Salih, al-Tayyib (1929–)

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Salih, al-Tayyib

Sudanese novelist and short-story writer al-Tayyib Salih won acclaim as a master of style and fictional form early in his career when he published his complex and poetic Season of Migration to the North. Although Salih's literary production has been limited—three novels and a series of short stories—his creation of the mythical village Wad Hamid in northern Sudan (akin to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county) has made him a major voice in Arabic literature. Salih confessed in his 1980 lecture in Beirut: "When I am writing a sense of futility invades me. I feel I should be doing something else, that I should be somewhere else" (Amyuni, p. 14). Throughout his career, he has been torn between two mutually exclusive worlds: the isolated realm of the creative writer trying to make sense of the chaotic world materializing from his blank sheet of paper, and the chaotic world of real affairs he participated in as head of drama for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as a journalist for London's Arabic-language weekly magazine al-Majalla, and as a cultural envoy working for the Ministry of Information in Qatar and for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Al-Tayyib Salih was born in 1929 in a small village on the Nile called al-Dabba in the Merowe district of northern Sudan. Home to a stable agricultural society whose people are a mixture of Arab and Nubian blood, plus nomadic bedouin heritage, the village, Salih notes, is like an archaeological heap where the history of Sudan is condensed in its complex religious history that includes Pharaonic, Pagan, Christian, and then Muslim eras. The collective, unconscious memory of these people is what has continued to occupy a central place in Salih's writing, although he left the village at age ten to go to school in the capital, Khartoum, and has lived and worked much of his adult life in London. He returns to his village often, and sees this village community and his early training at the Khalwa (Qur'anic school) as providing the roots of his identity.

After secondary school at the Gordon College in Khartoum, Salih studied agricultural sciences at the University of Khartoum, then political science and economics at the University of London, and education at Exeter. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Salih has explained, he felt his country had a need for doctors and agricultural engineers, not writers. After a brief stint as a teacher, Salih arrived in London at age twenty-four in the winter of 1953 to work for the Arabic section of the BBC. It was at this time that he began to write. Forty years later he would recall:

When I came to London I felt an inner chill. Having lived the life of the tribe and the extended family of uncles, aunts, grandparents, among people you know and who know you, in spacious houses, under a clear star-studded sky, you come to London to live in an emotionless society, surrounded by the four walls of your room … I had an overwhelming feeling that I had left good things behind … When I began writing, nostalgia for the homeland and for a world I felt was fast disappearing dominated my work. Nevertheless, I tried not to be carried away by that nostalgia. (Hassan, p. 14)


Name: al-Tayyib Salih (Tayeb Saleh, Taieb Salih)

Birth: 1929, al-Dabba, Merowe district, Sudan

Family: Wife; three daughters, Zeinab, Sara, and Samira

Nationality: Sudanese

Education: Secondary school at the Gordon College, Khartoum; University of Khartoum (agricultural sciences); University of London (economics and political science); University of Exeter (education)


  • 1950s: Teacher, Rufah, Sudan
  • 1953: Scriptwriter, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Arabic Section
  • 1960: Head of drama, BBC Arabic Service
  • 1968: Publishes The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories
  • 1969: Publishes Season of Migration to the North
  • 1970s: Named director-general of Information, Qatar, UNESCO, Paris and Qatar
  • 1976: Kuwaiti filmmaker Khalid Siddiq wins Cannes Film Festival award for The Wedding of Zein, film based on Salih's novel
  • 1980: Gives a lecture at the American University in Beirut (May 19)
  • 1996: Publishes Bandarshah
  • 2001: Visiting Randolph Distinguished Professor, Vassar College
  • 2003: Re-releases Season of Migration to the North
  • 2004: Awarded Third Arab Conference Prize by Egypt

As Waïl Hassan points out, the cycle of stories from Salih's imaginary village of Wad Hamid cover the turbulent years that saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the threat of European imperialism during which time the Nahda (Renaissance) movement struggled to meld Arab Islamic heritage with the scientific and technological achievements of European civilization. Salih himself wrote his major works during the decades when the state of Israel was established on Palestinian land, pan-Arabism faltered, and Arab societies struggled with issues of social reform, political legitimacy, and the status of women. "One of the major themes of Season of Migration to the North," Salih has explained, "is the East/West confrontation … the confrontation of the Arab Muslim World and the Western European one … I have redefined the so-called East/West relationship as essentially one of conflict, while it had previously been treated in romantic terms" (Amyuni, p. 16). Denys Johnson-Davies, the major translator who can be credited with making Arabic works available to English readers, wrote in Al-Ahram that Salih's Season of Migration to the North is "one of the few intelligent novels written by a Western or non-Western writer about the East-West conflict.


