Season of Migration to the North
Colonialism and Character Development in Season of Migration to the North
Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was first published in 1969, and has come to be regarded as outstanding in its genre. Originally written in Arabic, the book features notable parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which it is considered by many to be a response to. However, Season of Migration to the North does not seek to define itself by other pieces of literature, but rather by providing unique commentary on the colonial experience in Africa. Written about Sudan by a Sudanese author, it offers extraordinary insight into the world it seeks to describe. To provide this insight, Salih uses the character of Mustafa Sa’eed (henceforth referred to as MS), in conjunction with the unnamed narrator, to demonstrate how colonialism disturbed the balance, albeit imperfect, present in Africa before European involvement, and how he hopes it will come to be restored.
The story of MS, who takes center stage as the narrative begins, commences in his childhood years, when he is still a blank slate, or “tabula rasa”, upon which life and the prejudices of the world have written nothing yet. From a young age, MS displayed none of the personality or charm typical of a child, and interacted with his mother as if they were “stranger[s] on the road”, brought together by little more than circumstance (Salih 19). This sense of isolation further contributes to the lack of definition in his character, and is an important feature of colonialism, which expertly divides people and sets them apart internally, leaving them incapable of resistance or opposition. Instead, the colonized (and MS) are solitary and “rounded, [like they were] made of rubber”, so as not to be further damaged by the trauma inflicted upon the world as they knew it (20). MS soon leaves to attend school in Cairo, which he considers an escape from the intellectual imprisonment of his home village, and a true “turning point in [his] life” (21).
Essentially, MS rejects his own experiences of Africa, untainted by the reaches of colonization, it seems, in favor of Anglicized unknowns. This desire for aloneness, both physically and culturally, is particularly apparent as MS continues his journey, this time departing from Cairo for England. He finds undeniable peace when “the blue horizon encircle[s]” his ship and “the sea swallow[s] up the shore”, leaving him perfectly alone in every way (26). MS “savour[s] that feeling of being nowhere…before and behind [him] either eternity or nothingness” (27). As suggested by Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism, the colonial system unintentionally fosters such feelings of discontent and dissatisfaction, as if the way things used to be is no longer good enough. It leaves the colonized with a desire for more—it education, health care, or infrastructure for instance—and then refuses to provide these things. MS finds himself lucky in that he is presented with an opportunity to satisfy these desires. However, he finds that his thirsts are never truly quenched.
In pursuit of these unnamed, and perhaps indefinable desires, MS becomes something other than himself, as if practicing manipulating his own identity before he irrevocably and detrimentally changes that of others. Rather than presenting an authentic self to those he encounters in England, he invents a persona intended to appeal to the Western desire for the exotic and different. In this way, he indelibly alters the slate of his life, defining himself through the cosmopolitan fantasy of “Africa” and rejecting the value of the simple life, rooted in truth (although he comes to appreciate its value later in life) in favor of serving as “a symbol of all of [the Europeans’] hankerings”, a representation of “tropical climes, cruel suns, [and] purple horizons” (30).
However, the assignation of such stereotypical images to MS is little more than a perpetuation of these symbols, albeit one that MS embraces. It turns the reader’s focus towards the sadly still present Western objectification of the concept of “Africa”, a treatment of it not as an entire continent, full of diverse and unique cultures, but rather as a single entity with the allure of the unknown and different. “Mustafa the African” is a construct of Western imagination, a conscious manipulation of European expectations strategically employed in order to insinuate himself within English society without challenging its tropes. Salih uses MS’s actions and characterization in England to demonstrate how “the interaction between the Arab Islamic world and Western European civilization is determined by illusions” (Shaheen 162). MS embodies these “falsehood[s] and fantas[ies]”, and attracts English women effortlessly with this purposeful primitiveness (Shaheen 169).
To the women MS encounters and becomes involved with, he presents himself as Othello, a character imbued with archaic ideas of race and immense tragedy, but perhaps more importantly, marked connotations of sexual vitality (Salih 38). His choice of Othello, and the fact that he shares this choice as a means of emotional manipulation, ironically foreshadows his own self-inflicted demise. He mimics Othello in life, as both are overwhelmed by lies, and ultimately in death as well.
MS’s various relationships with English women are relevant beyond Shakespearean parallels, though. Before his eventual downfall, he attracts many with “his world…of burning sandalwood and incense”, primitive and raw and unapologetically sexual (35). MS makes these relationships into a form of revenge, as “colonization is embodied in [him] as a germ originated by European violence…a thousand years ago”, part of a cycle he believes must complete and balance by inflicting “violent retaliation” upon these English women (Shaheen 160). He enters into destructive, abusive relationships with them in a strange continuation of colonial history in which the roles are reversed. Instead of allowing himself to be subsumed into his new environment, MS chooses the role of the colonizer, truly acting as a “black Englishman” by forcing the women with whom he has sexual relationships to conform to his own preferences and choices (Salih 53). He attempts to turn the tables on them, and by extension, British imperialists, by exerting physical and emotional dominance in each relationship. This practice, however, unhealthy it might be, meets with little resistance from the women involved for some time. It is only when Jean Morris comes into his life that he begins to question this life of self-gratification, lived by a person who is less than real.
Jean Morris, with whom MS falls in love with “against [his] will”, subjects him to degradation, much like he had made previous women slaves to his will (156). She challenges his dominance, which had never faced resistance before, and forces him to acknowledge emotion, something “Mustafa the African” does not do. Experiencing “ignominy, loneliness, and loss” is not natural for MS, and begins a conflict of identity that marriage to Jean Morris only exacerbates (159). He finds himself in her, and it follows, his own ruination in her too. The identity MS has created cannot withstand tests to his sense of dominance, and so Jean Morris is made subservient with “the blade-edge…of [a] dagger” (164).
This moment is a turning point for MS, as his constructed self is shattered by this senseless violence. He realizes that he has become entrenched in “darkness…thick, deep and basic”, and struggles to escape the evil that he willingly embraced in the past (Salih 93). In an attempt to create a more sustainable life, or one of value, he leaves Europe in favor of the simplicity of “settl[ing] in [a] village” (9). However, he cannot undo the violence he perpetuated, nor lose the knowledge associated with his experiences. The MS that his contemporaries know “does not exist. He’s “an illusion, a lie” and desperately desires “that the lie be killed” (32). However, in acting out the European fantasy of an evil, bewitching Africa, he internalizes the evil he pretends until, in a sense, he is no longer pretending. Despite his efforts to become part of the Sudanese community in which he lives—he “bought…a farm, built a house, and married” a local woman—MS cannot reconcile the two halves of himself, so to speak (2). The only way for him to purge this falsehood he has cultivated within himself, and cope with the knowledge of colonialism that he possesses, is death, and he seems to embrace it with relief, as “the forces lying in the river-bed” claim him (167).
