Season of Migration to the North

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Season of Migration to the North

by Tayeb Salih


A novel set in the Sudan in the 1960s, with flashbacks to England in the 1930s; published in Arabic (as Mawsim al-hijra ila al-shamal) in 1966, in English in 1969.


Two Arabic men who have studied in England find their lives intertwining in mysterious and catastrophic ways.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Tayeb Salih is among the most respected of contemporary writers in the Arabic world, and perhaps the best-known writer from the Sudan. Not especially prolific, he has produced four novels and a book of short stories in his decades as a writer. He was born in 1929 to a middle-class family in the western part of the Sudan. After studying at Khartoum University and working as a teacher, he ventured abroad, taking a degree in international relations at the University of London. Since the early 1950s he has lived mainly in Europe, working in various bureaucracies, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and returning to the Sudan only for visits. Nevertheless, his ties to the Arabic world remain the key fact of his writing; not only does he concern himself with the condition of the Arab in the modern world, but his works are always published first in the Arabic press. In Season of Migration to the North he explores the reassimilation into Sudanese society of two former migrants attempting to make a place for themselves in the fictional village of Wad Hamid.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Sudan: imperial heritage

The modern history of the area now called the Sudan has been shaped by two great imperial forces of the past—Egypt and England. Its northern half, a desert split by the fertile Nile Valley, was enfolded by the vast embrace of Islam that spread through this part of the world in the fifteenth century. To this day, the northern half of the country, which includes more than two-thirds of the population, is Arabic-speaking and predominantly Arab; in the southern Sudan, Muslims live alongside Christians as well as those who continue to subscribe to traditional beliefs. In 1820 the Egyptian ruler Muhammad ’Ali invaded the Sudan. By 1826 Egypt had begun establishing administrative control from the new town of Khartoum, but Turkish Ottoman control over Egypt prevented it from reaping the full benefits of its victories in the Sudan for some years. By 1885 Egypt controlled most of the modern Sudan. Although Egyptians and Sudanese were fellow Muslims, the period of domination that followed was neither peaceful nor pleasant. The majority of Sudanese, still devout Muslims, were shocked by what they saw as the laxity and corruption of their foreign masters. The Egyptians, for their part, were more interested in taxing the Sudanese, and in exploiting the rich herds of elephants in the south of the country, than in being effective imperial administrators.

In 1881 conflict turned into open revolt. A Sudanese holy man named Muhammad Ahmad declared a jihad, a holy war, against the Egyptians. The Sudanese were not only outnumbered, but also faced troops armed with the latest English weapons; nevertheless, they managed to drive the Egyptians out, winning independence for the Sudan from 1885 to 1898.


In a speech delivered at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon in 1980, Salih muses on the influence his native country has on his writing. He notes that, before the Muslim invasion of the late Middle Ages, the country had been predominantly Christian for a thousand years, yet the Muslim religious revolution was almost completely peaceful. He notes also that his home village is halfway between the Arab center of the country, and its southern, largely Nubian people. Speaking to a population that, in 1980s Lebanon, was on the verge of cataclysmic ethnic and religious violence, he sums up the accepting nature of life in his homeland: “The type of Islam in the Sudan, even now, is not ideological, is not fanatical …I believe that if I have contributed anything to modern Arabic literature, it is in my constant plea for toleration, and this I owe entirely to being a Sudanese” (Salih in Amyuni, p. 13).