Salih has struggled, as Hassan's study Tayeb Salih: Ideology and the Craft of Fiction explores in detail, with being an active participant in the world and dealing with topical, political events, or being a writer who works in isolation, waiting patiently for reality to become refined through the author's process of dreaming and crafting. Salih greatly respects writers who can manage these two seemingly mutually exclusive realms. In a speech delivered at the American University in Cairo, he commented that he appreciated how Yahya Haqqi from Egypt wrote when the mood took him and that Charles Dickens was able to strike a balance between his career as a novelist and enjoying other aspects of living, whereas Honoré de Balzac was nothing more than a writing machine and that Ernest Hemingway, who was what Salih called a mediocre writer, "died like a failed Gatsby" (Thabet, p. 2). Salih also admires naguib mahfouz, "the pioneer of the novel in the Arab world" (Tayeb Salih Speaks, p. 7). He sees Mahfouz as more intellectual and more secular than himself, noting that in his own work he has accepted a magical world, a world that is not secular, a world where miracles can happen. Salih, throughout his life, has battled to balance reality and dream, to balance the pull of tradition and the onslaught of modernity, to balance engagement in contemporary affairs and the withdrawal from the world he feels he requires to write fiction.

Salih's earliest novel, The Wedding of Zein, posits a village where miracles happen and the village fool, Zein, can marry the most beautiful girl in town because he is full of heart, compassion, love, and life. This is a village world where people live in harmony and organic unity, and the novella celebrates this harmonious unity. Similarly, the grandfather in Season of Migration to the North, Salih comments, "symbolizes our ability as an Arab people to create life and to persist in it despite obstacles and difficult conditions … not prone to any form of illusion. His is a healthy and germ-free personality. He is unencumbered by complication and disturbance, relying completely on his instinct and his pure simple nature"; Mustafa Sa'eed, on the other hand, embodies all the cultural dissonance and political conflict that have defined the relationship between Europe and Sudan—he is "all mind, meditation, crookedness, and sharp psychological struggles" (Tayeb Salih Speaks, p. 17).


Denys Johnson-Davies (1922–) is the translator of all of al-Tayyib Salih's work that appears in English. Described by edward said as the leading Arabic-English translator of our time, Johnson-Davies has translated more than twenty-five volumes of short stories, novels, plays, and poetry, and was the first to translate the work of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. In Memories in Translation, Johnson-Davies explains the difficulty of translating from Arabic. Either the translator hopes to find a publisher after the fact when the English version already has been completed, or finds a press that will simply trust one's judgment from the outset. Johnson-Davies notes that al-Tayyib Salih's famous novel, Season of Migration to the North, which he translated three years after it came out in Arabic, might well have remained unpublished had not Johnson-Davies just begun editing the Heinemann Arab Authors series. "It required Naguib Mahfouz to win the Nobel prize," Johnson-Davies reminds us, "for an American publisher of the caliber of Doubleday to take him on" (p. 58).

Salih aims in his work to transform ordinary, regional Sudanese characters into mythical characters as Homer did in the Iliad, raising them above their simple, ordinary lives through art. Unity of place and successive generations of villagers allow Salih to explore in depth the historical sweep of events as they imprint themselves in individual lives. Salih's last novel, Bandarshah (two of five planned sections have been published, "Daww al-Bayt" and "Meryud"), is a complicated, nonlinear narrative about struggle over village leadership, and authority on a symbolic level. Allegorically, the takeover of the village by the young, self-interested, and dictatorial bunch called Bakri's boys, from a responsible, balanced, and tolerant older generation group called Majub's gang in Wedding of Zein represents the failure of democracy in most Arab and African nations.

The harmony, tolerance, and wicked sense of humor that Salih associates with Wad Hamid is of a piece with his own political beliefs and aesthetic style. Asked about his political beliefs, Salih noted the importance of both appreciating one's origins and of being able to absorb external ideas. Commenting that the Sudan he remembered was a model of tolerance, where people lived in harmony and unity, he says:

As for myself, I like to believe I am a socialist, in the manner of the great Irish poet Yeats who says: "Justice is a symmetrical thing." … Social injustice is against harmony…. In my opinion the writer is not capable of establishing his writing upon an immoral foundation. Writing, in essence, is a moral act. Socialism guarantees a basis for a virtuous society and a healthy man. (Tayeb Salih Speaks, p. 18-19).