True reconciliation of these two aspects of the colonial world—that of the colonizer and the colonized—comes in the form of the narrator, who is a part of both without artifice. While he spent “years…studying in Europe”, his return to Sudan comes with the knowledge that he was coming back to “[his] people”, and a sense of longing for “that small village at the bend of the Nile” (1). It is clear that he cherishes this village life, but at the same time appreciates his position as “the outstanding young man in the village”, exalted because he has been educated abroad (8). A great deal of his narrative has an external focus, as MS’s story takes center stage. However, as the tale progresses, the narrator’s sense of right and wrong is challenged, as Bint Mahmoud is forced into societally-condoned rape, and kills herself (and her rapist) because of it. It is this horrific, and yet utterly preventable event that causes the narrator to realize that he cannot continue to walk the fine line between worlds that he has previously trod. He cannot remain “half-way between north and south”, but must truly invest himself in one, bringing the other within himself, an inextricable part of his identity.
This sense of purpose as the novel concludes contributes to the story’s identity as a response to the vestiges of colonialism still remaining in the Africa experienced by the author. Salih’s use of the narrator as a member of each world allows him to comment on both. In this way, he provides a sense of balance in the narrative. While both European and African cultures may have problems, the solutions to these problems must come from within. African nations have no need for a civilizer, let alone one who “becomes a colonizer, and a savage one” at that (Shaheen 163). It is Salih’s hope, and that of his narrator, that colonized nations will one day be able to speak “[their colonizers’] language without a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude”, and perpetuate only “lies of [their] own making (Salih 49-50).
Commodity of the Savage: Fetishism in Season of Migration to the North
56% of audiences for the premier The Legend of Tarzan were women. 34% were men. The same is true for George of the Jungle and 300. Film School Rejects author Kristen Lopez hypothesizes that perhaps the turnout was for Alexander Skarsgard’s muscles, or Brendan Fraser’s smile; yet, it is hardly easy to deny that the savage man is traditionally one of the most attractive archetypes to women. Rugged, primitive, and hyper-sexual, these stereotyped men find themselves in erotic stories and on covers of paperback books at the supermarket. The oblique fetishism of primitive culture has permeated society for decades. Once a person or a thing fetishized, simply nothing else will be satisfactory. What happens when what we desire becomes what we need? Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North, takes the ideas of culture, love, lust, and views of the self and turns them into political and economic terms. Yet conversely, Salih casts these themes through a lens in which we must decide whether these things already are what we fear – void of love itself. The fetishism of cultures creates commodities out of its peoples, transforming love and relationships from emotionally abstract to coveted socioeconomic objects.
According to Oxford English Dictionary, the word fetish is derived from an early seventeenth century word denoting an object used by the peoples of West Africa as an amulet or charm, from the French fetiche and Portuguese feitico, for charm or sorcery. Today it means a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree, or an excessive and irrational devotion to a particular thing. A fetishized item is put on a high pedestal on which it would normally not belong, becoming attractive, arousing, or otherwise. Fetishized items, therefore, as long as they are widely admired, become commodities. Take, for example, a new car. If enough adoration envelops the idea of owning this new car, everyone will have to have one. That means the car dealers can set any prices, knowing that this is the have-to-have item of the year. The owner’s personal pleasure and quality of life will, allegedly, skyrocket after owning the coveted item. According to Karl Marx, this concept is commodity fetishism, in which a trivial, “obvious” object quickly becomes something abundant in metaphysical qualities that simply must be possessed (Felluga). It’s a simple notion playing out in society daily.
But what if the item is not an item, but a person? Tayeb Salih both asks and works to answer this question. Enter Mustafa Sa’eed, mysterious, bold, whose intelligence is coveted by our narrator as the years pass by throughout the novel. Familiar with many women’s beds, Mustafa manipulated a number of women’s lust into total obsession. After studying in Europe and lusting secretly after his caregiver’s wife, Mustafa developed a taste for European women, each of whom were enticed by his tales of childhood and culture. His first wife is Jean Morris, cruel, cold, but his lover nonetheless; Ann Hammond, his first girlfriend, a student of Oriental language; Sheila Greenwood, Scottish, charming; Isabella Seymour, beautiful and intrigued by Mustafa. “She asked me about my home,” Mustafa recounts of Isabella Seymour, relating his “story” over tea. “I told her that the streets of my country teemed with elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it.” Recounting, he says, “There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungle. This was fine” (Salih 33). Internalizing the stereotypes and using them to his advantage, Mustafa transforms women into mere chess pieces, “upon whose taut strings I shall play as I wish” (Salih 33). His past bedroom was decorated in multicolored lights, Oriental rugs, and books, projecting himself onto the artifacts of his room, designing an image untrue to his life, simply to have relations with various women.
Mustafa’s relationships were rarely as beautiful or interesting as he made them out to be. In fact, each of his lovers committed suicide – even Sheila Greenwood who, he thought, didn’t have it in her. Each woman, it seems, encounters Mustafa as a completely open book, absorbent, vulnerable to anything. Knowing this, Mustafa created an overly-appropriated version of himself, reading poetry, hunting the wild, in order to manipulate lovers into his bed. Yet he did not only stimulate their bodies, but their minds as well, transforming what was once curiosity into complete obsession. The stereotypes he employs are not only untrue, but almost degrading, lessening himself to a mere jungle boy running through the streets for food. A Cinderella story, almost, becoming an educated man, escaping the dangerous streets of his childhood, seemingly drew in a number of women – Mrs. Robinson included. When in Cairo, the principal of Mustafa’s school became a father-figure to the young boy, almost adopting him into his family. His name was Mr. Robinson. Cool, wealthy, and well-read, Mr. Robinson and his wife raised Mustafa into an intelligent young man. In his reflection, Mustafa recounts his affection for his “mother”, remembering the scent of her body and the tone of her skin, even once in London (Salih 24). But the way she addresses and even views her somewhat adopted son are fetishized, in a way, too, or at least stereotypical. When impressed by few things, she would laugh at him, asking if he could simply “forget his intellect” (Salih 25). In London he maintained this stoic disposition, and brags that he enticed “girls from the Salvation Army, Quaker societies, and Fabian gatherings” (Salih 26). Like Mrs. Robinson, the rich, educated European women found intrigue in his nonchalant ways, his quiet intelligence, his foreign demeanor. After describing Mrs. Robinson’s appeal to his stoicism, he continues, “Would it have been possible to avoid everything that had happened?” perhaps tying his eventual treatment of women to his initial attraction to Mrs. Robinson and the interest she showed in his former life in Khartoum. Mr. Robinson would say to him, while he studied at Oxford, “‘After all the efforts we’ve made to educate you, it’s as if you’d come out of the jungle for the first time” (Salih 78). Mr. Robinson treated him like the savage he eventually makes himself out to be, and Mrs. Robinson viewed him with loving eyes. As she was the first woman to ever show him affection, Mrs. Robinson perhaps, unintentionally, blurred the lines between care and lust, even accidentally mixing the fetishism of his culture into it. Because of this, Mustafa is lead to believe that women are attracted to him because of where he is from.
