Season of Migration to the North Summary

Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North

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Season of Migration to the North Summary

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Originally written in Arabic, Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial Sudanese novel by Tayeb Salih. It was first published in 1966, made its first English appearance in 1969, and is considered to be among the classics of Arabic literature. Historically, Sudan was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt, beginning in 1899. Sudan became independent in 1956 after which followed two lengthy civil wars. Season of Migration to the North takes place in the 1960s and is voiced by an unnamed narrator who has returned to his village in the Sudan after spending seven years in England gaining an education. He assumes that his education will help him improve things in his native land but he has been out of touch with the lives of his people and does not seem to be a man of action. The notion of bettering Sudan proves elusive.

The novel begins with the narrator’s arrival home and his meeting Mustafa Sa’eed, who is a new member of the village. Mustafa remains distant but while drunk one night recites poetry in English, raising the curiosity of the narrator, who at that point becomes determined to learn more about this stranger. Mustafa’s story becomes central to the narrative. He, like the narrator, was educated in the West and had become a respected author and lecturer. He had a troubled life in Europe, largely because of his many failed relationships with women there. Several took their own lives. Mustafa later killed his wife and served time in an English jail.

In the present timeframe of the story, Mustafa, unwilling to embrace what he considers a life lived falsely, drowns himself in the Nile, leaving his wife Hosna under cultural pressure to remarry. She does not want to, and turns to the narrator for help. The narrator has been appointed guardian of Hosna and Mustafa’s sons in Mustafa’s will. When the narrator is unable to thwart the wedding, Hosna kills her new husband rather than consummate the relationship. She then takes her own life. Her killing of her husband during what was likely an attempt to rape her parallels Mustafa’s murder of his wife, which took place during sex. In the end, the narrator cannot cope with the tales of Mustafa’s life in England and with their impact on his own village.  At the end of the novel he is near death, floating in the Nile, but convinces himself to attempt to rise above the remnants of Mustafa’s past. He yells for help, but whether anyone heeds the call is unclear, and the ending ambiguous.

Both Mustafa and the narrator have violent sides that they are not always able to keep in check.  Mustafa in particular is controlled by his. It is possible to see these character traits as not limited to a pair of characters, but metaphorically, as a microcosm of the human condition at large, and of the history of British and Egyptian rule in Sudan. In the case of Season of Migration to the North, Mustafa has traveled to a distant land and the women whose lives he ravaged were his conquests. The foreign powers that historically strove to rule Sudan, as in all conquests, also left damage in their wake.

Embedded in the storyline of Season of Migration to the North are a multitude of themes and commentaries on the human condition. People are, in the final analysis, controlled by nature.  Mustafa was not able to live a happy life in simplicity, while the narrator was not able to take his own life. Neither condition was in the nature of the respective character. The author clearly opposes the oppression of women in the culture of which he writes, as he discusses topics such as forced marriage and female circumcision. The division between Eastern and Western cultures drives much of the content of the novel, where attempts to comingle them are often interrupted by misunderstandings organic or intentional. The narrator seems liberal in many ways, such as in his belief that people should expand their horizons and that women should have greater rights, yet he tends to be mostly passive. Similarly, the narrator despises corruption in government but takes no actions to do something about it. New technology and modernization become themes, yet they are not embraced in the book, and that age-old adage about the rich getting richer seems to be the result.

Emerging from the events of the novel and the differences among people, cultures, and places that are obvious or implicit, an overarching theme takes shape. The independent Sudan that existed after centuries of imperialism was ruled by politicians who were no less corrupt that the regimes that preceded them. People are more alike than different, in this final analysis. The narrator is much more an observer than an activist, which allowed Tayeb Salih to ultimately focus on the way things are, as a path to moving forward, rather than on continued actions among characters driven by the past.