Tayeb Salih’s ‘Season of Migration to the North’: Acclaimed for the Wrong Reason

This is part two to eminent and pioneering translator Denys Johnson-Davies’ reflections on Tayeb Salih, after the passing of would’ve been Tayeb Salih’s eighty-fifth birthday. Here, Johnson-Davies returns to Salih’s work, particularly his most famous novel, and what stands as Salih’s real and lasting achievement:

By Denys Johnson-Davies

Photo credit: Paola Crocian
Photo credit: Paola Crocian

After having read through all the published writings of Tayeb Salih, both his several short stories, as well as what could be termed novellas, in addition to the more lengthy writings which could be thought of as novels, I was left with one overriding impression: Tayeb Salih wrote in a sense largely for himself. He had certain doubts about life and he was anxious to solve these, to wrap them up, and put them on one side and forget about them. Most writers say to themselves: What do most readers want from a book? They answer this in various ways and thus books get published about all manner of subjects: love, hate, murder, and so on. This criterion does not, in my opinion, apply to Tayeb Salih’s writings: for me, I feel that he is writing for himself, from some inner urge.

As I sit at my desk and write this second section to my essay on Tayeb Salih, I find myself looking up at a framed piece of calligraphy and am immediately conscious that it gives me more than a hint of what Tayeb Salih was writing about. The piece of calligraphy — a phrase chosen by myself and then passed on to my friend the calligrapher, Munir Shaarani;

“By the Lord, show me things as they are.”

It suddenly struck me that this simple phrase summed up for me what much of Tayeb Salih’s writings were seeking to say to his reader.

This reputation rests largely on his novel which has been widely acclaimed, often to my mind for the wrong reason: Season of Migration to the North. 

Tayeb Salih has achieved a considerable reputation throughout the world, even in Egypt, where readers in general do not take well to non–Egyptians. This reputation rests largely on his novel which has been widely acclaimed, often to my mind for the wrong reason: Season of Migration to the North. The novel has for its main theme the meeting of East and West, and it is certainly the most subtle and penetrating of the novels that have been written in Arabic on the subject.

Tayeb Salih’s novel tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a brilliant young Sudanese student who is sent to complete his education in England, where he wreaks his revenge on the colonialism of which he is a product through the col-blooded seduction of various Englishwomen. At the same time, he brings about his own destruction, and in his search for a place in which to forget his past and build up some sort of constructive life, Mustafa Sa’eed settles in the village at the bend of the Nile. There, he marries and brings up a family. He is then drowned in one of the Nile’s floodings and his death brings about various tragic events that deeply affect the life of the village.

The main interest of Season of Migration to the North, however, is that it is a cornerstone in the composite picture of the village of Wad Hamid, which is Tayeb Salih’s real and — one hopes — continuing achievement.

In the West, Tayeb Salih’s work in translation has received critical acclaim from such papers as the Sunday Times, where the fiction critic voted Season of Migration to the North as the best novel of the year, and it received acclaim from such distinguished critics as Kingsley Amis and John Berger. Some of his writings have been translated into French, German, Italian, Russian, Polish, and Norwegian — and even into Hebrew. His meager output is due to the fact that the sole motivation he has for writing — he was one of the most immune of persons to the seductions of both wealth and fame — is the inborn necessity from time to time to commit certain things to paper. He has never indulged in journalism.

A naturally modest man, he was genuinely astonished to find that his writings have become required reading at various universities in the Arab world, also in the States.

Like a number of other writers — Hardy and Faulkner spring immediately to mind – Tayeb Salih has constructed, in the village of Wad Hamid, his own landscape and framework for his writings.

Like a number of other writers — Hardy and Faulkner spring immediately to mind — Tayeb Salih has constructed, in the village of Wad Hamid, his own landscape and framework for his writings. The village is no doubt a composite of his own and other villages existing in the area of Northern Sudan, an area with a civilisation that stretches as far back as Pharaonic times, and where a Christian kingdom ruled before the coming of Islam and to which, at various times, came Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Turks, and finally the British.

It is for this strip of land lying abreast the Nile that Tayeb Salih, living abroad as he has done for most of his adult life, felt such a strong nostalgia, and it was through this nostalgia that there was built up in him the desire to make something tangible and lasting of the separation from his homeland.

All too many Arab writers have looked to Western literature for fresh ideas to incorporate into their writing, adopting from time to time different political and philosophical attitudes: Marxist commitment and existentialism are two that continue to bedevil Arab fiction. If Tayeb Salih has taken anything from his wide reading of such writers as E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, and Joseph Conrad, it is an awareness of the importance of how to tell a story, of such technical problems in the art of writing fiction as the point of view. As for assistance with his material, of new ideas, he is in no need; one is ever conscious that he is in full control of it, that he speaks with complete authority.

Part one:

Denys Johnson-Davies on How Tayeb Salih Got His Start

Excerpts from Salih’s work:

In celebration of an 85th birthday