Readers take from books as much as they bring to them. As our conditions change, some books gain greater relevance and meaning. To these we return over and over. In the wake of the revolutionary changes sweeping the Arab world, I have returned to the novel by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, 'Season of Migration to the North', written in Arabic and superbly translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.
The novel opens with the words: "It was, gentlemen, after a long absence, seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe - that I returned to my people". They are spoken by an unnamed narrator who meets Mustafa Sa'eed, the hero of the book, like him a man who has travelled to England for education and returned to "the small village at the bend of the Nile" in his native Sudan. Through fragmentary episodes, we come to learn that in London, Mustafa fell in love and married an English woman whom he murders in the course of a passionate sexual encounter. After spending time in prison he returns home where he marries again. In a reversal of the double narrative structure of another classic about colonialism and the meeting between east and west in Africa, Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', Salih's book is not about a western man going down the Congo but a Sudanese going up the Thames. At its centre it has two love scenes culminating in murder.
The metaphorical meaning of the sexual act is at the heart of this book. The question is posed, whether it is possible for the migrant from the south to establish relations of love with the former colonialists from the north or just aspire for conquest through sex. The question, posed but not answered, has gained special relevance in view of the recent changes in the Middle East that are bound to result in a redefinition of the region's relations with Europe.
Several years ago, I was discouraged by the reaction to the book. I thought the young generation, four decades after its publication, have become more conservative. Several students at Birzeit University in Occupied Palestine took objection to the explicit sexual language of some scenes and submitted a complaint against the use of the book at the university. Fortunately, no action was taken to suppress the book. In Egypt, however, the book was banned for 30 years following its publication in the Sixties. It was denounced as decadent, insulting of religion and pornographic.
Today my feelings about the young generation are reversed as I witness the youth in the region serve as the driving force for change against the rule of ancient autocrats. Tayeb Salih wrote 'Season of Migration...' just after Sudan had gained its independence. At that time hope for true liberation of the peoples of the region from the colonial yoke was high. It might now be returning and, with it, a renewed interest in this seminal Arabic novel about post-colonial times.
Raja Shehadeh's 'A Rift in Time' is published by Profile; he will be speaking at the Mosaic Rooms, London SW5 today (www.mosaicrooms.org) and at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 6 March (www. jewishbookweek.com)Reuse content