Salih, Al-Tayyib 1929–
Al-Tayyib Salih 1929–
The works of Al-Tayyib Salih, one of contemporary Arabic literature’s leading novelists, chronicle a lesser-known culture of the African continent: black, Muslim, and Arabic-speaking. Salih is a native of Sudan, and much of his fiction is set in a riverbank village not unlike the one on the Nile in which he grew up. He is best known for his novel, Season of Migration to the North, which appeared in 1967. Writing in the New York Times Book Review more than two decades after its publication, David Pryce-Jones described it as “a brilliant miniature of the plight of Arabs and Africans who find themselves no longer sustained by their past and not yet incorporated into a viable future.”
Salih was born in 1929 and grew up in the Merowe area of northern Sudan, in a village called al-Dabba. His was primarily a farming family, but included some merchants and Islamic scholars, and Salih was sent to a khalwa, or Islamic religious school, as a youth. He departed al-Dabba at the age of ten to study at the Wadi Sayyidina School in Omdurman, one of Sudan’s two principal urban centers, and studied agricultural sciences later at Khartoum University in the capital city. Changing direction, he went to England to study economics and political science at the University of London, and took education courses at the University of Exeter as well. Returning to Sudan, he taught for a time, and became a scriptwriter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In time, he came to head the drama department of the BBC’s Arabic-language television division. His career also included a stint with the Sudan Broadcasting Service, a post as director of information for the government of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula, and work as an adviser to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He married a Scottish woman, with whom he had three children.
Salih began writing short stories set in a fictional Sudanese village called Wad Hamid, and spent the summer of 1960 vacationing in a town near Cannes, on the French Riviera, where he wrote prolifically. There he began Season of Migration to the North, but put it aside for four years. When a friend, Tawfiq Sayigh, who edited an Arabic literary journal called Hiwar out of Beirut, began publishing Salih’s shorter works, he returned to the manuscript. That journal first printed part of Salih’s novella, Urs al-Zayn (The Wedding ofZein), in 1964, and it was eventually made into a film by a Kuwaiti director, winning honors at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. The title character is the village idiot, but Zein is also close friends with his village’s holy man, and some believe that he possesses saintly qualities as well. Though Zein is not a handsome man, he marries the most beautiful woman in his village, and the wedding festivities unite the many argumentative factions in the village. Zein even makes peace with the imam, the arch-conservative religious leader, with whom he has often clashed.
“The Wedding of Zein represents Salih’s hopes and dreams of what could be achieved in a society that is calm and stable, harmonious and happy, in which all problems are resolved peacefully,” noted an essay by Philip Sadgrove in African Writers. The critic also pointed out that “Arabic literature has been dominated by social criticism, social realism, and committed literature
Born in 1929 in Al-Dabba, Sudan; son of Muhammad and ’A’isha Salih; married; children: Zeinab, Sara, and Samira. Education: Studied at Khartoum University, the University of London, and the University of Exeter, 1950s.
Career: Teacher in Sudan, 1950s; BBC, scriptwriter, head of drama in BBC television’s Arabic-language service; also affiliated with the Sudan Broadcasting Service; government of Qatar, director of information; UNESCO, adviser; columnist for Al-Majalla magazine; writer.
Address: Office —c/o Kegan Paul International, P. O. Box 256, London WC1B 3SW, England.
depicting the bitter realities of life. Salih managed to break with this trend and return to the roots of his culture, capturing the mystery, magic, humor, sorrows, and celebrations of rural life and popular religion.”
Hiwar published several other short stories by Salih between 1964 and 1966. These included “Nakhla ‘ala’l-jadwal (A Date Palm by the Stream),” in which the farmer Mahjub worries over his imminent financial ruin. Draughts have brought hardship, and an upcoming religious festival in his village will require a hefty contribution. He considers selling his beloved date palm tree, but the idea of losing it pains him: Mahjub believes the tree has brought him the few respites of good fortune in his life. In other passages, he laments the loss of his son, who went to Egypt to find work and has had little contact with his family since he left. But the son surprises all when he sends money home. Mahjub can now pay his debts and contribute to the party without selling the date palm.
