Sexing Up Colonialism
Tayeb Salih's Novel Plows A Different Organ Into Darkness' Heart
"I'll liberate Africa with my penis." So speaks Mustafa Sa'eed, the enigma at the center of Sudanese author Tayeb Salih's 1967 novel Season of Migration to the North. A phrase that, with its frank sexuality and stuffy Freudian/colonialist implications, has the power to catch your breath even today, as it no doubt did for the novel's contemporary readers, recently recovering from Britain's long and torrid relationship with Africa.
Compare this with the well-worn final words of Kurtz, the enigma at the center of Western author Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "The horror! The horror!" By virtue of its status in the literary canon, this novel has always been the go-to book for literary impressions of the mess of European colonization. If you've ever set foot in a high school or college English class, you've no doubt come across Conrad's depiction of Marlow's progression up the Congo River toward his destined meeting with the morally ambiguous Kurtz and his eponymous organ.
For all its dead-on viewpoints regarding the ravaging effects of colonialism on both the colonized and the colonizers, Heart of Darkness neglects the kind of psychoanalytic approach that makes Salih's novel--with its own dark organ--such a refreshing look at the enterprise of colonization, a practice in which cultural, natural, and economic rape are the norm. This sexing up of colonialist literature makes Season of Migration to the North a wonderful counterpoint to Conrad's work. Salih--no relation to this writer--upstages the stuffiness of Conrad's prim and proper British look at colonialism by dragging it down into the depths of a Freudian abyss where the white plundering of the Nile delta is akin to the black plundering of that fertile delta between a Western woman's legs.
In an act of reverse colonization, Mustafa Sa'eed, the Sudanese version of Kurtz, journeys northward from Sudan into the cosmopolitan jungles of London, where he receives a first-class British education and beds battalions of British women, each of whom has her own obsession with Sa'eed's exotic African nature. He recounts his story to the novel's nameless narrator who, during frequent sojourns back to the rural Sudanese village of his childhood, becomes enraptured with Sa'eed's sordid past--a past that includes not only violent womanizing but seven years spent in prison for murdering his lover.
"She would tell me that in my eyes she saw the shimmer of mirages in hot deserts," Sa'eed says, recalling one of his amorous adventures. "That in my voice she heard the screams of ferocious beasts in the jungles. And I would tell her that in the blueness of her eyes I saw the faraway shoreless seas of the North." The psychosexual yearning for that which is foreign is not just a practice of the colonizers but of the colonized as well. A revisionist Othello or Don Juan, Sa'eed is something of an anti-hero for the canon of colonialist literature. He is, in short, a brutal reminder to individuals and nations never to fuck (literally) with Africa.
A colonizing cock and its thematic issues are, of course, only as good as the author depicting them. What makes Salih's work worthwhile is not just the allure of reading Sudanese literature, a niche literary market if ever there was one, in the age of Darfur and reawakened East/West tensions. There also is some extremely gorgeous writing on display here. Both Season of Migration to the North and his only other work of literature, the 1968 short-story collection The Wedding of Zein, offer uncompromising views of African village life as one that, while certainly bogged down by outmoded social practices, places a premium on its cultural and religious traditions.
"I looked at the river . . . and at the men with their bodies leaning against the ploughs or bent over their hoes, and my eyes take in fields flat as the palm of a hand, right up to the edge of the desert where the houses stand," the nameless narration recalls upon returning to the village of his youth. "I hear a bird sing or a dog bark or the sound of an axe on wood--and I feel a sense of stability, I feel that I am important, that I am continuous and integral. No, I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field."
Hardly the kind of image you think of when recalling the Sudan of today, with the starved and swollen bellies of Darfurians in the south and the corruption of the government in the north. The unfortunately slim and underappreciated voice of Tayeb Salih, despite the ultimately self-destructive actions of a character like Sa'eed, represents less a defiant middle finger aimed at an ignorant world and more an openhanded gesture introducing that world to a country emboldened by its poetic landscape, its rich history, and its unwavering sense of community.
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