by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy
North African literature has not had much allure for many of us in the western, eastern, and southern parts of Africa. This is largely due to language barrier since the medium of documentation of these literatures has almost totally been the Arabic language. Another issue, perhaps, that might have engendered a disinterest in such literature is the close affinity shared between the Islamic religion and the Arabic language, which happens to be the medium in which North African literature is produced.
Although, religious books written in Arabic such as The Holy Quran and Hadith have flourished due to the spread of Islam, especially in West Africa since the 1904 Uthman dan Fodio jihad, Arabic literature from Northern Africa has refused to follow suit. However, the spectacular thing is that studying The Holy Quran and the principles of the Islamic religion encouraged the study of the Arabic language and its alphabet which became useful for documenting literatures in local languages such as the Hausa language where few ancient narratives and poetry documented in Arabic alphabet exist.
However, with the emergence of the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz and the feminist writer (Nawal El Sadawi), the world, and indeed Africa, began paying attention to North African literature and then came a preponderance of translations from Arabic to English. Personally, I have come in contact with Aminat Rifat’s short story collection, Distant View of a Minaret, and Tawfeek al Hakeem’s Fate of a Cockroach and other Plays, and they are among my most prized possessions.
Recently, I visited North Africa again (this time Sudan) in Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North and I must say that it was a thrilling experience! I had to read the book twice to ensure that I had taken nothing for granted or missed out on anything.
On the surface level is a story of quite intelligent but disturbed Mustapha Sa’eed, who is bent on destroying every woman that falls in love with him, and at a symbolic level is the impact of colonialism on the North Africa populace, it is about (re)telling the story from the African perspective; the empire writing back. You are bound to find this story fascinating if it reads to you as just a tale of unrequited love and the search for inner peace and I also make bold to state that you will not also be disappointed if you conduct a symbolic reading of the novel and discover it to be about colonialism, and its effects.
So, the unnamed narrator arrives at his home country, among his rustic people, after an absence of seven years spent studying in Europe. It is at the gathering of those who come to welcome him that he first notices an unfamiliar and peculiar face, that of Mustapha Sa’eed. Enquiries prove that no one actually knows where Mustapha Sa’eed came from till he came and settled as a farmer among them, taking a wife from one of the tribes in the process. The narrator would come to see Mustapha’s pervasive influence in the village and see him as an enigma.
Once, the narrator overhears Mustapha Sa’eed (in a drunken state) recite an English poem with an accurate accent and eloquence that was to prove that he was much more than an ordinary farmer who had come to settle among this simple and rustic Arab speaking villagers. The narrator seeks audience with Mustapha at a later date and prods him to reveal his identity. Fear of being thought an intruder or being misconstrued forces Mustapha to come out of his closet and reveal the hidden deeds of his past to the narrator.
Hence, we come to meet with the revelation that Mustapha Sa’eed is much more than an ordinary farmer and villager that he pretends to be; and neither was he ever a merchant, although his father was one. Mustapha Sa’eed is a genius with a PhD in Economics, formerly a lecturer at a university in London, has several books to his name, and is a brilliant researcher. But, he has a tragic flaw—a hardened heart, a heart incapable of expressing love, joy, or laughter, a heart made of stone. While abroad, many Caucasians found themselves enthralled and drawn to him, for they saw in him their yearnings for the wild and exotic African terrain, especially its dry and hungry deserts and felt, through him, they could connect to that experience. Ultimately, he leads these women to their doom: they commit suicide!
Strange enough, when Mustapha finally finds love, it is with a Caucasian who subjects his love to ridicule and he ends up killing her. His dealings with these women and how they all end up dead cause him to be sent to jail and after jail, he returns to his native soil to live a peaceful existence, he gets married and has two children. Yet, Mustapha does not feel satiated and he disappears mysteriously, we are unable to figure out if he drowned or he just decided to walk away from his new life just like he walked away from the last. However, he wrote a will before his disappearance stating explicitly that the narrator should become his executor in the event of his absence, taking charge of his family and property.
Having been assigned the task of a executor, the narrator discovers that he is in love with Hosna, Mustapha Sa’eed’s widow; this after Wad Rayyes, a grizzled man notorious for always being in and out of marriages and a friend to the narrator’s grandfather, seeks her hand in marriage and approaches the narrator for assistance in making the adamant Hosna submit to his will. Hosna rejects old Wad Rayyes and confesses to the narrator that she would rather have Wad Rayyes killed and commit suicide where there is any attempt to force her into the marriage.
That a woman should reject the counsel of her father as well as that of the man whom her ‘late’ husband respects so well as to hand his family over to, is unheard of in the village. Theirs was a culture that was majorly patriarchal yet here is a woman asserting her will in a village where every woman is owned by men. Wad Rayyes and others fail to see the hand writing on the wall and could not come to terms with the fact that the world (their world in fact) was rapidly metamorphosing, the world they lived in decades before is no longer the same as the one they currently live in. Wad Rayes goes on to force Hosna into marriage and the result is that she viciously stabs him to death when he tries to forcefully have his way with her, and then kills herself. This is the final signal that the old ways have collapsed for never has such a thing been heard since the existence of the village.
The traumatic and tragic death of Hosna left the narrator distraught, the gruesome manner of the event did not also help matters and he regrets not having saved her by getting married to her. A minor dispute with his childhood friend and now chairman of the village farmers committee (Mahjoub) over Hosna’s sanity made him strangulate Mahjoub till an unknown person saves the life of the suffocating man by hitting the narrator on the head with a heavy object.
After this incident, the narrator visits Mustapha Sa’eed’s secret chamber whose keys had been entrusted to him at the instance of Mustapha’s disappearance hoping to find treasures but he is confronted with disappointment because the things he meets are enormous quantity of books, Persian carpets, English upholstery and hearth. These are vestiges of Mustapha Sa’eed’s old life, the life he claims to have left behind, but still covets.
As if Mustapha Sa’eed is a whirlwind that only leaves destruction in its wake, the narrator would come to see meaninglessness in life after this experience and begins hallucinating and yearning for death. His attempt at committing suicide by drowning himself is botched when he chooses to live for others and screams for help from within the water that is drowning him.
To examine the novel as a tale on the effects of colonialism, we cannot help mentioning Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella that has inspired several other novels, especially Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Like Achebe, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also influenced Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North. In Tayeb Saleh’s tale, the character of Mr. Kurtz is replaced by Mustapha Sa’eed while Marlow’s position is occupied by the unnamed narrator. While Conrad pointed out that death lay quietly in wait for Europeans who visited Africa, Tayeb Saleh is of the opinion that Africa itself is not the problem, rather it is the European fascination with exotic and wild things which draws them to their death. This would explain why the Caucasians who have sexual contact with Mustapha always end up dead. More so, Mustapha is a product of colonialism, by being forced to acquire education, the western world fashioned him into the beast he becomes. However, I see both heading towards the same point for if Mustapha becomes a symbol of exotic Africa for the Europeans, does it still not imply that coming in contact with Africa is still dangerous?
In conclusion, using a narrator feeling alienated from his people, the author tells such an enthralling tale of a metamorphosing society, capturing minute changes as only the Victorian English novelist, Thomas Hardy, can, in a beautiful language that is almost poetry. I love particularly the playful banter among the grizzled folks and vivid description of the cultural existence and landscape of northern Africa. One could only wonder what the original text would read like in Arabic, as conceived and documented by the author.
Great novel, great story.