In the longer term, however, the period of Egyptian rule served mainly to introduce the Sudan to its second imperial master: England. England, which had been closely allied with Egypt since the beginning of the nineteenth century, disliked the prospect of a wholly independent country adjoining the critical Eastern Mediterranean, and their concern may have been justified in view of the fact that independent Sudan was engaged in destabilizing wars for most of its 13 years. In 1896 an Anglo-Egyptian army marched into the Sudan. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, the Sudanese suffered about 11,000 dead and 16,000 wounded (Holt, p. 240). The Anglo-Egyptian army’s machine gunners had slaughtered the Sudanese, ending their “reconquest” of Sudan. From this point until the 1950s, the Sudan was ruled jointly by Egypt and England. Egypt, a de facto colony of Britain, partnered with it in control of the Sudan. The legal arrangement was called “condominion”; in effect it gave Egypt colonial control over the Sudan, with the rights of levying taxes, arbitrating justice, and the like. Since Egypt’s independence was purely nominal, and the country was for all real purposes dominated by England, the Sudan was in effect a colony of a colony. Power and privilege flowed along a predictable route from Khartoum (the Sudanese capital) to Cairo to London. This is the route that the novel’s Mustafa Sa’eed follows in his pursuit of education and advancement.

Affiliation with Great Britain brought the same disadvantages and advantages it brought to other British colonies in Africa. The British set up schools and hospitals, built dams, and introduced policies and institutions that gave rise to a wealthy elite in the native population; however, these benefits did not outweigh, for the Sudanese, the humiliation that accompanied foreign control. Fortunately, their route to independence was peaceful and bloodless. First came Egypt’s independence. In 1951 Egypt voted to abrogate the treaties that had made it a virtual colony of the United Kingdom. Egypt, in other words, reasserted its sovereignty. The changes in its constitution during this process allowed the Sudanese people to sever their ties to their northern neighbor.

The Sudan became an independent nation on January 1, 1956. As Salih’s novel hints, however, the legacy of British colonialism was not so easy to erase as the power’s political presence had been.

Women of Islam

The Muslim understanding of women’s place in the world is no less confused and contradictory than the Christian conception of it. Just as Christians both revile Eve for man’s fall in the Garden of Eden and respect Mary as the mother of Jesus, Muslims have traditionally celebrated women’s piety and procreative power, while regarding them as subordinate to men in the affairs of this world. Islam ideology does not offer a unified, unvarying vision of what an ideal woman should do; instead, the religion expects widely varying traits in its female adherents. On one hand, they should be chaste, subservient, and obedient. On the other hand, the prophet Muhammad claimed that they are more pious then men, and that a good wife is the key to a man’s salvation.

Despite the prejudiced belief, common in Europe from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, that Muhammad denied that women have souls, Islam considers men and women spiritual equals. Both are bound to exactly the same spiritual obligations, and the righteous of both sexes will taste the fruits of paradise. However, this fundamental equality does not prevent a strictly ordered hierarchy of genders in this world, with men the more powerful gender in almost every respect in the mid-1900s. Traditionally, men ruled governments and families; they conducted all important trade and received a much more detailed, comprehensive education. Women were almost always confined to the home of their father or husband, and were legally under a man’s control, in most cases, from the cradle to the grave. In traditional households the Islamic custom of purdah, or seclusion of women, strictly controlled which men a woman would be allowed to interact with, and under what conditions. Theoretically, women were never to be alone in public.

Submission, however, constitutes only half the story of women in traditional Islamic thought. Even as the Qur’an commands women to obey, it orders men to rule justly. Men did not possess unchecked dominion over women; a mistreated wife could obtain a divorce with relative ease. The Qur’an also elevates women in another way; it honors marriage above all other states, and (within a marriage) praises the power of a virtuous wife. “Treat [women] with kindness,” says the Qur’an, “for even if you dislike them, it may be that you dislike a thing which Allah has meant for your own abundant good” (Qur’an in Bouhdiba, p. 7). In other words, a woman can be crucial to a man’s spiritual life—even if he refuses to acknowledge this truth. In the hadith (the collection of his sayings as recorded by his followers), Muhammad asserts that a pious wife represents a greater treasure for a man than gold and silver.