This affects Mustafa in more ways than one. He is never able to form true relationships, both romantically or otherwise. When speaking to the narrator, he begins with saying it won’t matter if he believes him or not, and talks in a teaching manner before anything else. He admits to himself that he is living in a lie (“I am no Othello. I am a lie”), and in remembering each of the women he lied to, describes their lust as a germ, remembering his lawyer’s statement to the court in which he claimed Mustafa should not be blamed for their deaths, as they were killed by the “‘germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago'” (Salih 33). Mustafa’s ultimate dissatisfaction with himself and with his life leads to his own suicide, after (almost) completing the telling of his story. “My bedroom was a graveyard that looked onto a garden…My bedroom was like an operating theatre in a hospital. There is a still pool in the depths of every woman that I know how to stir” (Salih 27). The “love” between Mustafa and his various lovers was merely an exchange of goods; Mustafa gave them culture, excitement, intelligence, and vivid stories, and in exchange he received their bodies and minds. He provided them with props reflecting his “life”, fed their desires, and pocketed them as prey.
Is love merely a transaction? Another lens through which we can view this story is that of Wad Rayyes, womanizer, arrogant, married several times. He lusts intensely after local beauty Hosna Bint Mahmoud, widowed after the loss of her husband – Mustafa. Mahjoub, a friend of the narrator’s for many years, speaks of Hosna in reflection: “Do you remember her as a wild young girl climbing trees and fighting with boys? As a child she used to swim naked with us in the river. What’s happened to change that now?” (Salih 100). The younger Hosna was of a primitive sort, quite like the stories Mustafa would tell to his lovers; but now, in her post-Mustafa Sa’eed self, she is displayed as a more contemporary woman. But Wad Rayyes lusts after her anyway, though she makes it clear that she has no emotions for him and does not desire to have a relationship with a man to whom she is indifferent. This Western approach to marriage and her wants for an individual life are opposed intensely by Wad Rayyes and the other men of the town; it leads to her destruction, killing her courter and killing herself.
Salih suggests that perhaps the idea of love is simply an exacerbation of the original feeling of lust, turned dangerously obsessive, and that any mutually-emotional partnerships are either destructive or pretend. This idea of ownership of a self or a part of a self is presented in the figures of Hosna and Wad Rayyes – as soon as Hosna’s primary “owner” passes away, Wad Rayyes seeks after her as a commodity item. When she rejects him, he becomes angry. When Mustafa reciprocates little of the women’s desire and love (save for Jean Morris), they lose their minds and commit suicide. “Love? Love does not do this,” says our narrator. “This is hatred” (Salih 111). But hatred of the what? Of the notion of love, the impossibility of an equally emotionally stable relationship? When commodified or fetishized, it becomes less about the emotions and more about the actual having of the item. “I love my new car!” does not, actually, mean a man loves his new car – it means he loves that he owns his new car.
The atmosphere of the novel has much to do with the occurrences therein: Mustafa describes the sociopolitical goings-on in London at the time by saying, “‘I left London with Europe having begun to mobilize her armies once again for even more ferocious violence.’ I loved her in a twisted manner” (Salih 125). In using “her” as a pronoun for Europe, Mustafa not only feminizes the countries but adores the eventual violence “she” wreaks. At this time, Britain and other countries were moving forces into Khartoum and neighboring African areas in order to colonize. “I loved her in a twisted manner” – her, Europe? Her, colonization? Her, the violence? He loved the endless supply of European women he received, and manipulated, and moved on from. Just as African colonies were commodities to European governments, and imperialism a prevalent idea in their minds, Mustafa both sought after and conquered any woman in his path. In this sense, love is a conquering, a taking over, and a loss of power.
Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue U.
Lopez, Kristen. “Ladies of Lust: The Female Gaze in Tarzan and Ghostbusters.” Film School Rejects. N.p., 26 July 2016. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York: New York Review, 1969. Print.
Fantasy and Fear: Examining the Narrator’s Reality
The mind tends to remain at a stasis, neither consumed by pure ecstasy nor ridden with fearful anxiety. However, there may come a point in time when thoughts fluctuate between the two extremes until we are jolted back to reality’s state of neutrality, perhaps this time with a new perspective. In Tayeb Salih’s Sudanese novel Season of Migration to the North, the narrator undergoes a similar mental conflict when he returns from his studies in Europe to what he remembers to be a collective and civilized home in Khartoum. His expectations are soon met by the village’s ever-changing and harsh circumstances provoked by colonialism, as well as the mysterious narrative confession of Mustafa Sa’eed. When Mustafa suddenly dies and disappears, his trace of existence allows the narrator to ruminate and familiarize himself with the more nightmarish events that Mustafa had undergone in his lifetime. Mustafa’s looming presence as a mental personification of hostility and violence feared by the narrator is a necessary haunting of the mind that challenges his false idealizations of the village with a pungent dose of reality. Thus, his transcendence into Mustafa’s own dark and horrifying identity positions the narrator in a middle ground that rests between utopian fantasy and paralyzing fear: reality. Such recurring convergences of fantasy and fear into a single reality are what force the narrator to fully confront the changes, uncertainties, and controversies of postcolonial life that await him.
For the narrator, the village comes to represent the heart of two polarizing periods in his life: childhood and postcolonial adulthood. We learn from the start of the novel that the narrator holds an excitement and “great yearning for [his] people,” in Khartoum, almost to the brink of obsession. He goes on to say that despite his time spent studying in London, he did not simply miss his people, but “longed for them…dreamed of them” (3). The narrator’s awe and appreciation for the villagers’ humble way of life is the ultimate foreshadowing of his tendency to glorify Khartoum. Drawing only from the memories of his childhood, in actuality, the narrator possesses limited knowledge of the people and places which he thinks are most familiar. In a sense, the village moves beyond the realm of simply existing as a setting and instead, behaves as the narrator’s awe-inspiring symbol of utopian fantasy. Just as his return is underway, he compares his at-home stability to that of a palm tree, “a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose” (4). The mentioning of ‘purpose’ holds great significance when considering his higher level of education in contrast to that of his people. His strong attraction to home cannot only be attributed to its supposed familiarity, but also the narrator’s perception of the villagers’ admiration for his newly acquired abundance of knowledge. Therefore, submersing himself in a what he thinks is a rudimentary environment in terms of education helps him to feel “important..continuous and integral” (6). His educated background then becomes quite ironic in the sense that although he is likely the most intelligent inhabitant, he is also most ignorant of cruelty and oppression carried out by his people.
