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.
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