Season of Migration to the North

Season of Migration to the North Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3


The story returns to the narrator’s perspective. The narrator tells us that in July, an indeterminate amount of time after telling the narrator his life story, Mustafa disappeared while working in the fields during a flooding of the Nile. His wife was distraught and the villagers conducted an extensive search for him, but Mustafa’s body was never found and everyone assumed that crocodiles ate him. The narrator is in Khartoum at the time and only hears of Mustafa’s demise later.

The narrator returns to the night that Mustafa began his life story. After ending for the night, the narrator wanders around Wad Hamid. He passes Wad Rayyes’ house and overhears him having sex with his wife; the narrator feels ashamed for invading the couple’s privacy. He then reflects that although he knows the village intimately, he has never seen it so late at night. He passes his grandfather’s house and hears the old man getting ready for morning prayers. After Mustafa’s disturbing story, the narrator is comforted by his grandfather’s immutable daily ritual.

The narrator reflects on the differences between himself and Mustafa. Although the narrator also slept with English women, he did so “superficially, neither loving nor hating them” (41). During his time in Britain, the narrator was often homesick and cherished his memories of Wad Hamid. He reiterates his belief that Europeans are fundamentally similar to Africans, and that after the British leave Sudan, the locals will simply pick up and continue their lives as if nothing had happened.

Two years after Mustafa’s death, the narrator takes a job at the Department of Education in Khartoum. He remains preoccupied with Mustafa for the next 25 years. One day, on the train to an outlying city, the narrator encounters a retired Mamur who went to school with many important government officials. Reminiscing about his school days, the Mamur reveals that he also went to school with Mustafa, who was the most brilliant student in his year, but was known for being an aloof teacher’s pet. He and his classmates were very jealous of Mustafa’s talent for the English language. The Mamur then goes on a tangent, telling the narrator about his career as a tax collector before becoming a Mamur. He gripes that the Sudanese tax collectors would try to do their jobs, but people would often appeal their taxes to the English imperial government, which would grant the appeals, thus currying favor with the locals and sowing resentment for the Sudanese middle class, which consisted largely of low-level civil servants. He continues that the British government always gave the good bureaucratic jobs to “nobodies” (45), and because Mustafa was intelligent and his mother came from an obscure tribe, his classmates were sure he would go far.

Less than a month after meeting the Mamur, the narrator is at a party with other government officials. During a discussion about “mixed marriages” between Sudanese men and English women, a young lecturer from the university brings up Mustafa Sa’eed. The lecturer gives a very different account of Mustafa’s life, saying that he took British citizenship, was a major supporter of British imperialism and possibly a secret agent in the Middle East, served as a secretary at the British Naval Conference of 1936, and is now “a millionaire living like a lord in the English countryside” (46). The narrator calmly responds by giving a very specific inventory of the paltry estate that Mustafa left behind when he died. The lecturer is startled and asks if the narrator is Mustafa’s son. The lecturer corrects himself since he knows that the narrator could not possibly be Mustafa’s son, and laughs off the narrator’s knowledge as a poet’s “flight of fancy” (47), much to the narrator’s annoyance. We also learn that the narrator was made into Mustafa’s executor, and has taken charge of his two sons.

Richard then butts into the conversation, saying that Mustafa was a dubious economist who had a reputation for fudging his statistics and relying on generalities rather than facts. He adds that Mustafa was popular among left-wing bohemians, who embraced him as a kind of “token” African. The Englishman adds that if he had stuck to academics and avoided the leftists, Mustafa could have done great things for Sudan, a country that still clings to superstition. The narrator thinks to himself that Richard’s statistics and Sudanese superstitions are merely different varieties of dogma, and that British colonialism was “a melodramatic act” (50) that is blown out of proportion by both sides.


In this short chapter, Salih puts aside Mustafa’s dark, mysterious narrative and returns to the narrator’s inner world. While Mustafa is a violent, self-centered character, the narrator initially seems to be a “model Sudanese citizen” (Harss). However, this chapter foregrounds the narrator’s passivity. When the young lecturer recounts a ridiculous, exaggerated version of Mustafa’s life, the narrator makes a half-hearted attempt to refute it, but fails to explain Mustafa’s true fate in a way that the party guests can understand, retreating into himself after listing the contents of Mustafa’s will.

In this chapter, Salih presents a variety of opinions on the 77-year British occupation of Sudan. The Mamur represents the prejudices of the postcolonial Sudanese elite; although the free Sudan seems to be more progressive just because it is free of imperial war, Salih warns us against making this assumption. The Mamur is prejudiced against “nobodies” from obscure tribes or from Southern Sudan, and is annoyed that the British used a meritocratic model in awarding government positions, rather than giving them to the existing Sudanese aristocracy. After the British left, prejudiced individuals like the Mamur were once again allowed to rule, but the implicit question is whether this is actually better for the general population than foreign rule.

As with the Mamur, Mustafa Sa’eed provides Richard a point of departure to express his views about colonialism more broadly. An Englishman who has nevertheless remained in Khartoum after his country pulled out, Richard rejects the “superstitions” of the Sudanese and the bleary-eyed romanticism of his left-wing countrymen. He shares Mustafa’s contempt for the Londoners who embrace him as a token of their own tolerance and liberalism. However, Salih identifies Richard’s faith in statistics as merely another kind of religious dogma, and represents his condescension to Sudanese culture as an impassable “chasm” (50) that prevents him from having real dialogue with the African characters.

The Mamur and Richard attempt to engage in a meaningful dialogue about colonialism, but ultimately only express their own views. The narrator, however, does not even try to express his views, a passivity that undercuts the moral authority that he might otherwise have, given his sensitive and measured political opinions. The narrator’s insistence on placing the Sudanese events within a very broad historical narrative seems in this chapter to be the correct point of view; he at least has an aesthetic appreciation of the experiences of ordinary Sudanese, and lacks the Mamur’s prejudice or Richard’s arrogance.

Nevertheless, the narrator’s perspective will also be exposed as out-of-touch by the end of the book, and his inability to actively contribute to his country or intervene with an atrocity in his village will reveal the moral bankruptcy of the Sudanese elite’s orthodox liberalism. Salih lays the groundwork for this exposure in the third chapter by establishing the narrator as fundamentally passive; although he initially seems to stand in opposition to the ‘wrong’ viewpoints of Richard and the Mamur, the differences between their ineffectual viewpoints will shrink in the context of the rest of the novel.