Mawsim al-hijra ila al-Shamal (1966), or The Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih is a novel split between two continents, two characters, and two identities. The unnamed narrator has just returned from England studying poetry. Feeling at home in his Sudanese village, he becomes unsettled by a stranger’s presence; the elusive and wise Mustafa Sa’eed, who slowly unravels his violent past in England as an economist and self-proclaimed “colonizer.” Nature, especially trees and the sea, become laden with symbolic significance throughout the novel, and come to represent both an ideal pre-colonial past, as well as an imperialist and industrialized present. Important to this complex vision of colonialism is Salih’s own cultural present, which is discussed in Saree S. Makdisi’s article, “The Empire Renarrated: Season of Migration to the North and the Reinvention of the Present.” In the novel, one gets the sense that there is a rift between an idealization of the past, and a demonization of the modernity, which is also true of Arab literature: “Modernity, in the Arab world, has been inextricably associated with Europe itself” (804). It seems that Salih is trying to combat this kind of affiliation by writing a novel in Arabic, since the novel structure is inherently Western. Makdisi notes that Salih often imitates oral traditions by addressing the reader as an audience. Furthermore, “the novel has many of the elements of the Arabic literary technique of mu’arada, which literally means opposition or contradiction, and which involves at least two writers, the first of whom writes a poem that the second will undo by writing along the same lines but reversing the meaning” (815), which Makdisi argues is an attempt to blur the lines between what is distinctly European, and what is distinctly Arab. The argument of this paper is that nature metaphors and imagery demonstrate the extent to which lines between the colonized and the colonizer become blurred. Though trees throughout the novel are seen as immutable, complicating this notion are the metaphors involving seeds, germs, roots, and fruit, as well as the ocean.
Within the novel, trees quickly come to symbolize stability and security. The narrator describes how a tree affects him upon his arrival back in his village: “I looked through the window at the palm tree standing in the courtyard of our house and I knew that all was still well with life. I looked at its strong straight trunk, at it roots that strike down into the ground, at the green branches hanging down loosely over its top, and I experienced a feeling of assurance. I felt not like a storm-swept feather but like that palm tree, a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose” (Salih 3-4). Throughout the book, the narrator clings to the idea of the tree in order to convince himself that the village has not changed. He views the date palm as a symbol of home as compared to England: “Over there is like here, neither better nor worse. But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard of our house has grown in our house and not in anyone else’s” (Salih 41). In this way, being true to one’s roots is what leads to a sort of wisdom that the narrator admires about the villagers: “They have learnt silence and patience from the river and from the trees” (107). It seems the narrator uses trees to build a wall in his mind around the unyielding, inherent morality of the village. As in his article “The Process of Individuation in al-Tayyeb Salih’s Novel Season of Migration to the North,” Muhammed Siddiq notes, “For the grandfather, for Mahjoub, for the village, and especially for the narrator at the beginning of the novel, everything that belongs to the village is, by that very fact, morally good; everything else, according to this parochial moral code, is never good enough even when it is irreproachable” (Siddiq 93). Throughout the novel, the narrator attempts to link his identity with nature, which demonstrates both his insecurities, but also a grasping for consciousness. Siddiq explains, “the narrator’s extension of the boundaries of human life and identity to the realm of nature as a means of attaining self-sufficiency and warding off unwelcome calls for change or broadening of his awareness” (90). It is clear that nature is used as a comfort to the narrator, which even comes to be associated with the people in his life. He seems to truly believe that he has not been changed; “No, I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field” (Salih 6).
The narrator often looks to his grandfather, Hajj Ahmad, as a consistent symbol of a simple and modest life before colonization. He contrasts natural fauna of England with that of the Sudan in order to demonstrate his grandfather’s humble way of life:
“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe. He is no towering oak tree with luxuriant branches growing in a land on which Nature has bestowed water and fertility, rather is he like sayal bushes in the deserts of the Sudan, thick of bark and sharp of thorn, defeating death because they ask so little of life” (62).
