Sunday, January 2, 2011

Trapped Between Cultures

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih:
Encounter between East and West; Salih struggles to create a new culture.

      In Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih chronicles the story of two Sudanese men who migrated to Europe in pursuit of knowledge, that at their homecoming, find that during their absence, their homeland has changed as much as they have.

     In Seasons of Migration to the North, Salih utilizes love and war to create innovative ways of seeing and feeling reality. In Post-colonial societies, local intellectuals felt trapped between the traditional culture and the dominant culture of the colonizers which was associated with imperialism. In response to the colonial and pre-colonial past, Salih, through Seasons of Migration to the North makes the effort not only to go back to revise and re-narrate the past, but to contribute in reinventing a possible life as well. Abounded in binary contradictions, as for the very reason of being written, Seasons of Migration to the North is the battlefield of clashing dual postcolonial forces. It lies between the confusing zone of the culture of an imperial power and the values of the traditional culture; between modern and tradition, fresh and old ways of life, West and East.

    This feeling of assurance is reinforced by his several visits to his grandfather, to whom he sees as a stable image of an unalterable past, ‘as he were though something immutable in a dynamic world’ (Salih, 41). His grandfather, Hajj Ahmad is his link to a pre-colonial past that he now tries to construct when he says ‘I go to my grandfather and he talks to me of life forty years ago, fifty years ago, even eighty, and my feeling of security is straightened’ (Salih,7). In his home village, past, nature and inhabitants are intricately related as a piece of artwork to be admired. The way the narrator describes his grandfather’s house it seems the way he assumes is the pre-colonial past of his country; as of its actual state, although chaotic to the eyes, were like a continued line of events where everything has a distinctive function linked to its inhabitant’s needs and a natural reason of existence. As he says ‘This large house is built neither of stone nor yet of red brick but of the very mud in which the wheat is grown, and it stands right at the edge of the field so that it is an extension of it’ (Salih, 60).

Salih’s writing is transcribed in the way of an oral tale narrated in the African-Arabic traditional style addressed to an audience of ‘gentlemen’. It begins with the joyful homecoming of an unnamed narrator to his home village which seems unaffected for the track of the time or for social events. It opens with him claiming ‘It was, gentlemen, after a long absence -seven years to be exact, during which I was studying in Europe- that I returned to my people’ (Salih, 3). ‘Effendi’, as he is being called (meaning ‘Sir’), returns with an overflowing affection about his village claiming while staring at a steep side of the Nile ‘I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit’ (Salih, 6).
       While in love at seeing what he dreamed during earning his highest degree in England, he attempts to close the gap caused by his time away. This gap between himself and his people, his actual time and his past. He sees his homecoming as a going back to a place where he belongs, to his proper place, a place where he could be re-attached and where his life could have a meaning. Back in his village The narrator feels like a palm tree that he saw standing in the courtyard of his house, ‘a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose’ (Salih, 4). That after feeling ‘like a storm-swept feather’ (Salih, 4) while being abroad, now, hearing the familiar noises of his village he declares, ‘I feel a sense of stability, I feel that I’m important, that I’m continuous and integral’ (Salih, 6).

      Although, the narrator needs to be in contact with the past as if it were present, he sees himself as an active force who draws new paths to the future, as later on adds about his grandfather ‘[his] tranquil voice sets up a bridge between me and the anxious moment that has not yet been formed’ as becoming ‘bricks in an edifice with perspectives and dimensions’ (Salih, 61). He has this driving need to grasp and absorb the pre-colonial past that his grandfather can pass on to him as if it has not entirely passed, as if it were alive as long as it is brought to the present. Somehow as a reaffirmation of the traditional culture and ways of life that were disrupted, and as if both his absence and the fifty eight years of British occupation of Sudan have gone unperceived.
The narrator, as a part of Salih, attempts to brush aside the heritage being presented to him and to his people through colonialism. As a consequence, he renounces his immersion in British culture and his doctorate in English literature and reengaging his Arab heritage, he teaches pre-Islamic Arabic poetry at a secondary school level.
Although he acknowledges some physical changes his village has gone through, he still assures ‘Yes, life is good and the world as unchanged as ever’ (Salih, 4) and later ‘But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard of our house (…) The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future? Sooner or later they will leave (…) and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or gratitude. Once again we shall be as we were-ordinary people-’ (Salih, 42).

      But a number of events, as the disappearance of Mustafa, the uncovering the triangular room, the murder of Wad Rayyes, and the suicide of Hosna Bint Mahmoud, precipitate the reality of that things have indeed, changed. Becoming aware of that he has permanently changed as well, his doubts about the very things he saw as immutable then, multiply. He asks himself ‘And my grandfather, with his thin voice (…) where is his place in the scheme of things? Is he really as I assert and as he appears to be? Is he above this chaos? I don’t know’ (Salih, 90). ‘The world has turned suddenly upside down’ he finally realizes, ‘Now I’m on my own: there is no escape, no place of refuge, no safeguard. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I, myself, had become the world, no world existing outside of me. Where, then, were the roots that struck down into times past?’ (Salih, 111).

