Season of Migration to the North

Season of Migration to the North Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 and 5


The narrator insists that despite his long discussion of Mustafa Sa’eed, he is not obsessed with the man. He compares life to a perpetually moving caravan, in which people cannot stop long to dwell on the dead. Although the narrator now works in Khartoum, he still spends two months per year in Wad Hamid, and the story turns to when the narrator is returning on just such a visit. The village has changed: The narrator passes an unfinished hospital that the government started to build and then abandoned, and a group of ‘peasants’ is rallying for the National Democratic Socialist Party. The narrator and his uncles express doubt that these developments will actually change the villagers’ daily lives.

The narrator thinks back to Mustafa Sa’eed, who left the narrator an undated letter before he died. In the letter, he leaves his “wife, two sons, and all [his] worldly goods” (54) in the narrator’s care. He stipulates that Hosna can do as she wishes with Mustafa’s property, and that the narrator should simply make himself available to help the family and act as an adviser to his sons. Mustafa hopes that his sons will be spared “the pangs of wanderlust ... have a worthwhile upbringing and ... take up worthwhile work” (54). He also leaves the narrator the key to his “private room” where his diaries are kept, saying that although his life holds no useful lessons, the narrator is free to satisfy his curiosity now. The narrator had long suspected that Mustafa committed suicide, and the tone of the letter seems to confirm that.

In a part of Mustafa’s story that is not revealed until now, we find out that Mustafa hoped to be executed at his murder trial, since he had wanted to commit suicide after killing Jean Morris but had not had the courage. He recalls that even Ann Hammond’s father, one of the jurors, voted for life imprisonment instead of capital punishment, explaining that Ann might have killed herself for reasons unrelated to Mustafa. Mustafa also explicitly lied to Ann, telling her that they would marry so that she would have sex with him, and then went back on his promise. This was implied in Chapter 2.

The narrator contemplates the indifference of nature, which is ultimately what killed Mustafa, whether or not he intended it. He observes that the Nile flows inexorably to the north.

The narrator goes to visit his grandfather, who is drinking with Wad Rayyes, Bakri, and Bint Majzoub. As he enters his grandfather’s home, he ponders that his grandfather is part of the natural world, and that the fate of the man and his beautiful house are both tied to vicissitudes of nature. Wad Rayyes is in the middle of a raunchy story about raping a slave girl when the narrator arrives. Bint Majzoub, an old woman who smokes and talks about sex with the men, teases Wad Rayyes and then talks about how much she enjoyed sex with one of her eight husbands, Wad Basheer. We learn that Bint Majzoub is very wealthy from the combined estates of her eight husbands, and that she is known for being “uninhibited in her conversation” (64).

Wad Rayyes, who is seventy but still handsome and libidinous, mentions that he hopes to take another wife. (Although Wad Hamid is a mostly monogamous village, rural Sudanese society at this time was polygynous, meaning that men could have multiple wives, but women could not have multiple husbands. Bint Majzoub married her eight husbands successively, after each one died.)

Wad Rayyes teases the narrator about having sex with infidel women, but the narrator is taciturn and says he does not know what Wad Rayyes is talking about. Bint Majzoub insists that circumcised village women are better lovers than their foreign counterparts are, because they view sex as something that only pleases the man, and thus put more effort into it. Wad Rayyes disagrees vehemently, saying that uncircumcised women are more fun when having sex. He argues that Muslims in other parts of the world do not circumcise their women, and they are just as faithful as the people of Wad Hamid, who do. Bakri says that women are the same everywhere, circumcised or not.

The men and Bint Majzoub continue to joke lewdly, and after having a hearty laugh, they all pray for God’s forgiveness. Wad Rayyes invites the narrator to lunch. After he leaves, the narrator’s grandfather reveals that Wad Rayyes did this because he plans to ask the narrator for Hosna Bint Mahmoud’s hand in marriage. Because the narrator is the guardian of Mustafa’s wife and children, he must approve Hosna’s remarriage. The narrator complains about this, saying that he is only the guardian of Mustafa’s children, and Hosna can do as she pleases. The grandfather retorts by saying that the narrator could still help persuade Hosna, who is unlikely to accept Wad Rayyes’ proposal on his own.

Although such things are common in the village, the narrator is angry about the situation. He thinks that Wad Rayyes would be a cruel husband to Hosna, who is forty years his junior. He concludes that this marriage is just as immoral as Mustafa’s cruelty to his English mistresses.


In these chapters, Salih emphasizes the indifference of nature to the characters’ experiences. This theme is explored through Mustafa’s death in a flood, as well as the narrator’s meditations about his grandfather. Although his grandfather seems to have a charmed, civilized existence, he is just as beholden to nature as anyone else is, and he could die in a disaster as easily as Mustafa Sa’eed did.

However, Salih complicates the narrator’s argument that nature is omnipotent through these chapters’ focus on the arrival of technology in Wad Hamid. The use of water pumps and pre-made doors seems to distance the villagers from nature. Salih seems to believe that this is a false sense of distance, though, and the villagers are really just as vulnerable as ever to the immutable force of the Nile, which can kill people as well as draw them upstream to Egypt and Europe. He is also critical of the changes that technology has made to daily life, putting Wad Baseer, one of the most skilled engineers in the village, out of work.

Wad Baseer is an autodidact who serves as a general village handyman; his career can be contrasted with that of the narrator, whose extensive education is highly specialized. For the narrator, the conditions of his labor are largely separate from its products—that is, he has an office job dedicated to education policy, but does not work directly with schools or children. This might explain why his policies are exposed as ineffectual later in the novel. Although the narrator means well, Salih endorses Wad Baseer’s simple education and hands-on job as a better way to improve people’s lives.

The discussion of female circumcision in Chapter 4 is extremely important. Bint Majzoub, the only woman in the group, appears to endorse female circumcision, but her position is complicated by the way she has lived her life. She greatly enjoys sex herself, but argues that female circumcision is good because it makes women unable to enjoy sex, and thus more focused on pleasing their lovers. This paradox suggests that Bint Majzoub may not be offering all of her opinions on the matter, and indeed she remains quiet throughout the rest of the conversation.

The discussion is also very important for understanding the character of Wad Rayyes. He appears to take the most progressive stance on the topic of circumcision, but his reasons for doing so are self-centered and borderline-misogynistic: he only opposes circumcision because he finds uncircumcised women more attractive. To emphasize the character’s misogyny, the narrator adds that Wad Rayyes sees women only as interchangeable sex objects. The characterization in the discussion of circumcision helps explain the narrator’s anger when he finds out that Wad Rayyes intends to marry Hosna.