Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Black Skin, White Masks: An attempt towards reading Tayeb Salih's 'Season of Migration to The North'

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me, an invincible summer." -Albert Camus

"Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn." - Mathew Arnold.

"...that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus." - Othello, Act V, Scene ii

§ The life of a work of art is a struggle against exegetical accretion. One can vivdly visualize the artist, as the emperor of a realm during the process of creation but once the work leaves his hands, it is invariably left like a virgin in the hands of strangers. Prey to capriciousness of the reader, the course of its life is fraught with unpredictability and chance occurances, not to mention the prejudices of culture industry specialists. It is against this seemingly impregnable facade of assumed meanings that any attempt towards appreciating Tayib Salih's 'Season of Migration to the North' proceeds.
(Those who know absolutely nothing about this book, take quick trip to Wiki. Redundance adds to entropy, digital or otherwise. So no summary here)

§ The word "season" which is from the original Arabic word "mawsam", has above all one telling connotation which must serve as a key to appreciating the book. Mawsam literally season points to an event or occurance which repeats over time and/or space. Season has to be conceived in opposition to that which is linear in nature, events that are isolated and static. What we are reading then is a discourse on a particular season, that of migration to the north. It essentially alludes to other seasons prior to or following the one which is in the novel at hand. It could very well be the season of migration to the south not motived by reasons other than the one that besets the migration to the north. It all follows from the same "germ of contagion oozing from the body of the universe"(104).

§ Germ of contagion oozing from the body of the universe: One should recall two telling images from the book when mulling over this construct of germ of contagion. The tree and the narrator's grand father. The narrator says about his grandfather that, 'he had been like this for I don't know how many years, as though he were something immutable in a dynamic world.' Those two images vividly depicts that which has as their being the immunity against this contagion. en soi is what makes a tree a tree. So we reach to a revelation: The root of a sickness, the cause which propels it. The pathology of a specific human condition. Mustafa saeed cannot be at home. His mind which was 'like a sharp knife, cutting with cold effectiveness'(22) was the instrument he had at his disposal. This cold effectiveness is one seminal element which distinguishes him from being Othello. Mustafa is immune to 'the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on' to which Othello was an easy prey. Mustafa's statement to Isabella Seymour "I'm like Othello - Arab-African" is physical at the most and the statement is Iago-like in it's intention. The fact that he kisses Jean before he stabs her wouldn't suffice to make him Othello, and Othello is what he is trying not to be, neither can Jean be Desdamona. The completely overturned kerchief motif explains this well. His statement in the court that 'I am no Othello. I am a lie' is his real self resisting him from being turned by the court into Othello.

§ The relocation as a necessary symptom of contagion is the next revelation we reach to. 'Mysterious things in my soul and in my blood impel me towards faraway parts that loom up before me and cannot be igonored', says Mustafa. Any relocation of human being, be it in time or space, involves a power struggle. The change in space demands a change in the person being relocated or the space to which he is relocated, from where ensues a crisis. A crisis in which the subject is torn between disparities, has to rebel, reconcile, adapt, conquer the space in which s/he finds himself. Then we have an epic of a subject attempting to means to modify. This encounter is, as can be expected, fraught with his vivid memory of being subjugated by the ones with
whom he is dealing now. The endless wooing and subsequent subjection of women by Mustafa has to be read in this light. His acts of predation has absolutely no element of any of the tender human nature. It is all as cold as his icy intellect. The episode of his first encounter with Ann Hammond is marked for the height a farce can go, as when he says, "At last I have found you, Susan. I searched everywhere for you and was afraid I would never find you. Do you remember?" She replies, "How can I forget our house in Karkh in Baghdad on the banks of the river Tigris in the days of El-Ma'moun?" This colonising through subjugation leads us to another disturbing insight: The attribution of gender to geography. The act of conquering women who inhabit a land is the instrument at Mustafa's disposal. An earstwhile student of Mustafa is quoted by the narrator as saying that Mustafa used to say, "I'll leberate Africa with my penis." To complete the irony, Mustafa's widow liberated her second husband, who married her against her strong opposition, by stabbing between his thighs, presumably his penis.

His endeavours, ironically enough, lacks one seminal element necessary to lend fullness to the act. The mastery of anything which is languid and lacking in an understanding of being conquered is empty. It ends up as taking hold of a stone for that matter. That act is not human in the essentially human sense of experience. This is an unavoidable paradox in any act of subjugation, to hold under command requires that the colonised be obejectified, and objectification drains the rupture the the conquerer is running behind. A land devoid of people can be owned but not subjugated. It is this situation that leads Mustafa to Jean Morris, the prey he has been looking for. If Nile is eventually destined to flow Northward to the Northern sea, though the impeding mountains manage to turn it's course for a while, Mustafa is fated to reach Jean. What
follows is a dangerous cat and mouse game, in which both is well cognizant of what the other is upto. Knwoing his moves she delivers herself upto him, conscientiously letting herself be objectified, which besieges Mustafa's plans. A forceful mastery is what he is attempting, and that is what he can never hope for from her. Jean morris happens to be tearing apart the masks Mustafa Saeed has been wearing, his ramparts of 'lies on top of lies' comes to a collapse in front of her. Allowing him and actually encouraging him to kill her, the game ends at the most in stalemate.

§ We see the narrator, during his journey to Khartoum, recounting the words Isabella Seymour uttered caressingly to Mustafa,"Ravish me you African demon. Burn me in the fire of your temple, black god. Let me twist and turn in your wild and impassioned rites." The stark contrast is revealed when, in the middle of the desert as he was, the narrator sees only, 'Nothing. The sun, the desert, desicated plants and emaciated animals' and he exclaims, 'such lands brings forth nothing but prophets.' So who then is manufacturing this lies of binaries, this Other, this exotic fantasies founded on nothing, that we are doomed to spend our life fighting demons?

§ So where do the narrator belong, if at all he belongs anywhere? The idea of water wheels co-existing harmonously with water pumps is the dream one can hanker for. His soliloquy finds expression in such meanderings as '...the breeze that issues from the Nile Valley carries a perfume whose smell will not fade from my mind as long as I live'. Mustafa is the apparition he has to fight, and his open call for help on the verge of being drowned in the Nile is his grand affirmation to life, to what is real.

§ Lastly it would be an enormous error if I do not mention the intensely lyrical nature of some passages in the book. The book is, as such episodic in style, and the language is at times richly evocative and moving. This book, it would seem, could not have been written in any other way!



1. I don't ascribe to writing reviews normally. But in this case I actually had no choice, the turmoil of reading this book had to be let out, and as a loner I had no other way at my disposal.

2. To write anything about Tayeb requires one read 'Tayeb Salih: A case study'. I haven't even seen it.

3. There are innumerable scholarly articles on the various themes which finds expression in this book. Look around and read them.

4. If you, the reader, by any chance goes onto think that this write-up of mine touches the myriads of themes that appears in the book, I must say you are mistaken. Even if I attempt to write a review running ten times the length of the book, I wont touch anything. Be warned!

5. This forum thread by Sudanese people has an interesting discussion on the identity of Jean Morris. It appears the person who started the thread mistook Jean morris for Jane morris, and the entirety of discussion was revolving around that. I could not make out half of what is written there because I don't know Arabic. Nevertheless as far as I can understand, they haven't resolved the possibility that Jean morris may actually be an allusion to Jane morris.