A first reading of Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North can be a bewildering experience. The episodic manner in which the story is laid out means that important information about the characters and their past is left out, thus giving the reader a sense of being lost in a strange country where he has lost his bearings. In fact, the novel should probably be read in light of the ever-shifting political and cultural landscape of Sudan since 1899, the year in which the British took control. Salih's book charts, through the experiences of its two central characters-the nameless narrator and Mustafa Sa'eed-two generations of the European-educated Sudanese elite through the period of domination by the British and into the early years of self-rule. At the time in which the book was written (it first appeared in Arabic in 1966), the country had just experienced yet another upheaval, the overthrow of the home-grown military government of General Ibrahim Abboud and the introduction of a parliamentary system. Salih writes in an introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition that "the general climate in Khartoum in those days was exhilarating. . . . For some reason my work became incorporated into this process of intellectual questioning." This is, of course, not the end of the story, and since 1989, the Sudan has been ruled by the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, a repressive Islamic government which has, among other things, banned the publication of "Season of Migration."
Salih's story, told in enigmatic spurts of narration, understandably leaves out much of this political background, a fact which can at times be frustrating to the reader struggling to understand inscrutable characters who are deliberately rendered with little concrete detail. Gradually one comes to see that Sa'eed and the narrator are two sides of the same character-also very close to the experience of Salih himself-the educated Sudanese from a humble rural background who goes to England to study and then returns to Sudan as part of the ruling class. When we begin to learn about Sa'eed, he appears to represent a negative, dark rendition of this experience, the foil of the optimistic, benevolent narrator. Sa'eed emerges as a person who has abused the colonial system, only to be abused and destroyed by it, and who has returned to the Sudan, bearing with him the rot and destruction he has come to embody. The narrator, in contrast, appears to be the model Sudanese citizen, perhaps an embodiment of the "new Sudan"-the independent republic which was declared in 1956-in which he serves as an official in the Department of Education.
But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the model represented by the narrator is an empty, ineffectual mirage, unable or unwilling to exert any meaningful influence on the progress of the Sudanese people, and perhaps more importantly, on a more intimate level, unwilling to have an impact on the lives of those closest to him, to whom he has a moral and emotional obligation. His work at the ministry is completely divorced from the real needs of the Sudanese educational system, as a friend points out to him: "Let them build the schools first...and then discuss unifying education... They waste time in conferences and poppycock and here are our children having to travel several miles to school... What's the use in our having one of us in the government when you're not doing anything?" The narrator passively accepts the criticism; he is a knowing observer of the emptiness and corruption of the system he is a part of, reflecting to himself on "the new rulers of Africa, smooth of face, lupine of mouth, their hands gleaming with rings of precious stones, exuding perfume from their cheeks . . . expensive silk rippling on their shoulders like the fur of Siamese cats." But his knowingness is no excuse for his passivity, and its consequences.
In the end, this passivity plays an indispensable role in the fulfillment of Mustafa Sa'eed's dark destiny, the violent dénouement of this novel in which sexual violence is the at times gruesome, excessive metaphor for the clash between colonizers and the cultures they dominate, shape, and ultimately destroy. Observing (as always) the wreckage of a catastrophe he could have averted, the narrator realizes "All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision." It is unclear whether this decision has come too late, and whether it will be the right one.
Marina Harss has translated work by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sonia Rivera-Valdes and is currently translating L'amore Coniugale by Albert Moravia. She is a researcher at The New Yorker.
Discuss Bint Majzoub in relation to Salih's broader portrayal of women. How does Bint Majzoub subvert her society's expectations of what women can do? How does she uphold them?
Bint Majzoub is an assertive, outspoken woman who rebels against social conventions by drinking and hanging around with men. However, her rebellion is problematic, and she does not present a viable alternative to Wad Hamid's oppression of women. For example, she is famous for being outspoken about sex, but she talks about it in graphic, misogynistic language, and she believes that women should prioritize their husband's sexual pleasure above their own. Furthermore, she is able to flout social convention largely because she is a widow and independently wealthy, but she inherited this money from her husbands, rather than earning it herself.
Season of Migration to the North depicts many kinds of political participation. What obligations does Salih suggest the individual has to his / her country?
Mustafa Sa'eed and Mahjoub both talk about the obligation that educated people have to help make the fledgling independent nation of Sudan a better place. The narrator tries to do this by working for the Ministry of Education, but he is ineffective because he is content to work in his office and does not speak out about the rampant corruption among his coworkers. In contrast, Mahjoub helps people directly by spearheading the Agricultural Project Committee and later becoming the leader of the village. Through these different portraits of national service, Salih suggests that the best way to serve one's country is to speak out against injustice and be active in one's own community.
Mustafa Sa'eed has three girlfriends and two wives over the course of the novel. Compare and contrast his relationships with women. Do his relationships mature as he gets older?