This is also evident from the way that the narrator describes his grandfather’s house as a living organism: “This large house is built neither of stone nor yet of red brick but of the very mud in which the wheat is grown, and it stands right at the edge of the field so that it is an extension of it. This is evident from the acacia and sunt bushes that are growing in the courtyard and from the plants that sprout from the very walls” (Salih 60). Siddiq makes the point that the interdependence of man and nature is highlighted in this quote (72). Despite his optimistic outlook, that he can be grounded like the roots of a tree or as immutable as his grandfather, his feelings of belonging are challenged and eventually unraveled through the character of Mustafa Sa’eed.
The narrator is clearly struggling with two selves: the half that has been changed by England and its culture, and the half that wants to remain purely Sudanese. Mustafa Sa’eed dislocates the narrator by challenging him as the England-educated authority; he even shakes the narrator’s faith in his grandfather. Mustafa seems to be complimenting the narrator’s grandfather when Mustafa comments that his grandfather lives a simple life, like a tree. But eventually this comes to perturb the narrator: “‘a tree grows simply and your grandfather has lived and will die simply.’ Just like that. But suppose he was making fun of my simplicity?” (42). This is a significant moment for it marks the unraveling of the perfect grandfather, unchangeable despite colonization’s influence.
The crux of the novel, however, revolves around the metaphor of the germ of the disease that is imperialism. At Mustafa Sa’eed’s trial, he is defended by the fact that he was not responsible for the women’s deaths, but that these atrocities were caused “by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago” (29). Later Mustafa expands this point, and agrees with his lawyer in his own words:
“They imported to us 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” (Salih 79).
On a basic level, the seed of colonization was sown in England “a thousand years ago” when the Romans conquered the English. A thousand years later, and England had colonized dozens of countries from every continent. Thus colonization as a seed or germ introduces the complexities of the allegorical reading of nature in the novel. But it also comes to reflect Mustafa’s Sa’eed’s sexual encounters with women in the novel. He sees himself as a colonizer through his abusive relationships with four women, each in which he uses their concepts of the Other by constructing his apartment as a exotic space to play on their orientalism. In “An Exploration of the Use of Colonial Discourse Within Mustafa Sa’eed’s Interracial Relationships in Season of Migration to the North,” Danielle Tran discusses the how Mustafa, “along with the notion of exoticism and other stereotyped sexual characteristics connected with the African male, [his] image [becomes] fuelled with sexual potency” (Tran 6). This increased sense of sexuality becomes Mustafa’s greatest weapon: “My bedroom was a spring-well of sorrow, the germ of a fatal disease” (30). Obviously Mustafa Sa’eed on some level represents the part of postcolonialism that wants to strike back, to colonize the colonizer. So though trees can come to represent stability and cultural purism, seeds also come to represent the evils of colonialism, and the vengeance of Mustafa’s reverse colonialism.
Nature & Cultural Hybridity in Season of Migration to the North (excerpt)
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York Review of Books, 2009. Print.
Ashcroft, Bill. Post-Colonial Transformation. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Makdisi, Saree S. "The Empire Renarrated: "Season of Migration to the North" and the Reinvention of the Present." Critical Inquiry
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Geesey, Patricia. "Cultural Hybridity and Contamination in Tayeb Salih's Mawsim al-hijra Ila al-Shamal (Season of Migration to the
North)." Research in African Literatures 28.3 (1997): 128-40. JSTOR. Indiana University Press. Web.
Siddiq, Muhammed. "The Process of Individuation in Al-Tayyeb Salih's Novel Season of Migration To the North." Journal of Arabic
Literature 9.1 (1978): 67-104. JSTOR. Web.
Tran, Danielle. "An Exploration of the Use of Colonial Discourse Within Mustafa Sa'eed's Interracial Relationships in Season of
Migration to the North." ESharp 16 (2010): 1-20. Web.