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.
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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, […]