I listened intently to the wind: that indeed was a sound well known to me, a sound which in our village possessed a merry whispering – the sound of wi...moreI listened intently to the wind: that indeed was a sound well known to me, a sound which in our village possessed a merry whispering – the sound of wind passing through palm trees is different from when it passes through fields of corn. I heard the cooing of the turtle-dove, and I looked through the window at the palm tree standing in the courtyard of our house and I knew 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.
'Season of Migration to the North' begins with a beautiful, lyrical evocation of the comfort of the homeland that is soon lost with the chasing of mirages and being adrift in the ideological conflicts and uncertainty of the time. It is a whole circle traversed. Dislocation from one’s home and finding shelter once again in its rootedness and the ensuing existential angst and frustration of being the cultural misfit. Of being altered and recasted in a form that is nameless, unacceptable, in the strongly woven matrix of past, tradition and its beliefs. Where is the assurance that one longs for when there has been a fundamental shift and change in one’s own self and identity? And there is the alleged incapacity and helplessness in the whole scheme of things. The unnamed narrator returns to his land after his stay in the West to find himself utterly in limbo. The past seems to be chafed like the worn out colors of a hard-wearing monument. That feeling of assurance is lost in the unruly wilderness of a colonized history, with the chaos which refuses to subserve in the wake modernization.
He is no towering oak tree with luxuriant branches growing in a land on which Nature has bestowed water and fertility; rather he is like the sayal bushes in the deserts of the Sudan, thick of bark and sharp of thorn, defeating death because they ask so little of life.
Hajj Ahmed, the narrator’s grandfather and Bint Majzoub, are forbearing presences; shadows of a night falling in a land in which the day is nothing but a blistering pause. The events of their lives are like recurring waves. There is the unusual, the bizarre, but in firmly etched, stony contours. Mustafa Sa’eed, Hosna, the narrator; everyone who is caught in a flux, are elusive, mirage like, luminous but elfin figures, perpetually undiscovered, and doused in mystery. Either the silhouettes are still coming to life or there is a perpetual taunt of a phantasm in the aridity of the desert. The narrator’s chase of the phantasm that is Mustafa becomes the chasing of possibilities. Some which have escaped like smoke out of the chambers of the past. Some which are still there, locked and documented. These are haunting reflections of what he could have been. What he could still become. And it is inextricably linked with the egoism of Mustafa. Mustafa Sa’eed is the product of the colonial past. He has imagined himself as nothing less than a precious artifact. Like some historical object of value. He has cautiously laid down the map for his discovery. His tale is evoked through poetry, suggestions, symbols, allusions, metaphorical non-linearity. It navigates continents, history, past, present and transports itself in a highly burlesqued, tragic-comic narrative of his amorous exploits in England.
She would tell me that in my eyes she saw the shimmer of mirages in hot deserts, that in my voice she heard the screams of ferocious beasts in the jungles. And I would tell her that in the blueness of her eyes I saw the faraway shoreless seas of the North.
This is not love. This is hate. And a curious mix of fascination and contempt. A mock-adventure injected in the staleness of existence. There is the ever going farcical chase in which sometimes the hunter becomes the quarry, conquerors get vanquished. Egos are bruised. More destruction, more violence erupts in turn. There is the element of precision, theatricality, madness, in this quest. The man and the woman become the empty, farcical caricatures of their own selves. It is a mock exoticized rebirth of Mustafa garbed in the essentialized, stereotypical fantasies of the West. He lavishes in them. His conquests have strong undertones of power, domination, and self-loathing. And his preys languish for their black God, amidst Arabic poetry, Eastern perfumes, and Persian rugs. They not only draw attention to their own wretchedness but also to the pitiable ineffectualness of Mustafa Sa’eed. But his escapades have that sense of romance and melodrama which make the narrator think of his own life as an unimaginative simulation of Mustafa’s.
Another fire would not have done any good. I left him talking and went out. I did not let him complete the story…
Mustafa leaves his tale to the narrator to be discovered and completed. One occasion of futility implodes into another. It is with these parallels that the phantasmagoric tale takes the tone of lament at the collapse of the possibility of change and mutability in a present which is muddled with the debris of the past. The rigid boundaries of tradition refuse to merge in harmony with a more compassionate, humane worldview and let go of such essentialized notions of the East and the West. It is a dense predicament in which the narrator finds himself when he struggles with his obsession with Mustafa. Where are the shores to be found while drifting in such existential loss and meaninglessness? Where is the consolation for this rootlessness? What is the course of human action and where lies the hope in a world which is hostile to a synthesis between the old and the new? And from where to continue and where to return? Myriad questions assail him and Salih’s book becomes beautiful, wounded, poetic confluence of this dilemma and deliverance. (less)