Islam’s conception of women created mixed options for individual Muslim women. Social structure kept them, as it kept European women, largely confined to the home, working in domestic occupations. However, this subjugation was tempered by reason, by economic necessity in lower-class families whose females had to work, and by the underlying spiritual equality of man and woman. Even some aspects of Muslim law that seem especially sexist, such as its approval of polygamy, or, more exactly, polygyny, have been in some ways of a benefit to women. Most Muslim countries that allow polygyny require the husband to gain the consent of his current wives before wedding again; and, as Wad Rayyes discovers in Season of Migration to the North, wives are as free to join together against the husband as to become rivals. Women also benefit from Islam’s relatively easy divorce laws. The procedure for divorce does favor males—a man can get a divorce just by renouncing his wife in front of two male witnesses, while a woman must present evidence of mistreatment or neglect. Even with this limitation, though, the unhappy bride still has great latitude for improving her situation.

In sum, Islam as a cultural practice offers both freedoms and restrictions for women. It is telling that neither of the principal Sudanese women in Salih’s novel fits the Western stereotype of the meek, veiled, and silent Arab woman; she refuses to suffer male domination silently, even if the


The title of Salih’s novel raises the issue of migration. In the course of the novel, the narrator migrates to Khartoum for work. The two central figures in the book have also immigrated—to England for extended periods. In fact, migration has haunted the Sudan in various ways both during the Anglo-Egyptian condominion and since. Beginning in the period of British dominance, the best educated and most highly skilled Sudanese were likely to leave their own country, with its struggling, primarily agricultural economy, for promising opportunities abroad. This trend, called “brain drain,” has worried Sudanese officials for decades. During colonialism, the most likely destination was England itself. The English created in the Sudan an educational system on English lines; school was conducted in English as soon as possible, and success in learning English was the crucial test for educational advancement. Thus, it only made sense for a Sudanese scholar who had reached the pinnacle of education in his home country to travel to England for further studies. This is what Mustafa does; and, had fate not intervened, he might never have returned to his homeland. Beginning in the early 1970s, a different type of brain drain occurred. Instead of England, well-trained Sudanese professionals sought employment in the better-developed Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. As they came from a predominantly Muslim country, they felt at home and were perfectly welcome on the Arabian peninsula; however, the net effect of their departure has been to exacerbate the Sudan’s economic woes.

only path to freedom and self-expression entails murder and suicide.

Islamic sexuality

Just as many Westerners have misinterpreted the Qur’an and misunderstood the Islamic conception of women, so have many misinterpreted the Qur’anic conception of paradise. Muhammad’s revelation that sexual gratification forms part of the reward for the faithful in the afterlife has seemed strange to many Westerners, raised on the Christian tendency to see sex as sinful, if not coequal with original sin itself. On the other hand, in Muslim eyes, it is the Christian equation of sex and filth that seems odd. “Islam in no way tries to depreciate, still less to deny, the sexual. On the contrary, it attributes a sublime significance to the sexual and invests it with such a transcendental quality that any trace of guilt is removed from it” (Bouhdiba, p. viii). Islam correlates the love between a man and a woman to God’s love for humankind; indeed, God’s creation of the universe is recreated in the human act of love.

Islam and Christianity both demand that sexual urges be expressed lawfully, but differ in the emphasis they place on this requirement. In Christianity, Paul’s famous words—“Better to marry than to burn [with lust]” (1 Cor. 7:9)—present matrimony as a safety valve for people not holy enough to live celibately. The Muslim situation is quite different. Muslims must conduct their sexual lives properly, and the stakes are high: the punishment for adultery can be as severe as whipping or even death by stoning. But such severe punishments are rooted in the very fact that sexual life is vital to the community. In fact, Islam does not place so high a value on celibacy as Christianity—most of the major religious figures in Islamic history were married. Islam holds that husband and wife (or wives) are the building blocks of the whole social structure and, again, the re-enacters of God’s grand design. Deviations from the traditional, God-given pattern signal underlying moral perversions that must be eradicated absolutely. In other words, seeking sex outside marriage does not signify simply giving in to one’s physical desires; rather, it indicates that one has strayed, fundamentally and completely, from the path ordered by God.

