On Tayeb Salih’s 85th Birthday

Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih (1929-2009) would have been 85 today. He was born in a village in north Sudan and originally intended to work in agriculture:

salihHe started publishing stories in the 1953, and it was 1960 when his celebrated “Doum Palm of Wad Hamid” was published in Aswaat magazine. A collection of his short stories was published a year later, in 1961. His most well-known work, Season of Migration to the North, was published early in his literary career, in 1967, and published in translation by Salih’s friend and supporter Denys Johnson-Davies just two years later.

This novel largely overshadowed his later works, which included The Wedding of Zein (1969), Bandarshah (1971), and The Cypriot Man (1978), as well as a number of short stories, several of which were collected into The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid.

The fictional village of Wad Hamid is indeed a place to which Salih returns and returns, the place where we can most easily see the passage of time and the shifts in his narrative.

Not much of his work is available online in English translation; these are a few excerpts.

From Season of Migration to the North, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies

In that court I hear the rattles of swords in Carthage and the clatter of the hooves of Allenby’s horses desecrating the ground of Jerusalem. The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to use the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. ‘I am no Othello. Othello was a lie.’


A longer excerpt on NPR

Raja Shehadeh discusses the reception of Season in Palestine

“Burst,” a Play Loosely Based on Season

From The Wedding of Zein, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies

Were you to come to our village as a tourist, it is likely, my son, that you would not stay long. If it were in winter time, when the palm trees are pollinated, you would find that a dark cloud had descended over the village. This, my son, would not be dust, nor yet that mist which rises up after rainfall. It would be a swarm of those sand-flies which obstruct all paths to those who wish to enter our villae. Maybe you have seen this pest before, but I swear that you have never seen this particular species.


A longer excerpt on Amazon

Leila Aboulela on Why She Loves Tayeb Salih’s Wedding of Zein

From Bandarshah, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies

I reckoned that Tureifi must have been thirty-six or thirty-seven, for he was around twelve in the year of the wedding of Zein. At that time Mahjoub was forty-five — I know that for a fact — while Ahmed, who today has become the father of many daughters and whose daughters are of marriageable age, was about twenty in that year. I scrutinized his face as he sat in front of me on the verandah of the diwan, cross-legged, holding a cup of coffee, in the forenoon. There was nothing remarkable about the face apart from the narrow, intelligent eyes and that ironic smile at the left-hand corner of the mouth that speaks of a contradiction between what he says and what he means.


“Bandarshah: The Poetics of Amnesia” – from Tayeb Salih: Ideology and the Craft of Fiction

From The Cypriot Man, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies

“I’m Palestinian — my daughter has died.”

I stood for a while looking at her, not knowing what to say; however, she entered, sat down and said:

“Will you let me rest and feed my child?”

While she was telling me her story the doorbell rang. I took a telegram and opened it, with the Palestinian woman telling me her formidable misfortune, while I was engrossed in my own.

The Process of Transformation in al-Tayib Salih’s ‘The Cypriot Man’ 

From “A Handful of Dates,” trans. Denys Johnson-Davies:

I must have been very young at the time. While I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I do remember that when people saw me with my grandfather they would pat me on the head and give my cheek a pinch – things they didn’t do to my grandfather. The strange thing was that I never used to go out with my father, rather it was my grandfather who would take me with him wherever he went, except for the mornings, when I would go to the mosque to learn the Koran. The mosque, the river, and the fields – these were the landmarks in our life.


The full story


WYNC’s “Underappreciated” series looks at Salih

Tayib Salih in Banipal

A timeline of Salih’s life