194. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

In Season of Migration to the North* (A Three Continent Book/Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997 (First Pub., 1966 in Arabic and Translated into English by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1969); 169) a young man has arrives home, at Wad Hamid, a small village near the Nile in northern Sudan, from his studies at England where he trained as a Poet. He arrives home to the usual ululation and susurration that meets individuals who have had the opportunities to study abroad, especially during the period where coming across a foreign trained individual was as rare as finding water on a desert. Thus, the narrator's homecoming from abroad is celebrated amongst his people; except one man, whose name he later finds to be Mustafa Sa'eed.

Mustafa Sa'eed's lack of enthusiasm in the narrator's return sparks a certain kind of 'need-to-know' curiosity in the narrator; he sees him a person of a different breed, one not awed by the airs of a freshly-arrived scholar. The narrator, his curiosity piqued, set out to investigate more about this mysterious man whose behaviour is akin to one who has seen it all and done it all. The first information he gets is from the narrator's father who informs him that Mustafa Sa'eed is from Khartoum and a good farmer who, though not entirely a recluse, keeps to himself. However, the first concrete information the narrator gets is from Mustafa himself when in a drunken state recites an excellent English poetry.

Later the narrator approaches Mustafa to learn more about this mystery man who recites excellent English poetry in this small village. Mustafa obliges and tells the narrator more about himself, about his childhood as a precocious child whose capacity for learning was almost insatiable. Soon this will see him travel to Cairo for his Secondary School education where he meets an English who will take an exceptional liking to him because of his intelligence. He will later travel to England for further studies at Oxford; however, there his intellectual capacity will make him flirt with the English literati and political elite. In England, Mustafa becomes a liberal and bohemian and a bon vivant, exaggerating about his oriental roots to seduce the English women. The girls' love for him is wild and almost insatiable. To them, he is the perfect prince and he makes them believe so. This strange love leads three of his women to commit suicide. Later he is to marry one manipulative and kinky lady whom he later murdered, and failing to defend himself properly, earns a seven year prison term. Upon his release, Mustafa returns to Sudan to exorcise himself of all the misfortunes that saw him fall from a professor with a fine mind to prison.

The narrator fills in parts of the story as he goes through Mustafa's room after his drowning and dying in the flooded Nile. Though the villagers deems his death an accident, the narrator thinks otherwise; he sees it as suicide and the thought of Mustafa will haunt him forever, until he himself is caught between a life and death situation where it will take a force of will to dissociate himself from Mustafa and his ghost and assert himself as a different person. However, prior to this, a series of events regarding who marries Mustafa's widow comes up. Here the narrator realises that Mustafa has put him in charge of his two sons and wife and the executor of his estate. As it turns out, Hosna bint Mahmoud is no ordinary woman. Having lived with Mustafa, she has sworn never to marry any of those octogenarian patriarchs seeking her hand in marriage from her father. But it is this mystery in her that will cause Wad Rayyes to go to all lengths possible to marry her. This marriage leads to a murder and a suicide.

At just over 150 pages, A Season of Migration to the North is a deeply affective novel. It is about freedom and its limits. It's also about decisions and choices. It also questions certain traditional practices, like forced marriages, in a subtle kind of way. It could be said that Tayeb Salih was no sympathiser of Mustafa, showing that it takes more than just a western education to develop a village, that when one acquires such education mustn't allow himself to be swallowed by the system, by this new or adoptive culture. If he does, his education serves no universalised purpose, benefits not those in need of its manifestation and acts not as that vital development bridge. It also means not forgetting one's origin.

Today, countries have developed by investing in its people to seek knowledge in developed economies and coming home with this acquired knowledge to contribute to the developmental effort. But Mustafa chose to live a different kind of life and only got home because there was no choice. At this point, his enthusiasm had died down so that a man who had so much potential, as his colleagues and all those who met him professed to the narrator, contributed little to his people except as a gossip item. Recommended.
About the author: Born in Karmakol, near the village of Al Dabbah in the Northern Province of Sudan, he studied at the University of Khartoum before leaving for the University of London in England. Coming from a background of small farmers and religious teachers, his original intention was to work in agriculture. However, excluding a brief spell as a schoolmaster before coming to England, his working life was in broadcasting. For more than ten years, Salih wrote a weekly column for the London-based Arabic language newspaper al Majalla in which he explored various literary themes. He worked for the BBC's Arabic Service and later became director general of the Ministry of Information in Doha, Qatar. He spent the last 10 years of his working career with UNESCO in Paris, where he held various posts and was UNESCO's representative in the Gulf States.

Salih achieved immediate acclaim when his novel Season of Migration to the North was first published in Beirut in 1966. In 2001, the book was declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy. His works have been translated from Arabic into more than 20 languages. Salih completed three other novels and a collection of short stories. His novella “The Wedding of Zein” was made into a drama in Libya and a Cannes Festival prize-winning film by the Kuwaiti filmmaker Khalid Siddiq in the late 1970s. (Source)


  1. It really is a good book. I'll recommend it for every Ghanaian. I read it as part of my Practice In Criticism course and I loved it. :)

  2. This novel has been translated into Portuguese; now I'm curious to read it. Thanks for the review.

    1. Translation is the only way we can read from all regions.

  3. Hi, I'm so glad to find your site, and another review of Seasons.. which is definitely on my must-read list. I'm currently reading Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah, which I think is excellent.

    1. Thanks Mark. Nuruddin Farah is another fine writer.

  4. i'm on amazon, looking for it, right this minute. Great, great review. More importantly, i'm in love with your blog.


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