In several passages of the novel, colonialism is been compared as an infection or a disease which Sudanese people try to get rid off by many means. As recounted by one of his characters ‘[The British] imported to [the Sudanese] the germ of the greatest European violence’ (Salih, 79). In this literary work then Salih, while gradually manages his characters through the exploration of the damages that post-colonialism have left, starts a decolonization process. With Seasons of Migration to the North  the author ‘writes back’ to the colonizers with both; love and war. Love; represented by the narrator, and war; personified by Mustafa Said, the vengeful side of Salih.

    With Mustafa commences the story inside the story; one narrative is about the return and the other takes us in flashbacks to compose the fifty years story of Mustafa’s exile in Europe.
Contrary to the narrator, Mustafa, whose life time coincides with the period of direct occupation of Sudan and his disappearance year with its final independence, spends his life trying to reverse the history of colonialism. Mustafa born in Sudan in the year of the final collapse of Sudanese resistance to British intrusion, twenty years earlier than the narrator. At an early age enrolled himself at a school run by English missionaries and as a gifted child supported by the school headmaster, left his mother to continue his studies in Cairo and later in London, where he graduated in economics publishing later works on the economics of colonization.
      In London, by self-appointing a mission of inflicting pain and suffering to British women, begins a misogynistic campaign of revenge against colonialism in sexual terms. Taking the war at a personal level he uses his intellectual power as a weapon to conquer white women both mentally and physically as a way to throw colonialism back to the colonizers. This campaign of ‘bringing down’ the British Empire is then, more damaging psychologically than physically since he drives his victims to commit suicide. As he describes to the narrator ‘My mind was like a keen knife’ (Salih, 27) and as he is been told by one of his victims ‘You’re not a human being (…) you’re a heartless machine’ (Salih, 25).
Since in Sali’s novel East and West encounters are based on illusions, Mustafa uses the stereotypes British women have about Arab and African men to accomplish his conquests. Beliefs theses based on lies; generalized constructions and misrepresentations of ‘the Orient’ that widespread out and crystallized in Europe through Imperialism, called Orientalism. It is an elaboration that intends to control or manipulate what is a manifestly different world. As it is explained by literary theorist E. Said ‘it is a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw’ (E. Said, 12).

    He befriends many British women luring them into bed using charm and deceit as described in these passages ‘Then, returning to my lies, I gave her such terrifying descriptions of how I lost my parents that I saw the tears well up in her eyes’ (Salih, 33),‘Yes. Our house is right on the bank of the Nile, so that when I’m lying on my bed at night I put my hand out of the window and idly play with the Nile waters till sleep overtakes me’ (Salih, 34) and ‘I related to her fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles (…) I told her that the streets of my country teemed with white elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it’ (Salih, 33). His apartment in London then, is packed with Persian rugs, mirrors and perfumes all but to enhance this Orientalist myth-fantasy.

      Mustafa lives this intense life of lies, manipulation and conquests during the period of thirty years until he marries Jean Morris, to whom he, after finding himself incapable of dominating her both mentally and physically due to her refuse to give in to his mental games, murders her. He describes ‘No longer capable of taking any more, one night I stood over her with a knife’ (Salih, 131).
      The descriptions used by Mustafa for his conquests are consistently told by the military terms of such of the traditional Arab campaigns: when going to meet new victims ‘I would saddle my camel and go’ (Salih, 26). The process of courtship is like laying siege, involving tents, caravans and the desert. He would say ‘I’m a thirsty desert, a wilderness of southern desires’ (Salih, 32) and later ‘I was the invader who had come from the South, and this was the icy battlefield from which I would not make a safe return’ (Salih, 132).  The imagery associated with the sexual acts are those of battle using swords and knives. He compares himself with the commander of the Arab army that conquered Spain in the eight century, as he tells ‘For a moment I imagined to myself the Arab soldier’s first meeting with Spain (…) a southern thirst being dissipated in the mountain passes of history in the north’ (Salih, 36). The connection between Mustafa’s sexual actions and the fight against colonialisms through the novel is evident.
   After serving seven years of sentence for the murder of Jean Morris and for driving three other women to commit suicide, he returns to his native Sudan to take up residence in the narrator’s village. Marries a local woman, fathers two children and lives a quiet, perfect life.

   Mustafa, the child of colonialism, presents himself to the narrator and to the villagers as ‘I am this person before you, as known to everyone in the village. I am nothing other than that- I have nothing to hide’ (Salih, 15). Indeed, Mustafa, lives locked out between two lives and two worlds. He acknowledges that the pre-colonial world has permanently changed, reality that the narrator repress, but he never really succeed to bind past and present. The mysterious life that he represents for the villagers only intensify with his sudden disappearance, presumably drowned in the Nile, as he leaves behind a will where names the narrator as a trustee and the key of a secret room where he preserved his British self. Mustafa’s deepest secret lacked in this triangular room attached to his house, was that it was an exact replica of his apartment in London. The narrator is shocked by this calling it ‘A graveyard. A mausoleum. An insane idea. A prison. A huge joke. A treasure chamber’ (Salih, 114).