This direct linkage of morality to sexual behavior is crucial in Salih’s novel, which explores how psychological maladies can be expressed in sexual compulsions. However, Salih also presents a challenge to the Muslim assumption that marriage sanctifies carnal relations. The two acts of cataclysmic violence that punctuate the text occur, not in adultery or fornication, but rather in the hallowed married bed.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Season of Migration to the North intertwines the lives of two Sudanese men: an unnamed narrator, and an older man—Mustafa Sa’eed—whom the narrator encounters in his native village. The novel is structured as a type of duet. While the two men are at dinner one night, Mustafa tells his story, which takes over the narrative for a few chapters. After this digression, the novel returns to the protagonist’s story, but it is now concerned with Mustafa, and Mustafa’s voice can be heard periodically for the reminder of the book—in flashbacks, in isolated utterances, and in the diaries that the narrator finds in Mustafa’s study. The two men share little, except for the crucial fact that both have studied abroad; from this shared experience grows the brief friendship that allows Salih to explore the dynamics of sex, power, and selfhood in the context of colonialism.

The novel opens as the narrator and protagonist returns to his native village after seven years in England. The villagers welcome him home, and the narrator notices a stranger among them—no minor anomaly, since the village is far too small and insignificant for anyone to want to move there. Furthermore, the narrator notices that this newcomer, a man in his late middle age, asks no questions about the Christian world, and only smiles at the narrator’s reports of life in England.

His curiosity piqued, the narrator asks around and discovers that the stranger is Mustafa Sa’eed, a man who came to the village a few years back, buying land and eventually marrying the daughter of a local man. He is polite, but distant; no one knows what his past holds, and no one is excessively curious.

The narrator is interested, however, and so readily accepts when Mustafa invites him to dinner. Without getting to know anything about the older man’s past, he discovers that Mustafa is indeed highly competent, disciplined, and well-respected among the other members of the village. It is not until Mustafa is drawn, against his will, into a drinking session, that the narrator begins to learn the truth, in a most disconcerting way. Once drunk, Mustafa, whom the narrator has no reason to think is anything other than a simple farmer, begins reciting poetry …in English! “I tell you that had the ground suddenly split open and revealed an afreet standing before me, his eyes shooting out flames, I would not have been more terrified. All of a sudden there came to me the ghastly, nightmarish feeling that we—the men grouped together in that room—were not a reality but merely some illusion” (Salih, Season of Migration to the North, p. 15). Now Mustafa has, inadvertently perhaps, revealed that he has depths of experience that the narrator had not guessed; it is only a matter of time before he must explain himself.

The narrator does not have long to wait. Two nights later, Mustafa invites the young man over to explain his past. In a long flashback, Mustafa does just that. He was born in Khartoum and raised by a mother from whom he is inexplicably distant. From an early age, he felt he was basically bereft of emotion; he was much better at analyzing than actually feeling. When the British arrived and set up schools, he was among the few who volunteered to attend (with his mother’s passive acceptance). He excelled in all areas of learning; he grew up by following the route from Khartoum (the periphery of the British empire), to Cairo (Britain’s headquarters in the Middle East), to London itself. All the while Mustafa was learning but not feeling, excelling yet taking no joy in his excellence.

After describing his arrival in London, Mustafa’s narrative becomes more fragmentary and disjointed. He found London in the exuberant mood that followed World War I. In Bohemian circles he became a much sought-after exotic specimen. He pursued studies in politics and economics, meanwhile preoccupying himself with a very different quest: the pursuit of white women. He describes, in clinical detail, his methods of seduction and the bedroom that he decorated to resemble a harem playpen.

My bedroom was a graveyard that looked onto a garden; its curtains were pink and had been chosen with care, the carpeting was of a warm greenness, the bed spacious, with swansdown cushions. There were small electric lights, red, blue, violet, placed in certain corners; on the walls were large mirrors, so that when I slept with a woman it was as if I slept with a whole harem simultaneously.

