Masculinity in Season of Migration to the North
Brian Gibson ¡V
Copyright © 2002 by Brian Gibson, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
Season of Migration to the North, one of the most controversial and
popular Arabic novels of the 20th century, is largely seen as a dramatic
analysis of colonial politics, wherein a narrator realizes the danger of
becoming a Europeanized Arab who wishes to wreak vengeance on the North/West
for his 'Orientalization.'  Most
critics of Tayeb Salih's
novel naturally focus on its colonial politics, from Mustafa Sa'eed's adoption of an Oriental persona to his conquests
of Englishwomen in order to avenge the ways in which the South/East has been
penetrated and possessed by the North/West. Such readings of the novel usually
lead to a focus on Mustafa Sa'eed, who is in fact the
secondary protagonist; these arguments also link the book's colonial politics
to its sexual politics. Building from such readings, I focus on the novel's
representations of masculinity. These representations first problematize,
then point the way toward resolving the complex sexual and colonial politics in
In the first line of the novel (and once more later in the book:
"dear sirs" [Salih 62]), the narrator
introduces the reader to a male-dominated world by suggesting his audience is
masculine: "It was, gentlemen, after a long absence¡Xseven years, to be
exact, during which time I was studying in Europe¡Xthat I returned to my
people" (1). The village to which the anonymous man returns is a world
dominated by men, a stifling patriarchy where "the women remain the real
victims of . . . games of power and seduction" (
He first appears to be a man of conceit. The narrator pompously relates to the reader that "I had reckoned that the ten million inhabitants of the country had all heard of my [scholastic] achievement" abroad, he puts on an "act of humility" in explaining to Mustafa that he studied the works of an English poet, and is "furious" when Mustafa dismisses his years of study (8-9). Yet it is clear that the narrator will change, for he states, "I had in those days, if the truth be told, a rather high opinion of myself" (9). It is Mustafa, in revealing the lie of the man he once was, who shall change the narrator's view of his male self, casting him into self-doubt and slowly turning him away from an ego-driven persona and towards a more truthful, communal humanity.
Such a process involves the narrator separating himself from
Mustafa, for not only are both ego-driven, but they are constantly shown to be
mirror images of each other, from a man supposing the narrator to be Mustafa's
son (56) to the narrator mistaking himself for Mustafa in a mirror when he
enters the dead man's private room (135). Patricia Geesey
notes that Mustafa's smile, "like someone talking to himself" (Salih 4), is "only the first in a series of incidents
that hint at the doubling between the narrator" and Sa'eed
(131). The narrator, like Mustafa Sa'eed, was
Mustafa haunts the book, threatening to overshadow the narrative,
much as he immediately hovers spectrally in the narrator's mind almost from his
first day back home: "Suddenly I recollected having seen a face I did not
know among those who had been there to meet me. I asked about him. . . . 'That would be Mustafa,' said my father" (2). The
disturbing image of Mustafa lingers like a ghost (Ali Abdalla
Abbas points out that Mustafa is essentially dead
already, having committed himself to death with Jean Morris only to not go
through with it  ; his time back in Sudan is a mere stay of self-execution
), as mysterious as his smile (4), which is like a "mocking
phantom" (10, 11). Mustafa adds to his aura of non-existence by quoting an
English poem full of allusions to illusory males: "Those women of
If the Europeanized narrator, in his self-absorption and arrogance, were ever in danger of becoming like Mustafa Sa'eed, his story serves as a warning to him. Fatherless, Mustafa seemed to have inherited a penchant for adopting a mask from his mother (19); certainly nothing impresses itself upon him, for he is like a rubber ball, ever flexible, durable, and unaffected by outside forces (20) - a "'"heartless machine"'" (28). With all his education and supposed free will, and a bright future ahead of him, Mustafa chooses to be no more than a conqueror, a man who shall "'liberate Africa with my penis'" (120), who regards women as cities to be sieged (25, 34) and mountain peaks in which to thrust his ego-driven peg (39; sex is "'attaining the peak of selfishness,'" he says ). Most of all, however, the images that epitomize Mustafa are penetrative and phallic. "'My mind was like a sharp knife, cutting with cold effectiveness,'" he states, or "'cutting and biting like the teeth of a plough'" (22), and later the keen image of a bow and arrow is related to his phallic destiny with Jean: "'The string of the bow is drawn taut and the arrow must needs shoot forth'" (27). The images of Mustafa's brain as a "'keen knife'" (29) or similar weapons proliferate (26, 34) until the climactic, literal realization of Mustafa Sa'eed as a "'surgeon'" (43) in his bedroom "'operating theatre'" (30). This image mixes the notion of phallic violence with the acting of a type of Orientalized masculinity  . On the bed, Mustafa thrusts a knife into Jean Morris, killing her in their inexorable downward spiral of Oriental symbol fatally enthralled with the Western female , who in turn is morbidly awestruck by the exotic phallic persona of the South/East. Jean seizes the dagger expectantly, "'opening her thighs wider'" and "'moaning'" (164), until Mustafa penetrates her with it, finally possessing her, as she begs him to "'Come with me. Come with me. Don't let me go alone'" (165), a double entendre twinning sex and death in this fatal climax. Yet Mustafa is too selfish even to follow his object of lust into the next world. Instead he returns to the South/East, where in a secret, Eurocentric room he keeps pictures of the Western women he has conquered and a portrait of Jean Morris (154-5), along with European books, a fireplace, Victorian chairs, a mirror, personal writings, and photographs of himself (135-8). This, then, is the centre of Mustafa's private universe, his cold heart cast not "'in rock'" (26), but formed by writings and images: mementoes of himself and his vain sexual conquests.
