By Kevin Rabalais
Then there’s that great pleasure of browsing the shelves with no objective. Before long, a title, a name—something foreign and unknown—calls out. Several years ago, for me, the title was Season of Migration to the North. In that moment, I knew I had something. Indeed, I knew I had it, a mysterious and poetic title, as well as the name of the kind of writer I spend much of my browsing time searching for: someone from a region I know little about—in the case of Tayeb Salih (1929-2009), author of Season of Migration to the North, northern Sudan. Such an alignment sparks a perfect moment in a reader’s life. It’s the kind we long for, the very kind that sends some of us into libraries and bookstores several times a week in our search for something more, something other.
In his memoirs, Paul Bowles writes of his desire to always seek, in his travels, places unlike any he had seen in his previous journeys. Considered to be one of the most important Arabic novels of the twentieth century, Season of Migration to the North took me to such an unknown and unforeseen place. The novel follows a young man who returns to his village along the Nile after years of exile. He’s come back to offer his knowledge and services to postcolonial Sudan. Salih’s narrator—wise, direct, lyrical—had me from his first sentences:
Besides the photographs of Sebastião Salgado and parts of Dave Eggers’s novel What is the What, Sudan has always been one of those unsketched maps in my imagination. Salih’s work available in English, which also includes The Wedding of Zein, has introduced the emotional history and landscape of this region for me. In his introduction to The Wedding of Zein—which includes the title novella and two stories—the Libyan author Hisham Matar (his current memoir, The Return, is a must-read and a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award) puts this work into context.
“Tayeb Salih offered to the Arab novel a new language in which restraint and precision took precedence over exuberance,” Matar writes. “All his sentences are cut short with a thin wire of grief.”
We witness this in the comic novella “The Wedding of Zein,” which begins with the announcement, followed by the dismay, that the village idiot who falls in love with every beautiful woman in the region has finally found a woman who wants to marry him. Each time he falls in love, Zein makes his joyous announcement to all: “I am slain among the people of the Koz,” he says, or, “I am slain by love in the courtyard of Mahjoub.” In his narrative style that seems handed down from oral tradition, Salih offers this early description of this unforgettable character:
“At first, as is well known, children meet life with screams. With Zein, however, it is recounted—and the authorities for this are his mother and the women who attended his birth—that no sooner did he come into this world than he burst out laughing. And so it was throughout his life.”
Zein’s fame stretches through the region and earns him many admirers, among them women who come to enjoy his flirtations. But his good deeds go beyond praising women for their beauty. For the elderly, he builds houses. He checks on them, bringing dates and tea, sugar and coffee. Witnessing these acts, other villagers begin to imagine that Zein may be “the legendary Leader, the Prophet of God, perhaps an angel sent down by God in lowly human form to remind His worshipers that a great heart may yet beat even in one of concave breast and ridiculous manner such as Zein.”
One young woman follows these good deeds and eventually asks Zein, jokingly, to marry her.
“O people,” says Zein, “she has slain me.”
That’s only the beginning of this novella that manages to achieve more breadth than many works three times its length.
Besides his vivid portrayal of Zein and these other villagers, Salih’s work evokes the landscape and geography of rural Sudan, the passage of time, the rhythms of daily life and rituals of its people.
“The years come and go, years follow year. The Nile’s breast, like that of a man in anger, swells up, and the water flows over its banks, covering the cultivated land until it reaches the base of the houses at the fringe of the desert. … The water carries sounds great distances; thus if a wedding party is being held two miles away, the ululations, the beaten of drums, and the strains of the tunbours and mizmars, are heard as though right alongside your house.”
Writers who open new worlds for us attain special status in our reading lives. In its 1973 Nobel Prize citation, the Swedish Academy cited the work of Patrick White “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.” There are places we will never be able to visit. There are places whose charge we feel every time we open the pages of a great writer.