(Season of Migration, p. 30)

To conquer his lover, Mustafa traded on his foreign appeal; he found most of his conquests among the culturally adventurous, those eager to taste the East by loving an Arab. Mustafa himself remained untouched, unperturbed through all of it. For him, sex was a kind of compulsion, alienated from any kind of emotion. It was, perhaps, a kind of experiment; he called his bed an operating table on which he manipulated women into sleeping with him. Even as he tells the story, he expresses no remorse for his deeds, despite the fact that three women—Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour—killed themselves because he did not return their love.

However, it is not the women who killed themselves who end Mustafa’s story; that place belongs rather to the woman whom he killed. Jean Morris was the only woman who rejected Mustafa; she called him ugly, a savage bull. He pursued her for three years; sometimes she fled, sometimes she allowed herself to be caught. At last they wed. “I am tired of your pursuing me and of my running before you,” she declared. “Marry me” (Season of Migration, p. 33). Mustafa does not explain, but the marriage led to tragedy; Jean Morris died by the knife, and Mustafa served seven years in prison because it was he who stabbed her.

Thus ends Mustafa’s retelling of his life. In the next chapter the narrator recounts that, later that summer, Mustafa disappears. His body is never found, but everyone assumes that he drowned in the flooding of the Nile, which was especially strong that summer. The narrator continues his life, taking a bureaucratic post in Khartoum, but Mustafa’s memory haunts him. On a train ride, he meets a retired bureaucrat who went to school with the brilliant scholar and murderer; at a dinner party, he hears various (erroneous) tales about what happened to this man who was “the first Sudanese to marry an Englishwoman” (Season of Migration, p. 55). And the narrator has a more immediate reason to remember Mustafa: the dead man’s will makes him the guardian of Mustafa’s two sons and (by association) his attractive widow. The way the narrator fills (or rather, fails to fill) this trust shapes the second half of the novel.

It begins innocently enough. On one of his periodic visits to his home village, the narrator overhears a conversation involving his own grandfather, Bint Mahzoud (an often married old woman), Wad Rayyes (a frequently married old man), and a villager named Hajj Ahmed. Their conversation drifts to sex. Readers with any stereotyped beliefs about the modesty of Muslim women will be surprised by the frank earthiness of Bint Mahzoud, who describes her sexual past without demur in front of the men in her company. However, from the perspective of plot, the most important information to come out of this long discussion is that Wad Rayyes, an engineer with an insatiable taste for variety, wants to marry Mustafa’s widow, Hosna Bint Mahmoud.

This situation falls between the cracks of Muslim jurisprudence. As a woman, Hosna is presumably under the direction of some man or other; the question is, which man? Mustafa left his sons in the narrator’s care, but said nothing about his wife; still, the villagers assume that the narrator will be the one who decides Hosna’s fate. Her father endorses the idea of marriage to Wad Rayyes. Mahzoud, the narrator’s closest friend, opines that the narrator should marry Hosna himself. However, when he asks Hosna what she wants, she is firm: ’“After Mustafa Sa’eed,’ she answered immediately, with a decisiveness that astonished me, ’I shall go to no man’” (Season of Migration, p. 96). The narrator does not find a resolution; he simply goes back to his job in Khartoum.

He returns to another tragedy. While he is away, Hosna’s father forces her to marry Wad Rayyes. Hosna refuses, however, to sleep with her new husband. The tension builds, week by week. Finally, Wad Rayyes attempts to rape her, but she stabs him to death, then kills herself. The villagers, shocked by this terrible atrocity, bury the two bodies and determine never to speak of the crime. Even the narrator is rebuffed in his attempts to find out what has happened, until he persuades Bint Mahzoud to tell him the whole story.

