‘Dear Tayeb Salih’

This letter originally appeared in the debut issue of ArabLit Quarterly: Beginnings, published in the Fall of 2018:

By Sofia Samatar

It was after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying and working in the United States—that I returned to Africa.

Last time it was to visit family in Kenya. Last time I was studying frantically for my PhD exams. This time it’s Morocco, to visit friends, it’s summer, a villa outside Essaouira. This time I’m writing a letter to you.

Dear Sir. Respected Sir. Respected Hajj. Dear Uncle. Dear Tayeb Salih.

What would I say to you, given the chance? What happened to your final novel, that cycle you predicted would run to four or five volumes, of which you published only two? Why didn’t you complete it? Is there a manuscript somewhere? How do you feel about academic interest in your work? Do you regard scholars as colleagues or parasites? Do you find their interpretations of your work useful or hollow? I mean, for example, someone like me.

There’s no point in asking a loved one, “Why do I love you?” The person is likely to feel uncomfortable, even attacked, as if the question conceals a criticism. Books, however, invite this question. You open them, reopen them, analyze every line. Literature is the great field of the exploration of love. I’m finding out that you can spend your whole life doing this, even with a single book, such as the novel Season of Migration to the North, and that unlike with a loved one, these incessant questions won’t translate to “I don’t love you,” but “I do, I do.” And so the word “criticism” has two meanings.

That graduate seminar on modernity. It was the second time I’d read your book. I said I thought that in writing Season of Migration to the North, you were on the trail of evil. My professor said, “Maybe he’s on the trail of love.”

Because in your novel love and evil are found in the very same place. They are in the flesh. It’s a novel of yearning and devastation. Those white, wide-open thighs, the thighs of a woman toward whom Mustafa Saeed, your brilliant creation, goes helpless, crazed. He will plunge a knife into her heart. And she will say yes, destroy me, kill me, only come with me, let us die together. This English woman, white, like the north. “I have redefined the so-called East-West relationship as essentially one of conflict,” you famously said, “while it had previously been treated in romantic terms.”

No romance. Half-finished buildings along a sandy road. Stacks of iron pipes, gas canisters, oil cans, hoses. From the days when I lived in your country, in Sudan, in South Sudan, when it was still part of your country, I recognize this particular ugliness. It’s the ugliness of a hurried modernity. Everything’s on the outside. There hasn’t been time to put anything away. This gaunt cement factory, looming, its smell of sulfur. Bales of wire. A man asleep, as if felled, in the narrow shade of a pole. I am immune to the charms of the pink-orange walls, the carpets drying in bright hues, the storks nesting on the top of a minaret, immune to the tales of Mustafa Saeed, the yarns he spun to entice British women into his bed, in the tradition of Othello, the Moor, who wooed Desdemona with words. I remember so many hot car rides just like this, in Sudan, in Egypt. The trees under graying nets. The stones. The plains of dust. I am fed up with the exotic, as you must have been, when you wrote your novel of those who recognize their own faces without pleasure.

Not with pleasure. Instead, with a kind of chill. A mild tremor. As if feverish.

I call this a bitter, endless love. I call this fearful affinity. The way, in your novel, the characters look for themselves in the eyes of others and find themselves and are appalled. Mustafa Saeed sees himself reflected in the eyes of foreign women as a savage, an ape, a god, and he laughs and kills. The unnamed narrator sees himself reflected in Mustafa, for, in his passivity as a privileged male, he too is a killer of women. And I—I see myself everywhere, in your intense reading of Shakespeare, Conrad, and Freud, your desire to meld these voices with the poetry of Abu Nuwas, to blend them with nomads’ songs and the open sesame of a folktale, not seamlessly but choppily, as if in a welter of blood. I see myself in your fragments, the broken sentences and the echoes, the repetitions, your narrator struggling, drowning halfway between north and south, impossible to resolve these contradictions, to live this way, amidst these conflicting demands, these currents drawing away and pulling home, the longing to return and the wanderlust you call a germ, an infection, a seasonal debility the narrator cannot bear, and the reverberations grow into a piercingly loud roarand a vivid brightness in which everything is obliterated.