Eventually, the narrator’s once positive outlook on the village shifts to a burdening perspective of postcolonial life, however, the shift does not occur until after the death of Mustafa. For us readers, we might begin to consider how Mustafa’s accounts of suicidal lovers, murderous activities, and all-around sociopathic tendencies are starting to weigh down on the narrator, thus pushing him away from his idyllic notions and towards a darker, more disturbed state of mind. Such darkness is then reflected in his encounter with the village during the night. Although he observed the scope of the terrain many times, he had yet to “open[ ] [his] eyes on life” and see the village “at such a late hour of the night” (40). In this instance, night is working as a multilayered symbol, perhaps most noticeably as a representation of the village’s dark and depressed postcolonial state. Simultaneously, night refers to the narrator’s growing perspective of his home as a place infested by maltreatment of its own people in relation to one another, particularly among men and women.
Lastly, the shadows of night are possibly symbolic of the uncertainty of the future, both for the narrator’s personal life and the village’s overall well-being. It is not until much later, when the narrator is overwhelmed by the sheer violence and misogynistic treatment of women, that he expresses anger for Wad Rayyes’ forced marriage and eventual murder of Hosna Mahmoud. His frustration and disgust to the village’s practices grow more evident when he calls Hosna “the sanest woman in the village” (109) while those who think of her as an object are truly mad. Therefore, we see an obvious contrast between the narrator’s earlier stages of fabricated idealization of the village and his later transition into an appalled inhabitant.
Though the narrator is increasingly portrayed as being consumed by horrendous acts closely surrounding him, it is ultimately Mustafa’s mental personification and physical takeover of the narrator that ignite the utmost fear. When discussing his brief encounter with Mustafa, the narrator likens his presence to that of “a nightmare” (39). Once again, we find the insertion of night, but this time in the form of dread-inducing images. The narrator describes Mustafa’s arrival as having taken place on “one suffocatingly dark night” (39), a moment that forever shook and unsettled the village’s people. Although the narrator does not specifically point to himself as a victim of Mustafa’s stories, he certainly becomes overwhelmed by what he has heard. It is almost as if Mustafa himself is the unnerving and inescapable nightmare, one that the narrator associates with influences of violence. He even admits that Mustafa is becoming “an obsession that [is] ever with [him] in [his] coming and goings” (51). His compulsive thoughts about Mustafa, along with a growing hostility towards his people, is what ultimately leads the narrator to the crucial exposure of Mustafa’s private room. An unmatched fury swelling inside from the “adversary…within” (111), he opens the door to books, photographs, and undoubtedly the most terrifying and thought-provoking image, a portrait of Jean Morris. For the narrator, her picture conjures up a more descriptive account of Mustafa’s murder of Jean in which he stabbed her with a dagger. The narrator’s decision to reveal the disturbing image later on is likely related to his frustration with the corruptness of the village in that by unleashing the darkest memories of Mustafa’s life, he is somehow committing an act of vengeance against such corruptness.
At the same time, we are reminded of the narrator’s adoption of Mustafa’s vicious influence. While inside the room, he is both inflicted and consumed by violence, so much so that we see his identity and Mustafa’s identity in the process of merging. Although the room scene might appear to push the narrator even further down a spiral of violence, strangely enough, his connectedness to Mustafa’s memories inadvertently causes him to pave a new life that is neither ignorantly ideal nor disturbingly aggressive. His decision is manifested in the form of a double, which Mustafa becomes for the narrator. We do take notice of their merging identities leading up to the room, at times, nearly forgetting whether Mustafa or the narrator is speaking. However, one particular moment stands out as pivotal when the narrator himself loses track of his own identity. After catching a glimpse of an image, yet again out of darkness, of “a frowning face with pursed lips” (112) that he knows but cannot place, he moves towards it with “hate in [his] heart” (112). Unbeknownst to the narrator, the image is that of himself, a much changed man who now displays anger on the outside. This very image also stands in contrast to an earlier reference to his happier life in the village, “like a child that sees its face in the mirror for the first time” (5). He then goes on to mistake the image for Mustafa, only to realize that it is indeed his own frowning face. In terms of the double, the mirror is acting as a symbol for convergence, not merely of the narrator and Mustafa’s appearances, but more importantly, their similar ties to frustration.
Solely for the narrator, there also exists a merging of his previous ignorance with his new understanding of corruptness. Rather than being drawn to one or the other, he chooses to take identity into his hands. In this exact moment, the narrator discovers where his own reality lies. It exists neither in the fantasy of idealization nor in the nightmares of violence. Instead, reality is uncontrollable and must be faced with a sense of rationality. In the end, the narrator’s encounter with reality brings him to the same place where he began his journey, the Nile. Up until this point, the Nile had been tainted by the possible suicide of Mustafa and the occurrence of floods. However, while he continuously swims in the river, all thoughts of Mustafa are completely abandoned, and eventually, his efforts of swimming gradually turn into a quiet transportation of his body through the water. The river’s movement is a prominent representation, not only of the ebb and flow of time and narrative structure, but the narrator’s wavering between wanting to love his people and seeing them for who they truly are. At one point, he finds himself caught “half-way between…life and death” (137), and furthermore, between helping his people and leaving them stranded. In fact, just as the river’s movement and flooding cannot be controlled, the narrator has no control over the uncertainties of reality. However, he also recognizes his potential to choose life and experience the time spent with his friends and family, including the sons that Mustafa has left behind. As a result of such realization, his “relationship to the river [is] determined” (139), just as his relationship to the village is solidified. In the midst of his cries for help, we are unsure of whether or not he will survive the river’s flow. Nevertheless, we are at least certain that the he is better equipped to finally face reality.
Throughout his recollection, the narrator’s initial depiction of an idealized village is subverted by the harshness of its corruption. The only way in which the narrator is able to combat such idyllic fabrications is through the horrors of Mustafa’s own memories of murder and violence. While the narrator continues to be overwhelmed by Mustafa’s narrative, simultaneously, he gains the capacity to recognize the violence and maltreatment happening in his own presence. It then becomes more obvious that his people are not necessarily a community bound together by simplicity, but are fully capable of committing acts of cruelty. To a certain extent, the narrator’s fantasies about returning to his village are quite reminiscent of colonial methods of thinking in that colonialism was indeed built on fabrication, along with the fantasy of nurturing and guiding the natives. Yet, his movement away from delusion and towards fear is a crucial development in his quest for reality. Ultimately, he reaches a realm of reality in which change is embraced and life is considered valuable.
