Mustafa Sa’eed begins to tell the narrator the story of his life. Mustafa is the only child of a camel trader from Khartoum, who died before he was born. He grew up alone with his mother, with whom he had a distant but cordial relationship, and was more independent and less emotional than other children were at his age. At this time (the early twentieth century), many Sudanese were afraid of the British efforts to establish schools for the natives, and would hide their children from government officials who came to enroll their children in school. However, Mustafa volunteers to go to school after seeing a government official; he likes the man’s hat and wants to become a civil servant so he can wear one just like it. He remembers this as an important moment because “it was the first decision I had taken of my own free will” (20).
Aided by an excellent memory and a knack for problem solving, Mustafa quickly becomes the most brilliant student in his school, scorning the friendship of other boys to focus on intellectual pursuits. He repeatedly compares his mind to a sharp knife. When Mustafa is twelve, Mr. Stockwell arranges for him to go to high school in Cairo on a scholarship, as there are no high schools in Sudan. However, Mustafa feels no gratitude towards him. After an emotionless farewell to his mother, Mustafa Sa’eed heads for Cairo.
In Cairo, Mr. Robinson, the headmaster of Mustafa’s new high school, meets the boy at the train station along with his wife, Mrs. Robinson. Mustafa recalls being aroused when Mrs. Robinson hugs him in greeting, and reflects that she would be his only friend after he was imprisoned for murder as an adult. For the next three years, the Robinsons, who speak Arabic and are interested in Islamic culture, take Mustafa to see important cultural sites around Cairo, and Mrs. Robinson introduces him to Western writers and composers.
At fifteen, Mustafa is accepted to university in London and sets sail for England. He reflects that his life in Cairo was largely dull, and he looks forward to exploring “unknown horizons” (25). Upon arriving in England, he notices that it lacks the hustle and bustle of Cairo—the geography is very orderly, and people are quiet and polite.
Mustafa’s narrative now flashes forward, to when he first meets Jean Morris at a party ten years later. He is drunk but is stunned by her arrogance and cold beauty when she enters the room. By this time, Mustafa has immersed himself in the London literary and political scenes, and has made a hobby of seducing women. The second time he sees her, Jean Morris tells Mustafa that he has the ugliest face she has ever seen, and he resolves to “one day make her pay for that” (27). The next morning, Mustafa wakes up with his current girlfriend, Ann Hammond, a privileged twenty-year-old who studies Oriental languages at Oxford. Mustafa explains that he transformed the innocent girl “into a harlot” (27), and that one day she would gas herself to death, leaving a note that says, “Mr. Sa’eed, may God damn you” (27).
The story flashes forward again, to Mustafa Sa’eed’s trial. He is charged with the murder of Jean Morris, as well as causing the suicides of Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour. Mustafa is defended by his former professor, Maxwell Foster-Keen, who argues that Mustafa and the women are all victims of a larger clash of civilizations, and Mustafa cannot be blamed for the murders because Western culture is less civilized than it should be. We also learn that Mustafa was made a lecturer in economics at London University at twenty-four, and became famous for his “appeal for humanity in economics” (31).
Mustafa doubles back to his early relationship with Jean Morris. After pursuing her relentlessly, Jean finally says that she cannot bear to be chased anymore, so they should get married. Their marriage is passionate and tumultuous, and to Mustafa, sex with Jean feels like an act of aggression.
His narration then goes on a tangent, as he remembers Sheila Greenwood. “A waitress in a Soho restaurant, a simple girl” (30), Mustafa is surprised that Sheila, a virgin when he met her, had the strength to commit suicide.
In another flashback, Mustafa recalls seeing a beautiful older woman, Isabella Seymour, at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. She reminds him of Mrs. Robinson. He invites her out for tea, which she accepts. To capture her interest, he makes up stories about “deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals call out to each other” (32-33). As they chat, she asks him about his race, to which he responds: “I am like Othello—Arab-African” (33). He lies to her about her name, saying that it is Amin Hassan.
Mustafa says to the narrator that the secret to happy life is simple living; this is the secret that the narrator’s grandfather knows. However, Mustafa is condemned by his ambition to live a complicated, twisted life. Thinking back to Isabella Seymour, Mustafa reveals that she was resistant to his seduction at first, but after having sex with him, she told him that she loved him and promptly burst into tears.
As Laila Lalami notes in her introduction to the New York Review Classics edition of the novel, Mustafa’s relentless intellectualism helps explain his violence. Throughout the chapter, Salih sets up intellectual pursuit in opposition to the good things in life—compassion, simplicity, community. Not coincidentally, intellectual curiosity is what leads both Mustafa and the narrator to leave Sudan study in England. Mustafa’s mind, like a “sharp knife,” cuts past human emotion, and he finds he cannot appreciate the beauty of London when he arrives there (32). This is the source of an important difference between Mustafa and the narrator—while the narrator equates intellectualism with passion, imagination, and exciting experiences, Mustafa uses his academic studies to distance himself from all of these things.
This chapter also introduces Mustafa’s method of seducing women. He fabricates details about life in Sudan, romanticizing his life story to reflect all the dreams, fears, and “hankerings” that British women have for the Eastern world. The women’s credulous acceptance of Mustafa’s lies illustrates a broader point tendency in Salih’s portrait of race relations. Even well intentioned Westerners, like Ann Hammond and Isabella Seymour, cannot relate to Easterners as equals, because they prefer romantic fantasies about a wild “heart of darkness” to the truth, which is that Africans are not so different from Europeans.
Interestingly, Mustafa’s anger toward the British women who are fascinated with his world does not extend to Mr. Robinson, who is also “interested in Islamic thought and architecture.” (23) Unlike the women, Mr. Robinson does not study the Middle East from afar, but moves there with his wife and learns the language. Despite his anger, then, Mustafa’s view of Westerners is not wholly damning; he only resents the ones who think they understand other cultures without really trying.
Stylistically, Mustafa’s narration is much more sophisticated than that of the narrator. He repeats key phrases, comparing himself to a “sharp knife” and a “thirsty desert,” and ending each anecdote with the refrain, “And the train carried me to Victoria Station and to the world of Jean Morris.” This lends his narration an element of music or poetry, and associates it the African tradition of oral storytelling, while the narrator’s story is much more linear and straightforward, having more in common with the self-consciously literary style of a British novel.
The portrayal of time in this section is also more fractured than the opening chapter. Mustafa flashes forward and backward in time; the chapter’s rhythms mimic the free associations of human thought. One result of this structure is that it can be hard to tell the exact chronology of Mustafa’s many affairs. This speaks to his casual attitude toward the individual women; they blur together in his narrative because they blur together in his mind. He only cares about sex, and the women are interchangeable, even when they kill themselves because he has broken their hearts. The vague chronology also develops a circular notion of time, in which important images and situations repeatedly occur, and no one ever truly escapes their past.