A flash of lightning. Bottom of the vortex. For an instant, total absence. End of all the oppositions.

When I went to Sudan for the first time, to the north, to Atbara, not far from where you grew up, the moon was the brightest it had been for a hundred years.

I am trying to approach what I want to say. I find myself bogged down, hampered by twenty years of reading and writing about your book, by five years now of teaching it to university students. I’m getting tangled up in my own lectures. How sad this is—that in honing the skills of the critic, meant for work in the field of love, one should be trained out of certain expressions of feeling. I want to say how I felt when I read that you were inspired by the story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, the last person to be hanged in Cardiff. He was a Somali merchant seaman married to a Welsh woman. He was accused of slitting another white woman’s throat. It was 1952. Police officers told him he would die for the woman’s murder “whether he did it or not.” In court, he was described as a “semi-civilized savage.” He refused the offer of an interpreter, as Mustafa Saeed, your character and Mahmood Mattan’s shadow, refused to defend himself in an English court. But unlike Mustafa Saeed, who really did murder his wife, Mahmood Hussein Mattan was innocent. His wife Laura fought ceaselessly to have his name cleared and his body humanely buried. She won her case in 1998.

His gravestone reads: KILLED BY INJUSTICE.

Everything I couldn’t say in a lecture, a dissertation. That I gravitated toward your book because my father was Somali, because I felt that Somalia was in many ways akin to Sudan, and I found that you, a Sudanese, were inspired by a Somali story. That this gave me a mild tremor, a kind of chill. That looking at a picture of Mahmood Hussein Mattan online, a smudged photograph of him smiling with his friends, I recognized every line of their faces, their heads. Their male camaraderie. I could picture myself entering with the tea tray. A feeling of exclusion, yes, but even exclusions, when experienced early enough, have the power to signal home. In this image I glimpsed my bones. Had the ground split open before me and revealed an afreet, his eyes shooting out flames, I would not have been more terrified.

The immense moon suspended above the river. A radiant zero in which everything is consumed.

And this room where I write. In Morocco, in this villa in the sands. The dark couches with their ornate appliqué, like wine-colored filigree. The splitting, embroidered cushions, the cracked wood of the glass-topped tables, the colossal television reading Aucun signal. Everywhere a sense of faded glory, of decay. Outside, in the rose-colored courtyard haunted by doves, in a place so charming it recalls a thousand and one orientalist fairytales, green liquid bakes in the bowl of the silent fountain. The landlady, we suspect, has fallen suddenly on hard times. She abandoned the house so quickly, our friends told us, that when they moved in they found one of the bedsheets covered with her hair. When they complained of weeds in the swimming pool, she dumped in a box of disinfectant powder. We swim with the kids in this chemical bath while the wind whips the cypresses. Did I say no pleasure? Did I say no romance? But your book is steeped in pleasure and romance. A romance of failure. A pleasure that’s urgent, circular, airless, obsessive, corrosive.

Here’s what I would ask you, given the chance: what of the children? What could a child represent, within the terms of your novel, who was born from the union of Mustafa Saeed and his English wife, from the place where love meets the evil of colonial history? Othello and Desdemona had no children. Mustafa Saeed has children, but only with his second, Sudanese wife. In the letter he writes before his mysterious disappearance in a flood, he begs the narrator to protect his sons from wanderlust. He wants them to grow up rooted, not like migratory birds wracked by every storm. The narrator has a daughter he calls Amal. Her name means Hope and she is his hope for the future of Sudan, for a new generation that will build a land without poverty. But there are no mixed children in your novel. They seem impossible. It’s hard enough to be African and Arab, like your Sudanese characters, it’s cruel enough to be cursed with desire for Western flesh and literature without actually bearing that conflict in the blood. A child of mixed parentage could never be saved from wanderlust. It would be Hopeless. Or perhaps it’s just unimaginable, in your book—what comes after the piercing roar, the vivid brightness, the explosion of contradictions. I mean, for example, someone like me.

