The unnamed narrator has returned to his native village in the Sudan after seven years in England furthering his education.
On his arrival home, the Narrator encounters a new villager named Mustafa Sa'eed who exhibits none of the adulation for his achievements that most others do, and he displays an antagonistically aloof nature. Mustafa betrays his past one drunken evening by wistfully reciting poetry in fluent English, leaving the narrator resolute to discover the stranger's identity. The Narrator later asks Mustafa about his past, and Mustafa tells the Narrator much of his story, often saying "I am no Othello, Othello was a lie," as well as "I am a lie."
The Narrator becomes fascinated by Mustafa, and he learns that Mustafa was also a precocious student educated in the west but he held a violent, hateful and complex relationship with his western identity and acquaintances. The story of Mustafa's troubled past in Europe, and in particular his love affairs with British women, form the center of the novel. The narrator then discovers that the stranger, Mustafa Sa'eed, awakens in him great curiosity, despair and anger, as Mustafa emerges as his doppelgänger. The stories of Mustafa's past life in England, and the repercussions on the village around him, taking their toll on the narrator, who is driven to the very edge of sanity. In the final chapter, the Narrator is floating in the Nile, precariously between life and death, and the Narrator makes the conscious choice to rid himself of Mustafa's lingering presence, and to stand as an influential individual in his own right.
The novel has also been related in many senses to Heart of Darkness by author Joseph Conrad. Both novels explore cultural hybridity, cross-colonial experiences, and orientalism.