Yet these objects of his possession only reveal Mustafa Sa'eed for the hollow symbol he is, essentially an Oriental
phallic symbol of "cruelty and sensuality" (Said 4), rather
appropriate in light of the the ancient Egyptian
practice of phallus worship (Bordo 87) and the way in
which women in London, from Ann Hammond and Sheila Greenwood to Isabella
Seymour and Jean Morris, are enthralled by Mustafa's exotic Southern/Eastern
"suggestion of masculine authority and power" (Bordo
85). Like all phallic symbols, then, Mustafa inspires awe in women for his
"majesty," which stands in for particularly Oriental "male
superiority" (Bordo 87). He becomes the symbol
of "the impalpable gate that opens into the realm of orgies, of
bacchanals, of delirious sexual sensations" (Fanon 177) so that he can
seize "white breasts [in order to] grasp white civilization and dignity
and make them mine" (Fanon 63), in " a world in which I am summoned
into battle; a world in which it is always a question of annihilation or
triumph"  (Fanon 228). In trying to possess white
women in a sexual act of reverse colonialism and politicization, however,
Mustafa is ultimately just trying to possess, to be selfish and
self-gratifying. He is the lusty, ego-driven male who "care[s] more for
his own sexual satisfaction" than anything (Matar
117). Yet Mustafa is a masculine ideal¡Xthe conquering Arab¡Xto his countrymen. A
retired bureaucrat seems twenty years younger as he recounts (Salih 51-4) the glories of Mustafa when he knew him in
Yet other than the narrator's opening acknowledgement of his seven
years in England, which mirror Sa'eed's imprisonment
there, and the narrator's climactic act of swimming in the Nile, copying the
manner of Mustafa's assumed death, all aspects of the narrator's character and
experiences suggest to the reader that he will not copy the ego-driven model of
Mustafa's phallic masculinity. Unlike Mustafa who, in his life back in
There are four directions in which to swim, however, and Mustafa's model of masculinity is only one course to follow. Wad Rayyes is another type of male in the novel, ostensibly similar to yet fundamentally different from Mustafa. Both are "too egocentric" (Abbas 51) and Wad, too, is overtly sexual, but he is not acting the role. His penis truly is all there is to his masculinity, for he only thinks of sex, as the manly woman Bint Majzoud notes: "'Your whole brain's in the head of your penis and the head of your penis is as small as your brain'" (84). Wad Rayyes expresses his sexuality through marriage, and his carnal desires blind him to the Qu'ran (Ghattas-Soliman 93), so determined is he to marry Hosna. He ignores female consent, confirming that women in the Sudanese village, as the Englishwomen were to Mustafa (best exemplified by his secret room), are possessions (Ghattas-Soliman 100). Unlike Mustafa, however, Wad's masculinity does not depend on manufacturing the woman's desire for him as a symbol of exotic sensuality; indeed, Wad's coarse lustfulness disregards women's consent and desire altogether, as exemplified by his vicious rape of Hosna. As Abbas puts it, "A woman is simply an object to Wad Rayyes" (49). And unlike the narrator's grandfather, Wad as an old man impiously chooses sex rather than preparation for death (Nasr 99). It is fitting, then, that in sex he should find death: in an ironic twist to Mustafa's tale, Hosna, the Sudanese widow of the European-obsessed male conqueror, stabs her new, sex-starved husband Wad Rayyes multiple times in the "'stomach, chest, face and between his thighs'" (Salih 127) as he bites her everywhere, then manages to kill her before dying himself. His demise pleases his elder wife, who says that her lustful husband "'dug his grave with his own hands'" (128).