Relations of Othello and Mustafa Sa’eed
On the surface, William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604) and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966) are very similar. The title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a man of color whose marriage with a white woman, Desdemona, is tested by her father, Brabantio. Season of Migration to the North revolves around Mustafa Sa’eed, an African man who faces similar challenges in courting white women. It is Othello’s foreign background, precisely, that wins Desdemona over. Mustafa falsifies his own backstory in order to seduce several white women, namely Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour. However, Mustafa’s wife and only love, Jean Morris, is thus not because of his foreignness, but in spite of it. Othello is convinced by his ensign, Iago, that Desdemona is having an affair. In Season of Migration to the North, it is Jean herself who arouses Mustafa’s suspicions. Othello and Mustafa eventually kill their respective first wives in “the bed [they] hath contaminated” (4.1.195-196). Othello subsequently commits suicide, while Mustafa serves prison time. Through intertextuality, Season of Migration to the North deconstructs the simplistic handling of race relations in Othello, the Moor of Venice. Othello, the Moor of Venice and Season of Migration to the North both propose interracial romances, dampened by parental disapproval. Following news of Othello and Desdemona’s wedding: Brabantio: My daughter! O, my daughter! All: Dead? Brabantio: Ay, to me. (1.3.59) Similarly, in Season of Migration to the North, Sheila tells Mustafa, “my father would kill me if they knew I was in love with a black man” (pp. 115). Yet, a more fitting counterpart for Brabantio would be Ann’s father, Colonel Hammond, who “said that he regarded himself as a liberal person with no prejudices. Yet he was a realistic man and had seen that such a marriage [between Mustafa and Ann] would not work” (pp. 57). Both fathers betray racism in their inability to conceive of a healthy marriage between a white woman and a man of color. While Brabantio suspects, without reason, that Othello “hast enchanted [Desdemona]” (1.2.63), Mustafa himself admits that he “deceived [Ann], seducing her by telling her that we would marry and that our marriage would be a bridge between north and south” (pp. 57). Yet, unlike Brabantio, Colonel Hammond not only gets the opportunity to condemn his daughter’s “deceiver” in court, but opts for neutrality instead. To varying degrees, Othello and Mustafa find their romantic prospects impeded by parental disapproval. However, in Othello, the Moor of Venice, this disapproval is baseless yet enduring and in Season of Migration of the North, this disapproval is well-placed but tempered by sympathy.
Despite societal objections, Othello and Mustafa manage to seduce women with their respective backgrounds, fictional or otherwise. Othello says of Desdemona: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed” (1.3.167). In Othello, the Moor of Venice, this relationship is framed in a positive light, only meeting an unfortunate end because of external pressure. Yet, a white woman falling in love with a man because of his background, foreign to her, almost seems like fetishism. It is this very fetish that Mustafa exploits. Mustafa seduces women with his “life story,” a capitalization on racist stereotypes. His conquests would say “that in my eyes she saw the shimmer of mirages in hot deserts, that in my voice she heard the screams of ferocious beasts in the jungles” (pp. 120) or describe his skin as “the colour of magic and mystery and obscenities” (pp. 115). Mustafa “felt I had been transformed in [Isabella’s] eyes into a naked, primitive creature” (pp. 33). Mustafa’s relationships with Ann, Sheila, and Isabella are portrayed as shallow, ending in suicide. These relationships show the dark side of Othello and Desdemona’s “love.” Mustafa even “saw the tears well up in [Isabella’s] eyes” (pp. 33) at his “upbringing”; Othello “often did beguile [Desdemona] of tears When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffered” (1.3.156-158). The parallel becomes explicit when Mustafa tells Isabella: “I’m like Othello—Arab-African” (pp. 33). Thus, Mustafa’s seduction tactics are a parody of Othello’s seduction of Desdemona.
Desdemona appears to be the only person Othello has ever been in love with; in contrast, the one woman to whom Mustafa professes his love seems averse to his background. Jean tells Mustafa that he must let her destroy a Wedgwood vase, an Arabic manuscript, and a silken Isphahan prayer-rug (pp. 129-130)—“ the den of lethal lies that [he] had deliberately built up” (pp. 121)—in order to win her love. Jean is not only immune to Mustafa’s racially-based seduction tactics, similar to Othello’s, but actively mocks them. Jean being the only person whom Mustafa develops genuine feelings for is further insult to Othello and Desdemona’s relationship.
Both Othello and Mustafa question the fidelity of their respective first wives. In Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago plants doubt in Othello’s mind without outright implicating Desdemona, e.g.: Iago: In Venice they do let God see the pranks They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. Othello: Dost thou say so? Iago: She did deceive her father, marrying you (3.3.202-206) In Season of Migration to the North, Jean fills the roles of both Desdemona and Iago, making Mustafa question her own faithfulness. Mustafa tells the narrator, “She used to like flirting with every Tom, Dick and Harry when we went out together” (pp. 133), but Mustafa never caught her seeing flirtation through. When Mustafa found someone else’s handkerchief in their house, Jean was as evasive as Iago: “’Assuming it’s not your handkerchief,’ she said, ‘what are you going to do about it?’” (pp. 134). A handkerchief serves as evidence of an affair in Othello, the Moor of Venice as well. Othello gives Desdemona a handkerchief, which Iago leaves in Cassio’s lodgings. When Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief (4.1.150), this confirms his suspicion that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Mustafa comes to suspect his wife through means similar to Othello, but while Mustafa’s suspicions are probably correct, Othello’s are not.
Convinced of infidelity, Othello and Mustafa both set out to murder their respective wives in bed. Othello kisses Desdemona before killing her, but Mustafa and Jean take it even further. As narrated by Mustafa: “I leant over and kissed her. I put the blade-edge between her breasts and she twined her legs around my back. Slowly I pressed down. Slowly. She opened her eyes. What ecstasy there was in those eyes!” In Othello, the Moor of Venice, the kiss is Othello’s last indulgence before supposedly sending his wife to hell. However, in Season of Migration to the North, Mustafa and Jean seem aroused by the murder itself. The romance to these climactic scenes is not purely physical. While Desdemona is on her deathbed, both literally and figuratively: Othello: Think on thy sins. Desdemona: They are loves I bear to you. (5.2.40) Desdemona’s declaration of love is an attempt to dissuade Othello from killing her. In contrast, Jean clearly has no interest in stopping Mustafa. However, she also voices a love, repeatedly: “’I love you,’ she said to me, and I believed her. […] The smell of smoke was in my nostrils as she said to me ‘I love you, my darling’” (pp. 136). This declaration of love—Jean’s first, at that—may be genuine. It may also be Jean trying to convince Mustafa to “come with” (pp. 57) or, failing that, maintain her emotional hold on him. If it is the latter, then, judging by Mustafa dreaming about her years after her death (pp. 77), Jean was successful. Desdemona tries to stop Othello from killing her and Jean tries to get Mustafa to kill her, but the end result is the same: a man kills his wife in bed while she professes her love for him.
After killing their respective wives, both Othello and Mustafa contemplate suicide. Othello describes himself as being at his “journey’s end” (5.2.268). Similarly, Mustafa tells the narrator, “My life achieved completion that night and there was no justification for staying on” (pp. 57). Othello goes through with killing himself. Despite Jean using one of her last breaths to tell Mustafa to “come with,” Mustafa is too afraid to do the same. With the lives of the women they love ending, both Othello and Mustafa see their own lives ending in a symbolic way, but only Othello is able to actually end his own life.