Like me, or like the three sons of Mahmood Hussein Mattan. Or like the three daughters you had with your Scottish wife.

When I read the end of your novel, that instant of annihilation, I always think of Frantz Fanon, the father of two mixed children. How he writes, in Black Skin, White Masks, that there is a place where methods devour themselves. He says: “I should like to start from there.”

I, too, should like to start from there, from the moment after the collapse. From everything I couldn’t say. I couldn’t say, because it’s too awkward, indecorous, embarrassing to bring up the white partners and mixed offspring of great black intellectuals. Merely to mention the existence of these relationships is like saying, “Why did he love her?” It feels like a criticism, an attack. A dumb attack, too—so crudely essentialist. It leads to irritation, a heat underneath the skin, like a low-grade fever.

Perhaps it’s best not to speak of such things. But Mahmood Hussein Mattan had three children, and the middle son, Omar, ended his story in water like an uncanny echo of your Mustafa Saeed. It was 2003. He was fifty-three years old. It gives me pain. It was Caithness, Scotland. His body was found with a bottle of whisky nearby. The cause of death was drowning while under the influence of alcohol, though it’s not known whether this was accident or suicide. It hurts me, it hurts me obscurely. Omar Mattan was a painter, a loner, an alcoholic. He knew the pangs of wanderlust. A friend said it was typical of him to drift off for long periods. He told his family he was going to Ireland, but he died on a Scottish beach. Before the police identified him, they called him “the man in black.” 

I want you to write me a story called “The Man in Black.” There, that’s it—that’s what I would ask you, given the chance. Write me this story. It’s about a woman. Let’s call her, for example, Safia. A conference has taken her to the north of Scotland. It’s March, still cold, but she can’t sleep. She leaves her hotel. She walks on the beach. There she meets a man in black. He’s drunk, stumbling over the rocks. She reaches out and clasps him by the arm. What do they say there, in the sound of waves? I don’t know. You have to write it. I can’t hear. There is a blank. I only see them sitting down together in the darkness, huddled, shivering like birds blown off course. No flock.

I call this a fearful affinity. A bitter, endless love. I do, I do.

In 1997 I wrote my master’s thesis on your novel. I wanted to understand its effect on me, but though I studied it very hard, I couldn’t articulate its power in a satisfying way. More than a decade later, I went back to school and wrote my dissertation on all your novels. My theme was the function of fantasy. I hoped, with one blow, to understand both my passion for your writing and my attraction to strange, fantastical fictions. In the end, I still didn’t understand either of these things. In 2017 I realized with horror that, after twenty years, I had not published a single paper on Season of Migration to the North, so I remedied this with an essay that will appear in a journal next year. By the time I managed to do this, you had passed away, and so had your virtuoso translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, and so had my father. I’m chronically belated. I decided it would be my last academic essay. And still I have not analyzed my love with any precision or authority. And still I teach your novel every spring. I succumb to it as if to a seasonal inflammation. My relationship to my own lectures is viral. I teach because I’m infected. Or, perhaps, because I haven’t reached the point where methods devour themselves. Tell me—did you reach that point, at the turning of the river? Is that why you stopped writing novels, why your last work remains unfinished, a series cut off in the middle, breaking into void?

The airport in Marrakesh. It was the day of my return. The customs officer, examining my belongings, showed interest only in the suitcase full of books. He began to page through them. Among them were several blank notebooks, recently purchased in Venice, the Moor’s city. When he held up a page in fluorescent light it flashed with arid splendor, like sheet lightning or a rare lunar event. “It’s empty,” he frowned. Only one excuse, one justification for such glittering vacancy. “I’m a writer,” I said.

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her work has won several awards, including the World Fantasy Award. She teaches African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction at James Madison University.