After this, the novel enters its final phase. The narrator visits the now-empty home of Mustafa and Hosna, determined to explore the locked room where Mustafa kept his personal belongings. There, he discovers various artifacts of Mustafa’s life: his library, photographs, letters. He reads cryptic comments on scraps of paper. Finally, Mustafa’s voice takes over; it is unclear whether this voice is something the narrator remembers from long ago, or if he finds a diary. At any rate Mustafa recounts his tortured marriage to Jean Morris, her flirtations and his infidelities, their mutually destructive manipulations. The story moves inexorably to its conclusion. On a brittle December night, he walks home from work as if in a dream, finds her in bed, and stabs her. Their last words to each other are “I love you” (Season of Migration, p. 165).

The novel ends with a brief scene. The narrator leaves Mustafa’s house and jumps into the Nile, caught up in an existential crisis. He is on the verge of death, and willing to accept it, when he realizes, “I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge” (Season of Migration, p. 168). The last image of the novel is of the narrator screaming for help from the middle of the river.


When the British conquered a country, they brought not only guns and judges, but also their culture; in fact, the British made claims about their superior culture to justify their conquests. Shakespeare, one of Britain’s most compelling claims to a superior culture, became an important secondary symbol of British colonialism. However, Third World intellectuals never patently rejected Shakespeare. Having received a Western-style education, and recognizing Shakespeare’s artistic brilliance, they were heavily influenced by the great Renaissance playwright.

For Africa in general, and the Arab world in particular, Othello was the central Shakespearean text, for the obvious reason that it dealt most directly with the worlds of the Middle East and North Africa. It was the first Shakespeare play performed In the Middle East—in Turkey in the 1870s—and it continues to preoccupy Arab and African intellectuals to this day. Written at the inception of Britain’s colonial adventures (around the time of its first American colonies), the play presents an early European view of the nonwhite world. Othello is a noble Moor, a valiant soldier, and an able commander embraced by the European culture of Venice …until he falls in love with, and marries, the white Desdemona. Immediately after the marriage, he is misled by the villainous lago into believing that his wife is unfaithful. lago plays on Othello’s internalized sense of racial inferiority; the villain makes it seem as if Desdemona could not possibly love a black man. Finally consumed by rage, Othello smothers his wife with a pillow and then kills himself—a recursion into violence presented in the play as a natural tendency in hot-blooded Africans. Shakespeare’s play presents a Moor who combines the greatest and the basest in human nature. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Othello reveals a European tendency to romanticize Africa, and to view its inhabitants through the lens of racial difference. It is this aspect of the play that Salih’s Season of Migration to the North explores when the novel refers to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

One critic has placed Season of Migration to the North in the context of muaradah, an Arabic literary tradition in which one text is produced as a response to an earlier text, reversing and questioning the meaning of the original: “It is a re-reading of Shakespeare’s Othello, a restatement of the tragedy, a reshaping of the tragic figure of the Moor’. (Har-low, p. 75), That is, Othello, while sympathetic to the Moor, is nevertheless told from a European perspective. Salih’s novel tells a similar tale but from inside the African culture that produced the Moors.

The Othello question

No one who is familiar with Shakespeare can read Salih’s novel without thinking of Othello. This tragedy concerns a Moor (an inhabitant from North Africa) who marries a white woman, eventually becomes insanely jealous, and kills her in her bed. The tragedy of Mustafa and Jean Morris mirrors this situation by Salih’s conscious intent; at several key points, he has Mustafa or another character refer to Othello, drawing attention to the parallel. Nor are the echoes a simple matter of literary influence or clever referencing; the interplay between these two tragic Moors strikes at the very heart of Salih’s great theme, the confrontation of vastly different cultures.