After committing uxoricide, both Othello and Mustafa face the threat of imprisonment. Othello is about to be apprehended for Desdemona’s murder when he kills himself. Mustafa goes to trial for Jean’s murder and is sentenced to prison time. The hypothetical of what would happen to Othello, should he survive his play, is Mustafa’s reality. This is cemented by the fact that, during Mustafa’s trial, when witnesses try to paint him in a sympathetic light, Mustafa thinks of countering: “I am no Othello. I am a lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?” (pp. 29). Mustafa draws a dichotomy between being, like Othello, a victim of one’s own otherness and, therefore, deserving of mercy or being, unlike Othello, damned by one’s own hand and, therefore, deserving of death. Othello probably would not have killed Desdemona if the narrative of a white woman betraying a man of color for a white man had not been so persuasive at the time; Mustafa may have killed Jean regardless of their differing races. Nonetheless, Mustafa is sentenced to prison time, not death. The title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice, is, ultimately, a pawn. The sentencing in Season of Migration to the North indicates that the Western world wishes to see Mustafa as just as powerless as Othello, though the reader is given substantial evidence to the contrary.
Othello, the only character of color in William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a mere puppet, but Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, though following a similar narrative, portrays Mustafa Sa’eed with depth and agency equal to that of the principal white characters. Brabantio vilifies the title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice for his relationship with Desdemona. Season of Migration to the North depicts more subtle racism, with Colonel Hammond betraying “separate but equal” leanings. Desdemona falling for Othello as a foreigner first, person second, is romanticized in Othello, the Moor of Venice, but in Season of Migration to the North, Jean, Mustafa’s only love, doesn’t seem to have this racist fetish. Due to Iago’s convoluted scheming, Othello comes to suspect Desdemona of and murder her for adultery; in Season of Migration to the North, the wife is guilty and her death not the product of a misunderstanding, but an organic conclusion to her relationship with the main character. Othello dies a victim; Mustafa lives to watch, in horror, as lawyers and witnesses reduce his case to an issue of ethnicity. Its intertextuality with Othello, the Moor of Venice in mind, Season of Migration to the North criticizes narratives that would frame a man of color as powerless to stop his interracial relations from ending in tragedy.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, New York Review Books, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, 10th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 1156-1238.
Destructive Desires in Tayeb Salih and Joseph Conrad
In Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, the story of the mysterious, prodigious, and devilish Mustafa Sa’eed is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Although Mustafa is not directly present for most of the book, his actions, and the narrator’s reflection on his life, work to drive the plot while the narrator acts as more of a conduit for the audience to explore the life of the focus character. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which partially inspired Salih, employs the same technique, using the experiences of the narrator, Marlow, to create a contrast between himself and Kurtz, who is meant to be Mustafa’s equivalent. The juxtaposition of the unassuming narrator and the larger-than-life character on whom he focuses his attention, serves to distinguish between two types of explorers: the observer and the conqueror. Through this device, we are able to see the effect of both approaches, and that the latter, which seeks destruction, is ultimately destined to destroy himself.
What sets both narrators apart from their more enigmatic counterparts is, firstly, their reasons for exploring their own centers of darkness. The equivalent of the “heart of darkness” in Seasons of Migration to the North is London, where both the narrator and the Mustafa travel in order to cultivate their knowledge. Their intentions once there, however, diverge extremely. The narrator seems to have no ulterior motives in going, save to bolster his own esteem (he confesses, “I had reckoned that the ten million inhabitants of the country had all heard of my achievements” (Salih 9)). Yet Mustafa saw his endeavor to seduce and emotionally destroy women from the North as a grand quest, a response to the North’s condescension, ignorance, and subtle contempt. He tells the white men in Europe, “I have come to you as a conqueror” (50). While the former sought to gain, the latter wanted only to take and destroy. Similarly, Marlow went to the Congo’s in search of exploration, while Kurtz went to try and satisfy an insatiable greed for ivory. Marlow explains his motivations with a recount of his love of maps as a child, and the urge he felt to fill in the “blank spaces” and to “lose [himself] in the glories of exploration” (Conrad 9-10). Kurtz initially came for the ivory, acting as a “…first class agent…in charge of a trading post” (28). Eventually, though, he would come to want much more than ivory could provide him, which would lead him down the path of self-destruction.
While delving into the cultural shock that is western life for Mustafa and the unnamed narrator, and is the Congo for Marlow and Kurtz, Salih raises question of personal change. In both novels, Marlow and the unnamed narrator act as sort of keepers of knowledge, particularly where Kurtz and Mustafa (respectively) are involved. Mustafa and Kurtz represent the mobility of change, while the narrators demonstrate constraint by keeping the knowledge of this change secret and, in some instances, resisting change within themselves. Firstly, mobility appears as an enforcement of Mustafa’s will upon European culture. When referring to Ann Hammond’s background, he juxtaposes statements about her familial status and good name with others about dominating her: “Her father was an officer in the Royal Engineers, her mother from a rich family in Liverpool. She proved an easy prey” and “Her aunt was the wife of a Member of Parliament. In my bed I transformed her into a harlot” (Salih 27). In doing this, he is developing the melodrama that he sees his life to be, proving the powerful to be susceptible to his influence despite their supposed strength. At the same time, the culture of Europe too leaves him scathed. He says, “I am South yearning for the North and the ice” (27). This latter manifests as a marriage between himself and the “ice” which he relates to Jean Morris (134). He is proclaimed the “…first Sudanese to marry an English woman,” showing this event to be particularly odd (46).
The narrator, as the keeper of knowledge (possessing a literal key to unlocking Mustafa’s past), faces the concrete evidence of Mustafa’s transgressions and immediately has the urge to destroy it all. He declares that he will light Mustafa’s private room on fire, but fails to go through will it: “At the break of dawn, tongues of fire will devour these lies” (128). Upon his failure, he resolves to throw the key in the river, but neglects to do this as well. Finally, he tries to drown himself like Mustafa, but fails again. We can gather that the river is symbolic of the darkness from his statement, “Though floating on the water, I was not a part of it” (139). He faces the same death as Mustafa, but does not succumb to it, signifying that, though he was affected by the same evil, it was not enough to doom him because he did not engage with it to the same extent that Mustafa did. Alternatively, it could signify that he is no longer apart of anything as he feels disconnected from his people as well: “There is no room for me here. Why don’t I pack up and go” (107). His stagnation as a character, paired with these instincts to obscure the truth and the fact that he still does not tell anyone who Mustafa Sa’eed really is, defines him as the stories constraint that opposes its mobility. It is the passive inaction of an observer, which suppresses the destructive desires of the conqueror.
