After seven years of studying in Europe, the unnamed narrator has returned to his hometown, Wad Hamid, a small village near the Nile in Sudan. Having become accustomed to the people and climate of Great Britain, the narrator at first feels uncomfortable after returning to the village. However, the sound of turtledoves cooing and the wind in the palm trees calms him, and he is reassured that “all was still well with life” (4). While having tea with his parents the morning after his return, the narrator recalls an unfamiliar, middle-aged man who stood silently in the crowd that welcomed the narrator back. His father explains that the man is Mustafa Sa’eed, a stranger who moved to Wad Hamid five years ago. Mustafa bought a farm and married Mahmoud’s daughter, but he keeps to himself and no one knows much about him.
The narrator recalls seeing Mustafa among the crowd. The villagers had many questions about England—they want to know about the weather, how people make money, and if Europeans are immoral. The narrator replies that Europeans are the same as the villagers in every meaningful way. He wishes to expound further on this, but restrains himself because he believes the villagers are not intelligent enough to take his point. Throughout the gathering, Mustafa’s silence and mysterious smile unnerve the narrator.
Forgetting about Mustafa, the narrator visits each family in the village to hear their news from the past seven years. He also visits his old childhood haunt, an acacia tree overlooking the Nile. The narrator reflects that as he grew up, he witnessed the shift from water wheels to water pumps, which changed the shape of the river, drying it up in some places and adding water in others. The narrator then goes to visit his grandfather, who is very knowledgeable about the people in Wad Hamid and its outlying areas. He asks him about Mustafa Sa’eed, but his grandfather only knows that the man is from Khartoum, and married Mahmoud’s daughter, Hosna, a year after arriving in the village. The narrator’s grandfather grumbles that Mahmoud’s tribe “doesn’t mind to whom they marry their daughters,” but then qualifies this complaint by noting that Mustafa has always been a good citizen.
Two days later, Mustafa visits the narrator at his home, bringing fruit and explaining that he would like to get to know the narrator. The narrator notices that Mustafa’s excessive politeness is uncharacteristic of village culture. In their conversation, the narrator reveals to Mustafa that he earned a doctorate in English poetry, but is offended when Mustafa replies that “we have no need of poetry here” and that he should have pursued a more practical subject that could help advance the country, like engineering or agriculture. The narrator changes the subject asking Mustafa about his origins in Khartoum. Mustafa becomes uncomfortable, but explains that he “did business” in Khartoum but wanted to try farming, and moved to Wad Hamid sight unseen based on instinct. He then leaves abruptly, saying to the narrator without further explanation: “Your grandfather knows the secret.”
The narrator asks Mahjoub and his other friends about Mustafa, but learns nothing new. Two months later, Mahjoub invites the narrator to a meeting of the Agricultural Project Committee, which regulates farming in Wad Hamid. Mustafa is a member of the Committee, and demonstrates great charisma when he solves a disagreement about villagers allocating more water to their crops than they have been allotted.
Later, Mahjoub invites the narrator to a drinking session. When Mustafa walks by, Mahjoub pressures him to sit and drink with the men although it is clear Mustafa does not want to. Eventually Mustafa relents, and after getting drunk, he begins to recite from the poem “Antwerp” by Ford Madox Hueffer. The narrator is impressed and terrified by Mustafa’s perfect English, and demands to know where he learned it. Mustafa storms out without saying a word. The next day, the narrator confronts Mustafa about the poetry, accusing him of hiding something about his identity. Mustafa shrugs off the incident, saying that the poetry was only drunken ranting and the narrator should not make too much of it.
The following day, Mustafa approaches the narrator, telling him that he has something to say and the narrator should come to Mustafa’s house later. Curious, the narrator goes. Mustafa says that he will tell the narrator the truth about his identity so that he will not imagine things or tell the other villagers about his suspicions. After swearing the narrator to secrecy, Mustafa Sa’eed shows him his birth certificate and passport, which has stamps from many countries in Europe and Asia. He then begins to recount his life story.
The opening chapter of Season of Migration to the North serves as a frame for the rest of the story. After this chapter, we will hear a monologue relating the story of Mustafa’s life, before returning to the narrator’s point of view many years later. Many of the insights that we learn about the narrator’s character also shed light on Mustafa Sa’eed. For example, the narrator remains deeply conflicted about whether it is better to stay in Wad Hamid or to travel the world. Although he is curious about the world and about the knowledge it has to offer, he explains that “I hear a bird sing or a dog bark or the sound of an axe on wood—and I feel a sense of stability, I feel that I am important, that I am continuous and integral” (6). Unlike the narrator, Mustafa Sa’eed feels like an outcast during his childhood in Khartoum, and this lack of a positive cultural reference point might explain why he reacts so violently to British culture.
Also in this quote, Salih introduces a stereotype that many Westerners have about Islamic societies—that they are more communal and tightly knit than the great cities of Europe and America. Throughout the novel, Salih will continuously undermine this stereotype of village life, until neither the narrator nor the readers believe it any longer. By the end of Season of Migration to the North, it becomes clear that the villagers can be just as violent, cruel, and rigid as Western city-dwellers. Like Salih, Mustafa also enjoys playing on stereotypes, exaggerating his foreignness in order to pick up women. In a way, Salih is doing the same thing with his novel, creating an idyllic depiction of village life that he will then destroy by focusing on the gritty realities of poverty, colonialism, and the oppression of women.
The first chapter presents a broad view of political issues on which Salih will focus later in the story. The narrator remarks on the modernization of agriculture when he reflects on the replacement of water wheels with powerful, electric water pumps. “Seeing the bank contracting at one place and expanding at another,” the narrator says, “I would think that such was life: with a hand it gives, with the other it takes” (6). This measured, pessimistic view of modernization is characteristic of Salih, whose characters often express doubts about whether modernization and freedom imperial rule will actually improve their lives.
In this section, Mustafa Sa’eed is established as a foil to the narrator; over the course of the novel, they will become more and more similar until eventually, it becomes unclear which of them is actually narrating the story. In the first chapter, though, Mustafa and the narrator seem very different—while Mustafa keeps to himself and resents being invited to drink with the village men, the narrator is a veritable social butterfly who spends most of the chapter calling on family and friends. Until the narrator sees the stamps in Mustafa’s passport at the end of the chapter, he assumes that Mustafa is unintelligent and provincial, because he pretends not to know what a doctorate is.
This contrast between the two personalities heightens Mustafa’s enigmatic allure, while also undercutting the narrator’s authority as a storyteller. The narrator is unreliable in this section because he is fundamentally self-centered; he frequently admits to being egotistical and regarding himself as “the outstanding young man in the village.” Because of his narcissism, the narrator tends to exaggerate the differences between him and the other characters, portraying Mustafa Sa’eed and others as parochial and unintelligent. In the case of Mustafa Sa’eed, the narrator is proved wrong at the end of the chapter, and the sudden revelation that Mustafa is in fact quite worldly invites readers to question whether the narrator’s assessments of Mahjoub, Hosna, and his grandfather are equally inaccurate.