafa eventually dies as a result of drowning or suicide clearly haunts the narrator: Mustafa’s life in the West has led to his own destruction at home. The story of Mustafa challenges the narrator to re-think his acceptance of the colonial narrative of the story of the West. This is because this narrative can only be accepted at the loss of one’s culture, symbolized in Mustafa’s own loss of life.
Hence, the use of dual character voices show an inner struggle with a colonial discourse. The narrator has bought into the cultural values of the West, at the expense of his own, in this case, Sudanese cultural values. The appearance of Mustafa Sa’eed forces the narrator to question his own existential life choices. In this sense, Mustafa Sa’eed is not another character apart from the narrator, but symbolic of the inner dialogue within the narrator, an inner dialogue that addresses the high costs of accepting colonial norms. This high cost is the sacrifice of one’s own native culture.
- Saliah, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 1969.