In Conrad’s work, Kurtz imposes his will unto the natives by letting them think that he is a god and commanding their every move. The Russian trader who nurses Kurtz back to health and otherwise accompanies him says that he does not fear the natives because “…they would not stir till Mr. Kurtz gave the word” also asserting that, “…the chiefs would come every day to see him. They would crawl…” (Conrad 97). He used them for his pursuits and let them make sacrifices to him, but again, the environment affects him just as heavily. The trader also states that he would disappear with them for weeks in search of ivory, and that he would “…forget himself amongst these people” (94). He rejects civilization, and the help of modern medicine along with it, in order to stay with the natives. Marlow, on the other hand, is able to stay uncorrupted by the darkness but shutting out its horrors. He responds nonchalantly to the death of Fresleven, reacted to the helmsman’s death by chucking his soiled shoes overboard, and ran away when Kurtz was approaching the end of his life. Like the unnamed narrator, he also obstructs the truth, refusing to hand over Kurtz’s documents (“I had refused to give up the smallest scrap out of that package” (120)) and telling his Intended that, “The last word he pronounced was [her] name” (129). Both Mustafa and Kurtz open themselves up to darkness when they chose to impose their influence onto it and allow its influence to affect them in turn, while their counterparts are left to stop their destruction from pursuing past their deaths. Mustafa and Kurtz’s legacies exist as stories within themselves, symbolic, as they are, of colonialism as a whole. The destruction that they cause is due to the main factors that are generally responsible for the phenomena of colonialism. Themes of hunger and power echo throughout the descriptions of their lives. Imagery related to hunger accompany the first descriptions of Kurtz, “I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, and the men before him” (Conrad 100). Beyond simple greed, this demonstrated gluttony, a never-ending stride towards excess. This led him to put his hunger above anything else; his health, his sanity, and his preservation of self. Marlow says, “…the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the…less material aspirations” (95). This extended past the need for ivory, however, as the Marlow explained Kurtz’s rejection from the Company was because he, “…lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts…” (96). His was a hunger that’s purpose was not to satisfy, but to fill a void, a bottomless pit.
Mustafa shared that hunger, but for possession of women instead. He was obsessed with the conquest, going as far as to fill his room with mirrors so that, “when [he] slept with a woman, it was as if [he] slept with a whole harem simultaneously” (Salih 27). When it came to Jean Morris, his desire to possess her so overtook him that, when she offers sex in exchange for his prized possessions, he thinks, “If she had asked… for my life as a price I would have paid it” (130). That entire exchange, in fact, is peppered with imagery relating to thirst and hunger: “My throat grew dry with a thirst that almost killed me,” “…filling her mouth with pieces of paper that she chewed and spit out,” “…her lips like a forbidden fruit that must be eaten,” and so on (130). It was because Sa’eed could not separate himself from his need to always be victorious that he made himself a slave to his desires. For both authors, the use of hunger means to signify that their pursuit of satisfaction had become, in their minds, essential for survival. Ironically, it would instead lead to their demise.
Their interest, of course, also involved the pursuit of power. The ways in which they achieve this aim differ slightly, but share the same mechanisms at their core. By lying to their targets, both Mustafa and Kurtz gained power through the false projections of it. Mustafa led women to believe that his interest in them was a promise for the future, going beyond one night stands by, “…living with five girls simultaneously,” and “…giving each the impression that [he’d] marry her” (30-31). In addition to lying, he wields his power by taking advantage of their trust, and thereafter betraying it. Kurtz does not betray anyone, but he lies his way into becoming a god to those who would kill or be killed for him (such as his mistress who stood on the shore reaching out for him even as the pilgrims shot at her). He lets them believe that his guns were “…thunder and lightning” (93). His power came also from the very timber his voice. Even Marlow felt the effects: “Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice! It rang deep to the very last” (114). There was power in Mustafa’s voice as well, insofar as he seduced women with his storytelling. However, the difference lies in presentation: Mustafa gained his power from taking advantage of ignorance, while Marlow only had to present himself in such a way that would simply command it. For both hunger and power, the connection to colonialism, then, is that satisfaction of greed comes before everything, even life; the power and superiority exuded by the colonizers is a farce; and that bitter ends follow those who choose to admire and praise that which is inherently destructive. Though their actions were hideous, these characters were, in a way, the tragic heroes of their respective stories. Their tragic flaw was hubris; by wanting too much and truly believing that they could have it all, they became the orchestrators of their defeat. Mustafa, while talking about his conquests, interjects that he believes that, “There is a still pool in the depths of every woman that [he] knew how to stir” (Salih 27). In his contemplations on the position that Mustafa has put him in by making him responsible for his legacy, the unnamed narrator remarks, “There was no limit to his egoism and his conceit; despite everything he wanted history to immortalize him” (128). The expression “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is an apt one here. Mustafa was too high on his own superiority to realize that he could have an equal, and that she could bring him to his knees. Jean Morris was the virus to his germ. His downfall began on the night that he murdered her with him expressing, “My blood was boiling and my head [was] in a fever” (134). His self had been dying ever since he had surrendered his will to her, their time together marked by his inability to control himself, resulting in a sort of self-imposed insanity.
Kurtz’s last days were marred by a fatal sickness and, questionably, literal insanity. When the trader talks about how he first found Kurtz, he juxtaposes an incident where Kurtz nearly shot him over a small amount of ivory with the introduction of his second illness (Conrad 94). His assumed entitlement to wealth correlated with the degradation of his body, yet even as his dependence on civilization was made clear by his impending death, he still denied his weakness: “Save me! Why, I’ve had to save you… Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe…I’ll carry out my ideas yet” (103). He believed that he was entitled to everything. On the boat back he says, “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river…everything belonged to him” (80). Marlow ascertains that his babblings continued until right before his death. He had begun to believe in his own lie, his own godliness, perhaps immortality. The idea that he should fail was inconceivable. He thought himself the arbiter of his own fate, thought that his “impenetrable darkness” was enough to battle the darkness of the wild (115). Yet, in the words of Marlow, “…the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion” (96-97). It was his Jean Morris: the insurmountable adversary that was destined to bring about his downfall.
The narrators both come across the respective focus of interest after their downfall has been set into motion. Upon first impressions, Kurtz was “an animated image of death…shaking his hand with menaces…” (Conrad 100), while Mustafa was a “…strange combination of strength and weakness” (Salih 8). Yet, despite this the narrators still admired them. Marlow says that he affirms that Kurtz was a remarkable man because, “He had something to say. He said it” (Conrad 118). Salih’s narrator echoes this: “…he at least made a choice where I have chosen nothing (111). Amongst people who did not know their story, they still were successes. They were legacies. What does this say, then, for the observer and the conqueror? The conqueror is a disease, which leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, including his own. Yet Kurtz’s and Mustafa’s stories tell the true fate of the conqueror: to destroy, be destroyed, and live on in memory.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. N.p.: Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899. Www.planetebook.com. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York: New York Review of, 1969. Print.
Racial Identity and the Uncanny in Season of Migration to the North
Season of Migration to the North (henceforth, Seasons) is a post-colonial Sudanese novel by author Tayeb Salih which records the life of the narrator after his return to his village, Wad Hamid, after staying for seven years in England. A new man, Mustafa Sa’eed, has settled in the village since and the book revolves around the interaction of the narrator with Mustafa, Mustafa’s subsequent mysterious departure and the narrator’s obsession with him. The anecdotes of Mustafa’s past experiences in England and his sexual exploits disturb the narrator’s normal life in his village and instill a fear in him. While the anecdotes themselves shed light on an interesting dynamic between the colonizer and colonized in a foreign land, the effect of these foreign tales on a man in his native land is also worth exploring further. This paper aims to address how fear shapes one’s racial identity in a foreign land and affects one’s identity in one’s own native land when confronted with the Uncanny.