A story Salih wrote in 1957, “Hafnat tamr (A Handful of Dates),” was also published in Hiwar. Here a child narrator contemplates the dire situation of Mas’ud, a local farmer who has fallen into debt from his many marriages. The narrator’s grandfather is gaining control of Mas’ud’s property because of this, and the boy accompanies the men in his family one day to seize his date harvest for payment. The boy believes this action is unjust, and when his relatives give him a handful of dates as a treat, he becomes physically ill after eating them. “For the narrator’s generation, the individual, such as Mas’ud, has the right to follow his or her own path to happiness,” the African Writers essay by Sadgrove explained. “For all his misfortunes, however, Mas’ud is cheerful and sings, whereas the narrator’s grandfather never laughs.”
Salih’s best-known work remains Mawsim al-hijra ila’l-shamal, published first in the original Arabic in 1967 in Lebanon, and in English translation two years later as Season of Migration to the North. It is a complex work with a theme of deep alienation, a sense of otherness linked to Africa’s relationship with the Western world. The story is told by an anonymous Sudanese-born narrator who grows increasingly obsessed with his doppelganger, a man whose life and career seems to have foreshadowed his own. The narrator has recently returned from poetry studies at Oxford University in England, and upon his first morning back in his home village, sees a familiar palm tree, and thinks, “All was still well with life. I looked at its strong straight trunk, at its roots that strike down into the ground, at the green branches hanging down loosely over its top, and I experienced a feeling of assurance.”
The narrator dreams of becoming a writer, but realizes that his country needs a more practical, educated leadership instead, a cadre who have trained as physicians, engineers, or agricultural experts. Like the author Salih had once done as a young man, the unnamed narrator moves from teaching to a government job. He realizes that his experiences abroad have permanently alienated him from his roots, and he grows depressed. He meets Mustafa Sa’id, an older man who has also spent time in England. The villagers have dubbed Mustafa “the black Englishman,” and the narrator learns that Mustafa was once a bon vivant figure in London in the 1920s, feted by literati there. A notorious seducer, Mustafa married a British woman—believed to be the first Sudanese man ever to do so—but, conflicted by his status as an exotic African in London, he cannot trust her love and slays her on the eve of World War II. Despite the prison sentence meted out, Mustafa has no rancor toward the English, and upon his release returns home to the Sudan, marries a local woman, and becomes a farmer. He dies during the ominous flood season—or was it a suicide?—and when custom dictates that his widow remarry, she, too, chooses death. The narrator tries to make sense of Mustafa’s renegade life, and feels sympathy for the sense of permanent alienation Mustafa experienced: a Sudanese who spends time in Europe must return forever altered.
Season of Migration to the North sparked critical attention in the Arabic world and was acclaimed in translation as well. Writing in the Explicator, Christopher S. Nassaar drew parallels between Salih’s novel and the 1952 Samuel Beckett play Waiting For Godot. “Salih’s book is a devastating absurdist denunciation of life,” wrote Nassaar, who found that “nature, in its immensity and hostile indifference to the human race, underlies the insignificance of human life throughout the novel.” The New York Times Book Review critique by Pryce-Jones found it “swift and astonishing in its prose,” and noted in conclusion that Salih’s homeland “is a particularly unfortunate country” where the deaths of Mustafa and his widow seem to be “everyday occurrences. Poetry is perhaps not much of a weapon with which to hold its existential despair at bay, but that is where this fine novel takes its stand.” The work is regularly taught in Arabic literature survey courses in the West.
Salih also wrote two Bandar Shah novels in the 1970s, published in English translation as Bandarshah in 1996. Again, Salih sets his story in the fictional riverbank village of Wad Hamid, where a stranger with green eyes appears one day, malnourished and suffering from amnesia. He speaks a language nobody has heard before, and the Wad Hamid villagers kindly nurse him to back to health and teach him the Koran. In turn, he provides them with new ideas about crop science, which improve their economic circumstances. He marries a local woman, and the son resulting from that union is nicknamed Bandarshah. The novel follows the fate of Bandarshah’s eleven sons and his grandson, Meryoud.
The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Heinemann (London), 1968.
Season of Migration to the North, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Heinemann, 1969, 1970.
Bandarshah, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Kegan Paul International (London), 1996.
Also author of short stories, including “A Date Palm by the Stream” and “A Handful of Dates.”
African Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp. 733-744.
Explicator, Winter 1998, p. 105.
New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1989, p. 15.
Research in African Literatures, Fall 1997, p. 128.