“I preferred not to say the rest that had come to my mind: that just like us [the Europeans] are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while others have been deprived by it, but that the differences are narrowing and most of the weak are no longer weak.”
Here, Salih reveals one of the most important messages of the novel—that despite the differences wrought by culture and centuries of imperialism, individuals in Europe and the Islamic world are more alike than they are different. Although Europeans are blamed for the damage done by their occupation of Africa, the Sudanese politicians that come to power after the British leave are just as corrupt as their predecessors.
The fact that all of this remains unsaid is also significant. The narrator refrains from telling the villagers this more nuanced view of Europe, although he admits that at least Mahjoub is intelligent enough to understand it. The narrator’s inability to speak out or act decisively is perhaps a result of the personality trait that leads him to wax rhapsodic like this—he is ultimately an aesthete, not an activist. Because he is a writer, his skill is to observe society, not to change it directly.
“These girls were killed not by Mustafa Sa’eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago.”
Mustafa Sa’eed’s defense attorney uses this argument to reduce his sentence for murdering Jean Morris and causing the suicide of three of his other lovers. The attorney, Professor Maxwell Foster-Keen, makes a systemic argument that the alienation between Western and Eastern cultures, caused by colonialism, is responsible for the deterioration of Mustafa’s romantic relationships. Foster-Keen argues that Mustafa came to England expecting to be enlightened, only to find that London was just as barbaric as Sudan, and in this way Western civilization has disappointed him, and he should not be held culpable for his violence.
This argument attempts to place Mustafa’s experiences and feelings into a broader historical narrative. Salih disapproves of this sort of reasoning, in which individuals are defined by their place in a broader sociocultural landscape. After all, Mustafa’s girlfriends provoked his anger in the first place by reducing him to an Orientalist stereotype, and now his defense attorney is doing the same thing. Mustafa disagrees with this line of reasoning and explains, “I am no Othello. I am a lie” (29). See “Season of Migration to the North and Othello” for an in-depth explanation of the similarities between Mustafa and Othello, a classic Orientalist stereotype. Mustafa, though, rejects the stereotype and wishes only for death, so that “the lie” might be killed along with him.
“Over there is like here, neither better nor worse. But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard of our house has grown in our house and not in anyone else’s. The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean we should poison our present and future?”
Here, the narrator tries to explain his affinity for Sudan over Europe, even though he believes that the differences between the two places are ultimately insignificant. He decides that his great love for Wad Hamid derives from being born there. This is an implicit condemnation of people like Mustafa Sa’eed or the British colonists, who abandon their homelands and live like parasites in other parts of the world. In the early chapters of the novel, the narrator believes that the main difference between himself and Mustafa is that he loves his hometown and longs for it while traveling, while Mustafa has no ties to any home.
Despite this implicit criticism of the British, though, the narrator believes that it is better not to dwell on Sudan’s colonial period and instead focus on the future.
“If Mustafa Sa’eed had chosen his end, then he had undertaken the most melodramatic act in the story of his life.”
The concept of “melodrama” appears in several different contexts in Season of Migration to the North. In the preceding chapter, the narrator characterizes the British invasion of Sudan as “a melodramatic act.” By using the same terms for Mustafa Sa’eed’s possible suicide, Salih identifies Mustafa with a kind of reverse-imperialism. Just like the British, the character journeys to a faraway land, “conquers” its women, and commits acts of horrifying violence. Melodrama, then, is the opposite of the simplicity for which both Mustafa and the narrator strive.
By calling Mustafa’s suicide “melodramatic,” the narrator suggests that it is in character with his behavior in Europe, which makes sense on several levels. Most obviously, it shows continuity with the younger Mustafa’s mental state, since Mustafa wanted to commit suicide as a young man but could not bring himself to do it. It also demonstrates a certain lack of consideration for others; by leaving Hosna alone with her children, Mustafa indirectly drives her to the same violent fate as Ann Hammond, Isabella Seymour, and Jean Morris—death at the hands of a lecherous man.
“The infidel women aren’t so knowledgeable about this business as our village girls ... They’re uncircumcized and treat the whole business like having a drink of water. The village girl gets herself rubbed all over with oil and perfumed and puts on a silky night-wrap, and when she lies down on the red mat after the evening prayer and opens her thighs, a man feels like he’s Abu Zeid El-Hilali.”
Bint Majzoub’s opinions about female circumcision are highly problematic. She ties the village women’s eagerness to please their lovers to their own inability to enjoy sex, despite the fact that Bint Majzoub is known for enjoying sex very much herself. This suggests two possibilities: 1) That Bint Majzoub is misrepresenting her views on female circumcision, perhaps so that she can better fit in with the men she drinks with; or 2) That Bint Majzoub’s famous enjoyment of sex is faked. The strong implication that Bint Majzoub is herself circumcised seems to back up the second option, as it is very hard for circumcised women to have orgasms. This then invites the question of why a woman might fake enjoyment of sex in a society as conservative as Wad Hamid. It seems that Bint Majzoub does this because it allows her to participate in male society when she otherwise could not. Although she appears to be a liberated woman who enjoys sex for itself, this enjoyment may be a façade, in which case her relationship to sex is just as transactional as that of the more conventional women who use the promise of sex to secure a wealthy husband. The only difference is that Bint Majzoub is more concerned with social acceptance by men than with financial security, which she already has.
