I will be traveling to Kenya in a few days, which will be my first trip to Africa. In preparation, I have been reading a lot of African literature, and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih was particularly beautiful, and I feel compelled to share it.
Someone actually recommended this book to me a while ago, though I only recently read it. However, I am glad that I read it when I did, for I think I was able to better appreciate it. It is set in the Sudan, and I have been trying to learn more about this part of the world since one of my friends moved to South Sudan last year. He frequently writes about the cultural issues he encounters in his blog, which I highly recommend. Over the summer, the New Yorker published an excellent article about the South Sudan that I still think about at times, as it gave a very helpful history of this new country. But perhaps more significantly, it was a good time for me to read this as I have been preparing for my own trip. My best friend grew up in Africa and loves the continent, and I've been asking her to help me avoid being the kind of Western tourist she hates. Season of Migration to the North centers around the relationship that Africa has with the West and is incredibly insightful.
The novel is a story within a story, set in a kind of metanarrative frame. The narrator is an unnamed man who returns to his hometown in the Sudan after spending several years of study in England. Then the story temporarily switches to the narration of Mustafa Sa'eed, who reluctantly (and drunkenly) shares his life story with the narrator. Like the narrator, Mustafa excelled in his village growing up and then spent a period of his life in England. This short encounter between the narrator and Mustafa changed the course of the narrator's life. He recognized many things about himself within Mustafa, and this realization immediately humbled him and threw him into contemplation.
This is one of those novels that is not primarily about the plot. I could summarize the events that occurred, but that would not be an accurate portrayal of the story. Instead, this is about the difficulty two men experienced in trying to discern their identities as an English-educated natives of Sudan. As boys, they were taught that English was their key to success and the future. If they were intelligent, they needed to leave Africa in order to "better themselves" and thus become more Anglicized. Their fellow citizens would praise their efforts and celebrate their success, but was it a lie? This is the question with which the narrator must grapple. He writes:
"Over there is like here, neither better nor worse. But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard has grown in our house and not in anyone else's. The fact that they came into our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future?"
It is important to note that Salih does not unequivocally praise Africa and curse the West. Rather, he highlights a number of unpleasant aspects of the Sudanese culture and shows some of its tragedy, and this blends with the challenges of post-colonialism. There is a balance between the problems in both lands, as well as the difficulty these two men faced in trying to live between two worlds. Mustafa often seems to be almost sociopathic in his lack of emotions, but there also seems to be a sensitivity in his self-analysis. The narrator tries to resist the problems of the people around him, but he cannot disentangle himself from them. As a reader, I felt increasing emotional distance from the story and its characters until a few shocking moments would instantly draw me back in. The ending is the perfect example of this building numbness that switches to a cry of emotion, and I felt this ebb and flow throughout the entire story.
In many ways, I felt that this was actually a book of poetry. Not only are the two main characters poets, but the language itself is beautifully written. I could pull out quote after quote that can stand on its own merits, without the surrounding text. There are countless beautiful passages of description that don't technically add to the plot but build upon the force of the narrative. I am already compelled to re-read these passages to make sure that they stick with me and do not fade away.
Finally, I want to remind myself of these lessons on a personally applicable level. I want to conscientiously enter Africa with the perspective that it is its own entity rather than a comparison of what I know in the West. I want to avoid my tourist eyes and switch to a thoughtful observer. I want to let Africa show me its culture without me imposing my own on it. Is this possible? Perhaps not. Perhaps it would be a lie for me to assume such observational ability for a short trip. However, I feel it is my duty to do this as best as I can and to at least be consciously aware of its healthy/unhealthy entanglement with the West.