When Season of Migration to the North came out in Arabic in 1966, the homegrown military government of General Ibrahim Abbud had been overthrown and a parliamentary system introduced; in the "Introduction" to the 2003 Penguin edition Salih recalls, "the general climate in Khartoum in those days was exhilarating … For some reason my work became incorporated into this process of intellectual questioning" (Harss). Salih spent a silent decade during the 1980s, but had returned to writing journalism in 1989 at the time Sudan came under the rule of the oppressive Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation: "Salih emerged as one of the strongest voices denouncing the new regime," Hassan notes; "journalistic writing, with its directness and immediacy, is more effective for dealing with such events than allegory, symbolism or myth making" (Tayeb Salih p. 174-75). All of Salih's creative writing has been acknowledged as showing high mastery of the forms of the novel and short story. Long periods of silence have occurred when he has been engaged in other ways of being an agent in the world.


When his novel Season of Migration to the North came out in Beirut in the late 1960s, Salih was hailed as the new genius of the Arabic novel; the centrality of this work to contemporary Arabic letters was attested to in 2001, when the Syrian-based Arab Literary Academy in Damascus declared it the most important Arabic novel of the twentieth century. Salih's translator, Johnson-Davies, maintains that this novel is perhaps the most important Arab work of the twentieth century: "No other modern Arabic work of fiction, not even any of the novels of the recent Nobel prize winner, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, has achieved the literary status of Season. Its ability to transcend language and culture barriers is evidenced by the fact that it has been translated into languages as diverse as Norwegian and Japanese" (Johnson-Davies). This novel alone has appeared in more than twenty languages.


In creating Season of Migration to the North, Salih was "pondering the idea of the illusory relationship [alaqa wahamiyya] between our Arab Islamic world and Western European civilization specifically. This relationship seems to me, from my readings and studies, to be based on illusions [awham] on our side and theirs. Illusion colors our self-perception, what we think of our relationship with them, and their view of us as well. Western Europe has imposed itself and its civilization on us … become part of our cultural makeup whether we like it or not.

To destabilize settled viewpoints, Salih undermined reader security: "Basically, the reader looks for the writer in a work. When the narration begins in the first person, the reader quickly settles down to the view that, here is an autobiography … [claiming] no responsibility whatsoever. I created therefore a conflicting world in which nothing is certain, and, formalistically, two voices force the reader to make up his/her own mind.


In 2004, al-Tayyib Salih was awarded the controversial Third Arab Conference prize for literature by the Egyptian government. The debate surrounding this prize stemmed from the 2003 award ceremony when Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, who appeared to have accepted the prize, rejected it at the ceremony on the basis of Israeli rulers being received in Arab capitals with open arms at a time when "Israeli troops are invading whatever remains of the Palestinian land… carrying out a methodical and systematic genocide against the Palestinians" (Anis). Other Egyptian writers such as Gamal El-Ghitani also refused to sign statements that they would not, if awarded the prize, also refuse it. Al-Tayyib Salih, who was the head of the committee that chose Ibrahim for the prize, has commented any writer has the right to turn down an award, but he objected to the manner in which Ibrahim did so. As for Salih's winning the prize in 2004, many agree that it was an acknowledgment of his stature in the Arab world while at the same time, given his own active participation in struggles of social justice, not excusing governments that undermine human rights.


Similar to William Faulkner's legacy in creating an entire society with all its memorable characters and their foibles, its historical traumas, and its human complexities, Salih's Wad Hamid cycle tells the history of the Arab region and its traumatic entry into modernity from the perspective of the margin. As Johnson-Davies notes, "another important element in Tayeb [sic] Salih's writing, one that is missing in most modern Arabic literature, is his humor and sense of the ridiculous" (2006).


Amyuni, Mona Takieddine. Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih: A Casebook. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1985.

Anis, Mona. "Speaking Truth to Power." Al-Ahram. Available from

Harss, Marina. "Review of Season of Migration to the North." Words without Borders. Available from

Hassan, Wail S. Tayeb Salih: Ideology & the Craft of Fiction. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Johnson-Davies, Denys. "Migratory Minds." Al-Ahram Weekly no. 665 (20-26 November 2003). Available from

――――――――. Memories in Translation: A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature. Cairo: The American University Press, 2006.

"Lecture by Tayeb Salih, Sudanese Novelist and Visiting Randolph Distinguished Professor, at Vassar November 14." Vassar College. Available from

Thabet, Hanan. "Intellectuals between East and West." Barqiyya. Available from,%20no.%202.pdf.

                                                   Laura Rice