Othello is referred to in several instances in Salih’s novel. One of the women who will eventually kill herself for Mustafa begins by asking his race; he replies, “I am like Othello, Arab-African” (Season of Migration, p. 38). When Mustafa is put on trial for murdering Jean Morris, his own mind circulates around references to the play. His attorney asserts, “Mustafa Sa’eed, gentlemen of the jury, is a noble person whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart. These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease [racism] that assailed them a thousand years ago” (Season of Migration, p. 33). In other words, these women see him as strange and exotic and therefore frightening as well as enticing, just as the Europeans in Othello see its protaganist. In the novel, Mustafa recalls Othello’s anguished confession of guilt, “Twas I that killed her” (Shakespeare, Othello 5.2.131). In reaction to his attorney’s plan, Mustafa thinks, “This is untrue, a fabrication. It was I who killed them. I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am a lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?” (Season of Migration, p. 33). And yet later, the narrator recalls Mustafa saying, “I am no lie. Othello was a lie” (Season of Migration, p. 95). The rejection/embracing of the Othello analogy reflects Mustafa’s own confusion. He is perhaps as much a victim of the “disease” as the woman he kills. In any case, Mustafa sees something of himself in this fictional predecessor.


One critic has suggested a plausible real-life analogue for some aspects of Mustafa Sa’eed: a Palestinian poet named Tawfiq Sayigh, This poet, who often crossed paths with Salih in London in the 1950s, was in some senses the prototype of the modern Arab nomad; he left Palestine after the founding of the state of Israel, and spent the rest of his life wandering. He edited an influential journal, and helped establish the careers of countless young writers, among them Salih. And, in the late 1950s, he was involved in a violent relationship with an Englishwoman whom his poetry identifies only as K. Many of the passages in his poems to her pick up themes that are also prevalent in Season of Migration to the North: the white woman as colonizer; the chase that is love; the intertwining of ardor and disgust; the feeling of utter exile. It seems almost certain, then, that Sayigh supplied part of the genesis for Mustafa; however, he must be seen only in the parts of Mustafa that are tortured and victimized. How Salih felt about the whole man can be seen in his moving testimonial: “His loss was a real tragedy, for Tawfiq Sayigh was a very fine poet and he had a great influence on me and on many other writers of my generation” (Amyuni, p, 14).

It is not difficult to see the similarity, even before he duplicates Othello’s tragic irony. Othello won Desdemona’s love by telling her stories of his violent life under the desert sun; she was enthralled by this “extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” (Othello 1.1.135-6). Othello genuinely loves his wife; Mustafa adopts the Moor’s technique for his own cold-blooded seductions. He tells his prey outrageous stories about his African childhood, adding elephants, crocodiles, and the tragic death of his parents on the Nile. And the women devour these stories, adding embellishments of their own. One renames herself “Sausan,” and calls herself his slave girl. Mustafa capitalizes on his ethnic difference, and finds women who are eager to experience the exotic by means of sex.

Salih uses Othello to underscore the racism that creates a European fascination with the strange, exotic, and Eastern. This “Orientalism” began in Shakespeare’s day and has continued unabated to this day. Of course, Salih’s point is that Arabs have no reason to be flattered by European interest in their culture, accompanied as it is by conquest and colonialism. The women Mustafa seduces do not love him; they love the Orient, which they feel they can experience through him.

However, the Othello comparison has another valence as well. At the trial, Mustafa’s defense attorney “turned the trial into a conflict between two worlds, a struggle of which [Mustafa] was one of the victims” (Season of Migration, p. 33). By the early twentieth century, many European intellectuals had come to realize the errors of colonialism, and desired to make amends. Throughout his career in Europe, Mustafa encounters people who view him, not simply as a fellow intellectual, but rather as symbol and test case for the colonial experiment. He is, in short, a token Arab, and the awareness of this position haunts him through his years in London. He selfconsciously views himself as an Arab with a singular destiny; he boasts, “I will liberate Africa with my penis” (Season of Migration, p. 120). But when his attorney attempts to excuse Mustafa’s crime on just this sociological basis, Mustafa objects. He does not want to accept the final indignity of being robbed of his own actions, of being told that he is too powerless even to murder without the impetus of a millenium-old cultural conflict. At this instant, the parallel to Othello assumes a different significance. On her deathbed, Desdemona is asked who killed her, and replies, “Nobody. I myself” (Othello 5.2.125).