     Mustafa carried a life as a normal Sudanese peasant farmer on the outside, and sophisticated intellectual on the inside proving that he has failed to amalgamate the two cultures that lived in him.
    Mustafa’s problem, and the narrator’s, is that they are neither black nor white, but grey; neither wholly Eastern nor wholly Western, neither completely European nor completely Arab nor entirely African; they are trapped between cultures. The narrator responds to the trap by trying, unsuccessfully, to wish it away.
    Mustafa’s response is not more successful. Rather than wishing away experiences, he tries to maintain them, while completely separating them from each other. He does so not by becoming entirely European or entirely Arab, but becoming both, but never at the same time, in the same place, or with the same people.

   As the novel presents it, a natural process of the assimilation of this modernized knowledge brought through these two travelers to the Arab world, is impossible. Adding the learned western elements to their lives is to become Other, the same Other who violently took over their land in the name of civilization, and disrupted the natural track of events. These attempts then emerge as a double alienation and its clash further emphasizes the binary oppositions of East and West, colonizer and colonized, male and female and oppressor and oppressed. The narrator is questioned by villagers ‘Are there any farmers among them?’ (Salih, 5) (and they mean ‘farmers like us’). The narrator, that at his return wished to stretch together the gap between the ‘Them’ and the ‘Us’, the ‘They’ and the ‘We’ as his thoughts remark ‘just like us they are born and die and in the journey to the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which become true’ (Salih, 5), gradually realizes that bringing these cultures together is an actual unattainable utopia and that he has lost his proper place.

     Later in the novel he compares the distance of this cultural gap with the shores of the Nile where the narrator is left metaphorically between east and west, north and south and between day and night, so that ‘The objects on the two shores were half visible, appearing and disappearing, veering between light and darkness’ (Salih, 137). Salih’s characters are forced to negotiate the acquired knowledge of a modern world to the ageless traditionalist culture they choose to live in. But the lives that they imagined for themselves back home of a post colonial future are frustrated and they are confronted with an unshakable sense of loss.
Salih’s attempts to resolve the contradiction of these two worlds decides rather leave it unconcluded leaving the reader waiting for a resolution that never arrives.

      The last character Salih needs to confront to have a clear way to creation is such one that can represent the embodiment of tradition; Wad Rayyes.
Wad Rayyes, who ‘changed women as he changed donkeys’ (Salih, 81), in a conversation about female circumcision comparing women of different Muslim countries declares; ‘As for us, we dock them like you do animals’ (Salih, 68) is the extreme side of traditionalism. Salih rejects his representation killing the character by the hand of Mustafa’s widow, Hosna, who also kills herself. Hosna, while living with Mustafa has become ‘westernized’ through contact with him. Having changed ‘like a city women’ (Salih, 84), she revels to traditional rigidities as for her forced marriage to Wad Rayes; in defying her husband at actually killing him, defies tradition.

       The lost of Hosna in the novel is double weighted after the narrator let us know through this metaphoric description, the strength of the sudden love for her: 'I said something that made her laugh and my hearth throbbed at the sweetness of her laughter. The blood of the setting sun suddenly spilled out on the western horizon like that of millions of people who have died in some violent war that has broken out between Earth and Heaven. Suddenly the war ended in defeat and complete and all-embracing darkness descended and pervaded all four corners of the globe, wiping out the sadness and shyness that was in her eyes'. (Salih, 75).

       This dualism game, then is broken down and destroyed in Salih’s novel at making his characters realize that there is not going north or west to become European, and that there is not going south or east to return to tradition. And Post colonial discourse suggests in this novel, that their present circumstances can not be analyzed isolated from their imperialist past which first produced it.

Liberating himself of this double negation, and after bringing down and destroyed what was in the way, Salih submerges the narrator naked into the Nile. While Mustafa’s blank pages of his life story book dedicated ‘To those who see with one eye, speak with one tongue and see things as either black or white, either Eastern or Western’ (Salih, 125) are for a reader that could not possibly exist, the narrator’s cries for help open the path that is being opened by Seasons of Migration to the North; to those who can simultaneously see things as both as black and as white. In other worlds, for a reader of the post imperial world that has yet to come.

Salih, just as the narrator who studied in Europe, has chosen this oral literary style to emphasize his African-Arabian roots. However, contradictory, leaves the story with an indeterminate ending unfinished, as the modern European novels. Seasons of Migration to the North makes explicit references, through both, his characters and content to Othello and Heart Of Darkness, of Joseph Conrad (as when Mustafa compares the Nile river with a snake (Salih, 34), and the choosing of the hero’s traveling toward the unknown, just as Marlow does). Salih’s text takes its inspirations from Europe as much as from Arab traditions.

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