Mustafa realizes early on that exaggerating the "Eastern" elements of his personality attracts attention from English women. Each of his English mistresses is fascinated with "Oriental" culture, and they love Mustafa for being a representative of this culture––they do not see him as a human being. In contrast, Jean Morris and Hosna bint Mahmoud connect with Mustafa on a deeper level. Jean Morris brings out his violent side, and takes little notice of the African knickknacks with which Mustafa decorates his home. She even destroys some of them, objects that are symbolic of Mustafa's deception of his earlier lovers. Meanwhile, Hosna bint Mahmoud obviously does not see Mustafa as a representative of any particular culture, and only desires a quiet village life. Nevertheless, although Mustafa seems to develop a preference for deeper women over the course of the novel, he remains self-centered—ultimately Hosna is only the means by which he achieves the simple village life for which he longs.
The interlude when the narrator returns to Khartoum by truck (Chapter 7) is not clearly related to the rest of the plot. What might be its importance to the novel?
In this mystical, atmospheric interlude, Salih foregrounds the narrator's stream of consciousness. Usually the narrator is a lucid, concise storyteller that remains guarded about his own feelings, but here we see the truly obsessive nature of his thoughts about Hosna and Mustafa. This chapter also contains numerous instances of foreshadowing: the tribal woman that murders her husband, and the Bedouin who wants a cigarette more than water, even though he risks dying of thirst. By foreshadowing Hosna's murder-suicide and the narrator's decision not to kill himself in Chapter 10, Salih suggests that these dramatic experiences are not exclusive to his characters, but are rather could happen to anyone living in similar conditions.
What is the significance of the narrator's choice not to intervene in Hosna's marriage to Wad Rayyes?
The narrator is so uncomfortable making decisions for Hosna that he refuses to intervene in her marriage, even when not intervening means that she will be forced to marry someone she hates. This represents the paradox of being a liberal in the highly conservative society of Wad Hamid—in order to actually improve people's lives through his enlightened principles, the narrator must behave in a way that contradicts these selfsame principles. The marriage dilemma is comparable to the narrator's inability to speak out about the fact that his fellow government workers are corrupt and inefficient.
Mustafa and the narrator are the only characters who have been to Europe. Compare and contrast their reactions to traveling abroad.
For Mustafa Sa'eed, visiting Europe allows him to abandon the social constraints of African society, and he takes advantage of this, living a promiscuous lifestyle and blatantly fabricating his lectures. It seems that European society has made him corrupt, but in fact, Mustafa was immoral even when he lived in Sudan and Cairo; he acknowledges that he never cared about anyone but himself. English society simply allows him more leeway to put his solipsistic worldview into practice. The narrator has better intentions, and while he is coy about his love life in Europe, he seems to have focused more on academics. Traveling teaches the narrator to think critically, but it is unclear whether this skill is useful. Arguably, his tendency to over-think prevents him from intervening in Hosna's marriage and in the government corruption around him.
Salih makes a point of explaining the political views of both the prosecuting and the defense attorney in Mustafa Sa'eed's trial. Why might this information be salient? And what is the significance of the fact that the prosecutor is a liberal and the defense attorney is a conservative?
In England at this time, a person's political affiliation often determined their attitudes toward foreigners, with liberals being stereotyped as more accepting of other cultures. By making the defense attorney a conservative and the prosecutor a liberal, Salih undercuts this simplistic stereotyping. He emphasizes that although the lawyers try to turn Mustafa's trial into a grand political narrative, they are both focused primarily on themselves. Their self-interest is ultimately more important to them than politics or their personal relationship to Mustafa, and Salih seems to imply that this is human nature and can be generalized to anyone.
Explain the significance of the narrator's preoccupation with Mustafa Sa'eed. What does it reveal about his character?
The narrator is preoccupied with Mustafa because he recognizes parallels to his own experience and feelings in the older man's life story. Mustafa responds violently to the pressures of living in English society, and the narrator sees this as an alternative path that he might have taken himself. The question of whether the narrator is really so similar to Mustafa is resolved when the narrator becomes his executor, and is forced to deal with the aftermath of Mustafa's turbulent past.
Season of Migration to the North includes at least four suicides. Discuss the relationship between suicide and character development in the novel.
The narrator characterizes Mustafa's possible suicide as a “melodramatic act.” This can be extrapolated to the other characters' suicides as well. Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, Isabella Seymour all kill themselves because Mustafa refuses to marry them. In doing so, they immortalize themselves in his memory; the book mentions that Mustafa had other mistresses, but they are not described or named because they did not kill themselves. Hosna bint Mahmoud's suicide is similar; it is incredibly loud and gruesome, and it seems that she not only wants to kill Wad Rayyes but express her anger at being forced to marry him in the first place. The novel's female characters use suicide not only to escape seemingly insoluble problems, but also to resolve these problems through the “melodramatic act.”
Analyze the argument about female circumcision. How do the opinions of Wad Rayyes, Bakri, and Bint Majzoub inform their characterization? What is the conversation's broader thematic significance?
The circumcision conversation reveals nuances to these characters that will be expanded upon later in the novel. Despite his apparent love for Hosna, Wad Rayyes is fundamentally self-centered, and despite her initial characterization as a liberated woman, Bint Majzoub has internalized her society's misogynistic attitudes. Bakri seems like he will be a moderating force and could convince Wad Rayyes to give up the marriage proposal, but he ultimately decides not to intervene, a choice that is foreshadowed by his apathy on the topic of circumcision. The conversation reflects the novel's broader theme that of pervasive misogyny in village culture.