Othello, already stricken with remorse, spurns this attempt to save him, saying, “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell; / ’Twas I that killed her” (Othello 5.2.130-31). Similarly, Mustafa detests the plea that he is not responsible for his actions. Even if those actions are horrific—perhaps especially because they are horrific—he wants to be held accountable. To claim that culture-conflict made him do it would be to accept the underlying lie of colonialism: that nonwhites are inferior to, and should be the responsibility of, the white man.

Sources and literary context

Salih has spent most of his adult life in European countries, and was educated in the English manner. It is not surprising, then, that many of the most significant influences on Salih are Western. One critic notes, “He admits to being influenced by a wide spectrum of Western English language writers and poets, such as Swift, Conrad, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Yeats” (Elad, p. 62). His very choice of the novel form reflects this Western influence, as the novel was imported to the Arab world in the late nineteenth century. The fractured narrative and rich, poetic language reveal a debt to such modernist novelists as James Joyce and William Faulkner.

Within the Arabic context, Salih has stated that he is closest to Yahya Haqqi and the Nobel-Prize winning Egyptian novelist Najib Mahfuz (see Midaqq Alley , also covered in African Literature and Its Times).It has been said that Mahfuz’s career creates the perfect “axis of reference” for the development of the Arabic novel, as his celebrated writings have both shaped and reflected the concerns of other novelists. If this is true, then Salih’s novel corresponds to the period of experiment and counter-realism that Mahfuz inaugurated in the middle 1960s, a period in which Arabic writers moved away from the sociopolitical realism of earlier decades.

Finally, Salih has stated that he was very much influenced by Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. In this seminal work, Freud presents a vision of human beings as torn between an urge to die and an urge to love, so that love and the desire for an end are interwoven. This psychological framework is loudly echoed in the twisted, doomed love affair of Mustafa and Jean Morris.


Season of Migration to the North was published to great acclaim, and its reputation has grown in the three decades since. Salih calls it “the novel for which for one reason or another I have the reputation that I have” (Salih in Amyuni, p. 14). Frank Birbalsingh writes, “Salih presents migration and the historical events which make it necessary, as symptoms of our shared condition and common fate as human beings who do not fully understand ourselves. The analysis involved in this presentation is what finally confirms the excellence of artistic achievement in Season” (Birbalsingh, p. 73). Jareer Abu-Haydar praises the novel’s delicacy, likening its use of themes to the movements of a symphony. Eiman El-Nour says, “The novel, traditionally a Western genre, which has been shaped by many a contemporary Arab novelist to reflect an Arab reality, has been given by Salih an additional African dimension” (El-Nour, p. 161). And one Western critic of Arabic literature has called it “among the finest Arabic novels to date” (Allen, p. 21).

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Abu-Haydar, Jareer. “A Novel Difficult to Categorize.” Al-Abhath 32 (1984): 45-54.

Allen, Roger. Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Amyuni, Mona. “Introduction: Season of Migration to the North.” Al-Abhath 32 (1984): 11-26.

Birbalsingh, Frank. “Season of Migration to the West.” Al-Abhath 32 (1984): 65-74.

Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. London: Routledge, 1985.

Elad, Ami. “Fiction and Reality in al-Tayyib Salih’s Dawmat Wad Hamid.” In Writer, Culture, Text. Ed. Ami Elad. Toronto: York University Press, 1993.

El-Nour, Eiman. “The Development of Contemporary Literature in the Sudan.” Research in African Literatures 28: 3 (fall 1997): 150-61.

Harlow, Barbara. “Sentimental Orientalism: Season of Migration to the North and Othello.” Al-Abhath 32 (1984): 75-80.

Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan: A Study of Its Origins, Development and Overthrow. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1976.