Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih (1929-2009) would have been 91 today. He was born in a village in north Sudan and originally intended to work in agriculture:
He 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.
But the most recent of his works to appear in translation is a very different work, as it is a nonfictional one.
1. Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way, translated by Adil Babikir, appeared in 2020 from Banipal Books.
From the publisher’s description:
With humour, wit and erudite poetic insights, Salih shows another side in this affectionate memoir of his exuberant and irrepressible friend Mansi Yousif Bastawrous, sometimes known as Michael Joseph and sometimes as Ahmed Mansi Yousif. Playing Hardy to Salih’s Laurel Mansi takes centre stage among memorable 20th-century arts and political figures, including Samuel Beckett, Margot Fonteyn, Omar Sharif, Arnold Toynbee, Richard Crossman and even the Queen, but always with Salih’s poet “Master” al-Mutanabbi ready with an adroit comment.
You can read a sample at Amazon or have a short excerpt sent to your table.
2. Season of Migration to the North, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
This is Salih’s most well-known work. You can read an excerpt on NPR that opens:
It was, gentlemen, after a long absence — seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe — that I returned to my people.
3. The Wedding of Zein, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
The novella Wedding of Zein takes place in the same village on the upper Nile where Season of Migration to the North is set. From the book:
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.
4. Bandarshah, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies
From the novel:
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 story:
“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.
6. “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.