The Identity Crisis of the Post-Colonial East

In Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih tells the story of two men from post-colonial Sudan who have returned to the East after living in Europe, only to find that they no longer belong in their previous homes[1]. The unnamed narrator begins the novel with his return to the village on the Nile. Although he is happy to be home, he feels distant from the people he grew up with. In the beginning of the novel, the narrator meets the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, who hides a dark past. Eventually, Mustafa tells the narrator about his time in London, which resulted in tragedy and exile. Then, Mustafa mysteriously disappears, forcing the narrator to reflect upon his own time in Europe. This work demonstrates that the East-West encounter is destructive because the two worlds are so opposite that their collision inevitably leads to disorientation and loss of identity for the Arab world.

Throughout the novel, the author emphasizes the irreconcilability of the two worlds. Salih chooses words that allude to nature when describing the East and West, in order to convey that they are naturally opposed. He links the Arab world to fire and the European world to ice to demonstrate that they cannot come into contact with each other without threatening the other’s defining quality (129). Mustafa builds upon this imagery when he recounts his time in London. He describes himself as a “desert of longing” that is “parched with thirst” (77). The women he attracts search for “tropical climes” and “cruel suns” (27), while he is the “South that yearns for the North and the ice” (20), and seeks “the bitter cold” (89). The use of elemental words conveys the contrast between the Occident and the Orient, and illustrates the “bottomless historical chasm separating the two” that makes it impossible for them to coexist without clashing (50). The depiction of a cold, icy West and a relentlessly hot East implies that by nature, any encounter between the two is inherently destructive. 

Because the Arab world came into contact with its opposite, it now suffers an identity crisis, torn between tradition and modernity. The narrator pays special attention to aspects of the village that are reminiscent of the East prior to European contact. He recalls the village engineer who never “learnt carpentry at school”, but still “made the wheels and rings of the water-wheel”, “set bones”, and “cauterized people” (59). The engineer was known around the village for his work, despite the fact that he did not receive a formal education. This man is still alive, but “he no longer makes such doors as that of [the narrator’s] grandfather’s house” because the Arab world has moved beyond these traditions (59). The narrator also admires his grandfather’s simple, ascetic lifestyle; like a tree, the grandfather “has lived and will die simply” (42), unconcerned about the confusion that European influence has brought up. The grandfather retains his identity, but his old age implies that the ability to remain untouched by the West is dying. As time goes one, the East will only stray further from its traditions, and future generations will not be able to avoid the impact of Western colonization. 

In some ways, the East has shifted towards the modernity that Europeans introduced, but only to a certain extent. Upon his return, the narrator speaks to Bint Mazjoub, a woman well known for her outspokenness and long list of husbands. She remarks that the villagers “were afraid [he’d] bring back with [him] an uncircumcised infidel for a wife” (5). Her outspoken prejudice reflects old, reserved Eastern views; however, later in the novel, Bint Mazjoub is arguably the most vocal among the group of people talking about sex, even bragging about how she would scream “when [her] husband was between [her] thighs” (63). Her frankness reminds the reader more of the attitudes of Western women than those of Arab women, for whom modesty and chastity were traditionally great virtues. This, combined with the fact that she likes to “smoke, drink, and swear on oath of divorce like a man” (64), suggests that gender roles are not as rigid in the Orient as they used to be. Clearly, the Europeans introduced more progressive views to the East. However, they did not completely negate old patterns of thought. The limited extent of their influence is apparent when the narrator is the only character who believes that Mustafa’s widow, Hosna, should reserve the right to refuse marriage. The other villagers in the novel still believe that a “woman needs someone to protect her” (72). In response to this attitude, Hosna swears to kill her husband and herself if she is forced to remarry. Eventually, she carries out her promise. Her murder and suicide demonstrate that the European standards for female behavior do not belong in the East. She does not fit in the Arab world because she “had the impudence to speak her mind” (108) and behaved like a “modern woman” (101). Neither traditions nor modernity fully characterize the post-colonial East. The mixture of Eastern and Western values is present throughout the novel, and makes it impossible for the East to define itself. 

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