Mawsim al-Hijrah ilâ al-Shamâl is a story told to an unspecified audience of the “traveled man,” the African who has returned from schooling abroad by an unnamed narrator. The narrator returns to his Sudanese village of Wad Hamid on the Nile in the 1950s after writing a phD thesis on ‘the life of an obscure English poet’. Mustafa Sa'eed, the main protagonist of the novel, is a child of British colonialism, and a fruit of colonial education. He is also a monstrous product of his time.
The unnamed narrator is eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country. 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 learns that Mustafa was also a precocious student educated in the West but that 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. Mustafa attracts the women by appealing to their Orientalist fantasies. All of the relationships end in tragedy. Three of the women commit suicide and the fourth, Mustafa's wife, is murdered by him. He stands trial for the murder and serves time in an English jail.
In the dramatic present, Mustafa drowns in the Nile, and his widow, Hosna, is pressured to remarry. She refuses, because she does not want to marry after her husband. She tries to appeal to the Narrator, who was appointed the guardian of her sons in Mustafa's will. The Narrator does try to foil the marriage before it can take place, but he spends most of his time in Khartoum and therefore cannot exert much influence on the village. Hosna is married to Wad Rayyes against her will, and when he attempts to forcefully consummate the marriage, she kills him first and then proceeds to kill herself. Both are then buried without a funeral.
The stories of Mustafa's past life in England, and the repercussions on the village around him, take 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 resolves to rid himself of Mustafa's lingering presence, and to stand as an influential individual in his own right. In the middle of the Nile, he yells, "Help! Help!" The novel ends upon that cry and it is unclear whether his decision is too late, whether it is the right one, and whether he, others, and the country itself will receive the help needed.