Throughout Season of Migration to the North, the narrator meditates on the degree to which we are all at the mercy of nature. His grandfather, who has had a calm and successful life, could be killed in a flood just as easily as Mustafa Sa'eed was, and even the exciting party on the way to Khartoum feels minuscule in the vast desert. Ultimately, the strict moral code of Wad Hamid is not much different from the looser culture of Europe, because human agency is subject to nature. Although people try to tame nature through various methods (such as the water pumps), everything they try is futile. There is a parallel to this in the characters' attempts to grapple with their personal natures; Mustafa is ultimately unable to live a happy, simple village life, and the narrator is similarly unable to burn the private room or commit suicide, because he does not have violence or hatred in his nature.
The most obvious examples of misogyny appear in the shocking second half of the novel, which includes the graphic discussion of female circumcision, as well as Hosna's forced marriage to Wad Rayyes. Although Salih condemns the oppression of women in rural Sudan, his critique is not limited to his own country. The women that Mustafa meets in England are also subject to social restrictions; they are educated but cannot get jobs, and they are socially tainted by their sexual relationships with Mustafa (which partially explains their suicides). Even well intentioned characters like Mahjoub believe that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves. The narrator is the only character that challenges this orthodoxy, but he is ultimately unwilling to intervene in Hosna's marriage or speak out against female circumcision. The earnest, searing depictions of oppression and violence against women in African and European societies are the least ambiguous political "message" in the novel. Salih's portrayal of these issues amounts to a clear call to action against social orders that hurt and enslave women, no matter where they are in the world.
Communication between Eastern and Western cultures
Season of Migration to the North shows many characters who make earnest attempts to start a dialogue with people from other cultures. Mustafa's lectures on Arabic poetry and development economics are well attended, and Richard and Mansour have an involved debate about the best way for Sudan to become economically advanced. Nevertheless, these attempts at dialogue are often thwarted by miscommunication, sometimes intentional and sometimes not. Mustafa blatantly lies to English people who have a sincere (if misguided) interest in his culture, and does not bother trying to correct their misconceptions. In addition, the political debate that the narrator witnesses is futile because Richard refuses to acknowledge the validity of the "superstitious" Sudanese culture. Neither side takes the other's attempts to communicate seriously, which deepens the rift between the cultures and prevents them from reconciling on a national level.
Political participation versus passivity
The narrator has the most progressive political views in Season of Migration to the North. He believes that people should see the world and become acquainted with other cultures, and he is a strong proponent of women's rights. However, he rarely speaks his mind, and he does not intervene when he sees corruption, be it at the national level (at his job at the Ministry of Education) or the personal level (in the forced marriage of Hosna bint Mahmoud). Thus, his political enlightenment amounts to nothing, for all its virtues, because he is so passive. He has a foil in Mahjoub, who is an economic populist but conservative on social issues, who is heavily involved in village politics despite his lack of education. As the mayor of Wad Hamid, Mahjoub has the ability to save Hosna and prevent Wad Rayyes's murder, but chooses not to. Through him, Salih reveals another form of passivity that is rooted not in personal cowardice but in ignorance and hatred.
The drawbacks of modernization
The recurring image of the water pumps on the Nile is the most prominent symbol of industrial modernization, which gradually takes hold in Wad Hamid over the course of the novel. The water pumps bring wealth to their owners but do not affect the lives of the village people, and they rearrange the shape of the river, possibly causing the floods that kill Mustafa and many others. The character of Wad Baseer experiences modernization's downsides firsthand. The most experienced handyman in the village, he is put out of work when people begin buying store-bought door frames and farming machines. The narrator notes that Wad Baseer's craftsmanship is better and more durable, but that he cannot compete with the prices of mass-produced goods. Salih portrays modernization as a process that benefits the upper and middle classes, but only harms the poor farmers that live in villages. It polarizes the classes, with the rich getting richer from the new technology, and the poor losing their livelihood.
The unreliability of storytelling
When reading Season of Migration to the North, it is easy to forget that the story is not told by an objective narrator, but by a character with emotions and biases. He strategically omits parts of the story, which becomes clear in the final chapters, when we hear the especially graphic parts of Mustafa's life story that were left out of Chapter 2. This calls into question what other omissions the narrator might have made. Similarly, the narrator rarely quotes certain characters directly; the most dramatic example of this is Hosna bint Mahmoud, whose dialogue is almost entirely paraphrased by the narrator. This emphasizes her lack of agency, and suggests that even the progressive narrator has internalized certain misogynistic attitudes. Consider Hosna's lack of 'voice' in the text in contrast to Mustafa Sa'eed, whose words are quoted at length and repeated throughout the story. Salih highlights these discrepancies to show that the narrator of any story is always biased. The act of storytelling is itself an act of selection, with some events emphasized and some left out.
The narrator witnesses rampant corruption at his job, and several characters--most notably Mahjoub and the narrator's uncle, Abdul Mannan--believe that Sudan will never become a developed country because its leaders are too corrupt, and its elections too undemocratic. The unfinished hospital in Wad Hamid is symbolic of the failures of the national government, as well as the unrealized potential that Sudan has to heal the wounds left by imperialism. Good will is not enough to solve the problem; the narrator hates corruption but never acts to stop it. The only way to intervene, it seems, is to participate in politics on an individual and local level, as Mahjoub does.
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;...