“‘It’s you who’ve succeeded, not I,’ I would say to [Mahjoub] with genuine admiration, ‘because you influence actual life in the country. We civil servants, though, are of no consequence. People like you are the legal heirs of authority; you are the sinews of life, you’re the salt of the earth.’”
At the time this novel was written, Sudan had just achieved independence from Great Britain, and many citizens felt they should dedicate their careers to making the country wealthy, advanced, and self-sufficient. The narrator follows one path to do this—he studies in England, and it is assumed that he will come back use his knowledge to help improve Sudan. The narrator tries, but he is unable to affect the lives of average people because he does not work with them directly, and his travels have left him somewhat out-of-touch with the realities of village life.
Mahjoub, then, presents an alternative. He chose not to go to secondary school and became involved in farming and village politics. The narrator believes that Mahjoub has more influence than he does, and deserves to have power and authority. It is true that Mahjoub has had a more concrete impact on life in Wad Hamid than the narrator has. However, Mahjoub’s advice about Hosna reveals a certain flaw in his "authority." He believes that the narrator should do nothing to prevent her marriage to Wad Rayyes, since Hosna’s father already approved it. He accepts that men will always rule over women, and that ‘peasants’ like himself will never have a say in politics above the village level. Although the narrator lacks Mahmoud’s direct involvement with politics, he is able to think more broadly about what society should be like, and ponders systemic social flaws that Mahmoud takes for granted. Salih, then, is suggesting that both types of leader are essential to improving the country, and there is a place for each.
“I became aware of [Hosna’s] voice in the darkness like blade of a knife. ‘If they force me to marry, I’ll kill him and kill myself.’”
The obvious foreshadowing of the murder-suicide in this passage is paired with subtler hints of what is to come. The comparison of Hosna’s voice to the blade of a knife is a clear allusion to the murder weapon, but it also evokes Mustafa’s repeated comparison of his mind to "a sharp knife." Hosna, it seems, has embraced Mustafa’s pairing of sex with violence, and indeed her murder of Wad Rayyes, which apparently happens while he is trying to rape her, echoes Mustafa’s murder of Jean Morris, which occurs while they are having sex.
It is also interesting that the narrator compares Hosna’s voice to the knife. Throughout the novel, the narrator has been unable to speak up when he sees something bad happening, be it corruption at the Ministry of Education or Hosna’s forced marriage. In the novel, one’s voice is equated with one’s agency, so the comparison of Hosna’s voice to a knife suggests that the only way for her to have a voice, to take control of her life, is through violence.
“How strange! How ironic! Just because a man has been created on the Equator some mad people regard him as a slave, others as a god. Where lies the mean? Where the middle way?”
Here, Salih addresses the contradictory attitudes that the British have toward the people they colonize. On the one hand, they mythologize them through Orientalist art and literature, but on the other, they treat them like animals and subjugate their countries. The one thing the British do not do is attempt to understand Easterners as fellow humans. Mustafa experiences this on an individual level in Britain; Isabella Seymour worships him and Jean Morris scorns him, but he does not have a healthy, equitable relationship with anyone. Within the novel, a “middle way” is illusory both in personal relationships and in politics; Westerners are always either romanticizing Eastern culture (like the Robinsons) or dehumanizing it (like Richard the finance analyst).
“I feel hatred and seek revenge; my adversary is within and I needs must confront him ... I begin from where Mustafa Sa’eed had left off. Yet he at least made a choice, while I have chosen nothing.”
Here, the narrator finally acknowledges the parallels between himself and Mustafa Sa’eed. Both men have an “adversary ... within” as their ultimate nemesis, and confronting their own darker, violent natures is more of a challenge than dealing with their British or Sudanese enemies. Mustafa tried to fight his violent side by marrying Hosna and living a peaceful life in Wad Hamid, but ultimately he succumbed and committed suicide. By acknowledging that he faces the same demons, the narrator is able to learn from Mustafa’s experiences, and reconcile himself with his own conflicted nature.
“[Isabella Seymour] had had eleven years of happy married life, regularly going to church every Sunday morning and participating in charitable organizations. Then she met him and discovered deep within herself dark areas that had previously been closed.”
It is established in the rest of the novel that Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator have violent alter egos that they constantly struggle to control. However, little has been said up to this point about the seemingly innocent victims of Mustafa’s behavior. Isabella Seymour cheated on her loving husband to be with Mustafa, and Ann and Sheila abandoned their families. However, these acts of hedonism are mostly downplayed. In this instance, though, Salih acknowledges that Isabella too has “dark areas” that are exacerbated by Mustafa. By the end of the novel, it is clear that the battle between the peaceful and violent sides of one’s self is not exclusive to Mustafa and the narrator, but is a dramatization of the conflicts that all people struggle with daily.
Season of Migration to the North Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Season of Migration to the North is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The narrator waits until he enters Mustafa’s private room to relate the most violent and sexually charged memories from Mustafa’s story in Chapter 2. By adding pieces to Mustafa’s story retroactively, the narrator undermines his own reliability;...
Season of Migration to the North essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.