“The Train carried me to Victoria Station and the world of Jean Morris”
From Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.
Title montage, scenes of Victoria Station, 1930s and Lady Justice of The Old Bailey. Below, London in the the fog as a backdrop to the first page of what is held by many to be the greatest Arabic novel of the twentieth century.
Season Of Migration to the North has been compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare’s Othello and even The Great Gatsby.
This week’s post invites you to join award-winning British Sudanese writer, Leila Aboulela and her host, Henry Eliot, as they journey to some of the evocative London haunts so central to Season of Migration to the North, all the while offering tantalizing glimpses and insights into the lives of both Tayeb Salih and his characters.
Leila Aboulela, pictured below, is warm and engaging as she shares her personal memories of the writer and her evolving impressions of the novel. Leila has been praised for “the extreme beauty of her prose”, making her work “utterly readable”. Her latest novel, set in Mahdist times is River Spirit and is published next March.
Click on the link below to listen to the podcast On the Road with Penguin Classics:
“The land of poetry and the possible..”
Leila Abouleila warns us at the outset that this is a very macho book. Reading it for the first time as a teenager, she confides she was shocked; “this is not” – and you can hear her smile – “a young adult novel at all”. And indeed it isn’t. I first tried to read this glittering epic of modern Arabic literature as a young woman too and am ashamed now to admit that I gave up half way through. Long before the term “male gaze” gained currency, I was enraged by what I felt was the stereotyping of women – western ones at least – and their reduction to mere cyphers in an allegory, nail-bitingly compelling though it is, of post-colonial revenge.
What I failed to see then, I joyfully discovered when I did reread the novel all the way to the end many years later, though I still feel uneasy about Salih’s female characters. Season of Migration to the North, as Henry Eliot neatly condenses it, is woven through with “opposites and symmetries”, stereotypes mirrored back across two worlds as the voices of this drama navigate north and south. The well intentioned, perhaps willfully self-deceiving worlds its western and Sudanese protagonists construct for themselves take on a dark edge. Even the idyllic touchstone of the narrator’s village so lyrically painted by Salih; its inhabitants so beloved by the narrator for their solidity, their moral sense, are shot through with a quiet cruelty only revealed when tragedy strikes.
This is not just a parable about rapacious colonialism and the complex pull it exercises over the colonized. Salih turns his keen gaze on the Sudanese in whose hands the future of the country now rests, the tensions between tradition and change, the nature of learning and compassion, and what constitutes complicity in cruelty and injustice. In doing so, personal idols are swept off their pedestals and Freudian notions of sexuality intermesh in worlds where the allure of “uncircumcised infidels” is condemned and feared by the same village women who revel in bawdy gossip with their aging menfolk.
Nothing is black and white in this landscape of dualities; nothing is straightforward – not even the identity and voices of the narrator and the one whose story he narrates.
Yet this is a Sudan imbued with a grace, an enduring courage and just a spark of hope too, all captured in Salih’s exquisite prose. A vision of Sudan as, if not more, relevant today than when it was first published nearly sixty years ago.
“I threw myself down on the sand, lighted a cigarette and lost myself in the splendour of the sky. The lorry too was nourished with water, petrol and oil, and now there it is, silent and content like a mare in her stable.The war ended in victory for us all: the stones, the trees, the animals, and the iron, while I, lying under this beautiful, compassionate sky feel we are all brothers; he who drinks and he who prays and he who steals and he who commits adultery and he who fights and he who kills. The source is the same. No one knows what goes on in the mind of the Divine. Perhaps He doesn’t care. Perhaps He is not angry. On a night such as this you feel you are able to rise up to the sky on a rope ladder: This is the land of poetry and the possible – and my daughter is named Hope. We shall pull down and we shall build, and we shall humble the sun itself to our will; and somehow we shall defeat poverty. The driver, who had kept silent the whole day has now raised his voice in song: a sweet, rippling voice that you can’t imagine is his.”
From Season of Migration to the North
Below, scenes of Sudanese Nile villages, photos copyright Dreamstime, used under contract.
Learn more about our life changing educational work in