Mustafa was a foreign man in a foreign land in England, a black man in a white man’s world and a colonized man in the colonizer’s realm. Everyone around him had cultural stereotypes about his place of origin and the exoticism associated with it. Instead of protesting those stereotypes and alienating himself, Mustafa decided to play the role of an ‘authentic African.’ He projected this role by emphasizing his African roots and accommodating himself in their stereotypes about a man from an exotic land. These qualities appealed to white women whom he seduced by exaggerating his African roots. To entice them he “would read poetry talk of religion and philosophy, discuss paintings, and say things about the spirituality of the East. I would do everything possible to entice a woman to my bed” (Salih 26). Soon, his promiscuity led him to take up multiple identities to maintain sexual relations with multiple women. Mustafa promised to marry many of them and broke those promises which drove them to commit suicide. This brings to light an interesting reversal of dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized as seen in the case of Mustafa oppressing multiple white women all the while projecting himself as an ‘authentic African’ from a colonized land. Fanon in his essay ‘The Negro and Psychopathology’ has explained the motivation behind this:
When the Negro makes contact with the white world, a certain sensitizing action takes place. The black man stops behaving as an actional person. The goal of his behavior will be The Other (in the guise of the white man), for The Other alone can give him worth (Fanon 154).
Thus, his contact with the white world instilled a fear of social exclusion in him which made him project the identity of an authentic African in line with the stereotypes they have associated with him. To feel a part of his colonizer’s world, he himself takes up the role of the colonizer and oppresses white women as we discussed above. Thus, we see that Mustafa’s identity in a foreign land was shaped by the fear of social exclusion which made him act the way he did.
It can be seen that the psychological experiences of Mustafa were quite similar to the narrator’s own experiences in the West. Both of them were child prodigies and had left Sudan for seven years to study poetry in England; both interacted with the western culture and underwent the prison experience in England–a literal, physical prison for Sa’eed whereas, a metaphorical prison for the narrator where he experienced social exclusion and suffered in the loneliness of the West. Eventually, both of them returned back to Sudan where they felt at home. In the words of the narrator:
For seven years I had longed for them, had dreamed of them, and it was an extraordinary moment when I at last found myself standing amongst them… and it was not long before I felt as though a piece of ice were melting inside me, as though I were some frozen substance on which the sun had shined (Salih 1).
From the above lines, it can be seen that the narrator felt great when he returned home from after spending seven years in a foreign land. A similar motivation had guided Mustafa to settle in Wad Hamid, after being released from a prison in England.
After returning home, the narrator meets Mustafa, a stranger who has settled in the narrator’s homeland. He remarks “it is he – not I-who is the stranger” (Salih 9) after their first meeting. This can be seen as the beginning of a disturbance in the narrator’s life by the presence of a strange man in his homeland. One night, Mustafa reveals all his experiences in England to the narrator including his sexual promiscuity, subsequent trial and imprisonment in England after which he returns to Sudan. As the narrator is listening to an experience similar to his own, it brings back the memories of his time in England, the place he left to return back home. Thus, for the narrator, Mustafa represented the Uncanny. According to Freud, “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression”(241). For the narrator, nostalgia was followed by dread as this new man from a place, the narrator had chosen to leave and forget, appeared in Wad Hamid. Soon after that night, Mustafa disappeared mysteriously in a flood and made the narrator the sole guardian of his possessions, wife, and kids. Mustafa’s disappearance made the narrator even more disturbed and he started considering Mustafa a phantom. In the narrator’s own words:
Mustafa Sa’eed never happened, that he was in fact, a lie, a phantom-…Thus Mustafa Sa’eed has, against my will, become a part of my world, a thought in my brain, a phantom that does not want to take itself off. And thus too I experience a remote feeling of fear, fear that is just conceivable that simplicity is not everything (Salih 39-42).
The sudden appearance of Mustafa in the narrator’s life and his sudden departure instilled a fear in the narrator: the fear of the Uncanny, of the familiar, of something foreign in his homeland, of his own self mirrored in a phantom.
The fear of the Uncanny, of his past mirrored in another man, had left the narrator disturbed. For the narrator, Mustafa “had become an obsession that was ever with me in my comings and goings” (pg. 61) for years to come. He often thought back to him while moving on with his life. On multiple instances, Mustafa’s name came up in conversations, but the narrator always kept his knowledge to himself. The obsession escalated to the level that the narrator, unknowingly, assimilated Mustafa into his own identity. As years passed, the narrator was asked to take a decision regarding Mustafa’s wife Hosna’s remarriage. Initially opposed to the idea because of Hosna’s refusal, he later realized that he had fallen in love with her. Fearful of being in Mustafa’s stead, he left Wad Hamid again without taking a decision regarding Hosna’s remarriage. Due to his inaction and the consent from Hosna’s family, she was remarried but the marriage ended in her killing her husband and committing suicide. On his eventual return, the narrator takes out his anger on Mahjoub, his friend, but later realizes Mustafa to be his true adversary for influencing his life and his identity. The incident culminates in the narrator finally realizing that in his obsession with Mustafa and his fear of what Mustafa represented, he had become “the guardian, the lover and the adversary” (Salih 112) referring to him being the guardian and lover of Hosna, and the adversary of Mustafa himself. The final revelation comes when the narrator, in his anger, unlocks the room that Mustafa had kept secret from the world, and entrusted to the narrator. As he enters,
The light exploded on my eyes and out of the darkness there emerged a frowning face with pursed lips that I knew but could not place. I moved towards it with hate in my heart. It was my adversary Mustafa Sa’eed. The face grew a neck, the neck two shoulders and a chest, then a trunk and two legs, and I found myself standing face to face with myself. This is not Mustafa Sa’eed–it’s a picture of me frowning at my face from a mirror (Salih 112).
This leads to the ultimate realization, that the narrator has assumed the role of Mustafa himself. That he has become the Uncanny other to himself and the fear he had felt when Mustafa had entered his life, had been the fear of his Other, which Mustafa had represented all along.
Conclusively, through the journey of the narrator and Mustafa, we have seen how fear shapes one’s identity, be it of oneself or of the Other and in the narrator’s case, of both. The fear Mustafa experienced in a foreign land had shaped the identity of the authentic African that he projected during his stay in England. In the narrator’s case, the fear of the past he had left behind and his own Other in the form of the Mustafa, acting as the Uncanny, had affected his own identity.
Fanon, Frantz, and Charles Lam. Markmann. “The Negro and Psychopathology.” Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, 1968, pp. 141–209.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17, The Hogarth Press, 1955, pp. 217–256.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, New York Review Books Classics, 2009.