To a certain extent, as Abbas points out, Salih is criticizing the way women are treated in the village through the character of Wad Rayyes, but it is the narrator who most clearly gives the lie to Wad Rayyes' type of masculinity, which takes "no heed of anything in a woman except that she was woman," as the narrator realizes (79). The narrator suspected what would happen, hearing the sound of Hosna's "voice in the darkness like the blade of a knife" (96). And while he may not be "immune from the germ of contagion" (104) of lust which infected Mustafa and Wad, the narrator wills himself not to marry Hosna, for then he would simply be possessing a woman in order to prevent her from being possessed by Wad; thus he would be just like Wad, who the narrator knows once married a woman because her dying husband asked him to "'look well after my wife' [and] he could think of no way of looking after her better than by marrying her" (79). The narrator understands that, in a reversal of Mustafa's approaching death through sex, Wad is staving off death through sex: Hosna is "the offering Wad Rayyes wants to sacrifice at the edge of the grave, with which to bribe death and so gain a respite of a year or two" (89). But the narrator's solution¡Xor fallback position¡Xof impotence elicits Mahjoud's condemnation: "Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you marry her? You're only any good when it comes to talking'" (132). 
In fact, Mahjoud's constant sniping at the narrator about his impotence, his jab that his old friend is "'as mad as Wad Rayyes'" in loving Hosna, and his claim that Hosna wasn't "'really worth burying'" (133), reducing her to an object in death the way she was an object in life for Wad, incites the narrator to act impulsively for the first time in the book. He begins to beat and strangle his friend, violently defying any attempt to paint him as the type of female-possessing village man that Wad Rayyes epitomized. In the end, he may be mildly complicit in Hosna's death through his passivity, but to have married her would only have thrust the narrator into the masculine model of the man-as-egotistical-possessor-of-women so vilely represented by Mustafa and, most of all, Wad Rayyes. Nonetheless, the narrator's love for Hosna raises complications: he feels the love is unnatural, as it breaks the honour bond he made in faith with Mustafa that he would be guardian of his wife and sons; yet in order to best ensure her and her sons' well-being as a guardian, he should marry her to save her from a hateful union with Wad; in doing so, however, he would be voicing a betrayal of his wife and daughter, openly acknowledging that Hosna Bint Mahmoud is "the only woman I have ever loved" (141). Perhaps paralyzed by these options and his self-doubt, the narrator does not act except in response to Mahjoub's taunts; his violence against his childhood friend is a reaction against the only strong homosocial male bond in the text, and throws the narrator irrevocably on the side of the women.
The third possible shore of manhood is typified by the narrator's
grandfather, Hajj Ahmed, who is by no means an egotistical male figure. The
narrator seems to respect his grandfather more than any other man, for his
connections to the past and his stability as a bedrock
of the village community. On his return to
Mustafa, too, admires Hajj Ahmed for his endurance, his
sprightliness at 90, and his piety¡X"'there's a man for you,'" he says
(10). Hajj Ahmed also knows the secret of Mustafa's former hyper-masculine
persona although he never tells anyone, not even the narrator (11). The
narrator is in awe of his grandfather simply for living so long, for linking
death and birth in a moment of transcendent time: "that thin tranquil
voice sets up a bridge between me and the anxious moment that has not yet been
formed, and between the moments the events of which have been assimilated and
have been passed on, have become bricks in an edifice with perspectives and
dimensions. . . . when I embrace my grandfather I
experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the
very universe" (73). Indeed, the grandfather is "a symbol of and a
monument to the unity of man with nature and the universe" (90) and
"'a part of history'" (102). Mustafa entrusts his sons to the
narrator's care because "I have glimpsed in you a likeness to your
grandfather" (67). Mustafa hopes that the stability he detects in the
narrator, a grounding in the earth and community which
he has inherited from Hajj Ahmed, will enable the guardian to prevent his sons
from becoming infected with their father's "germ of wanderlust" (67).
In other words, Mustafa sees in the narrator a better set of masculine values,
similar to his grandfather's, which he hopes will rub off on his sons, preventing
them from choosing the lustful egotist male persona he adopted in
But the narrator cannot fully embrace the patriarchal values of his
grandfather's generation, particularly their endorsement of Wad Rayyes' forced marriage to Hosna.
Hajj Ahmed encourages the narrator to convince Hosna
to marry Wad, but the narrator insists that Hosna is
"free to do as she pleased" and he feels "real anger" at
his grandfather's stance on the issue (86). He is not of his grandfather's or
even father's (who laughs at the narrator's reaction to Hosna's
forced marriage ) patriarchal mindset. Cut from a different cloth, the
"rage in my breast [having grown] more savage," he refuses to discuss
the matter with Hajj Ahmed further: "I heard my grandfather calling but I
did not turn around" (87). The narrator is as sure that the
patriarchy-forced union of Wad and Hosna is evil as
he is confident of "death and birth, the
The narrator's aversion to the grandfather's type of traditional, patriarchal masculinity, then, just as with his rejection of Mustafa and Wad as male models, centres on their treatment of women, particularly the treatment of Hosna.  It is the narrator's disgust with how Hosna is treated by Wad and Hajj Ahmed (and how she is thought of by men like Mahjoud), and his repugnance toward the female mementoes in Mustafa's secret room, which propel him into action: fighting Mahjoud, partially destroying the room, and entering the Nile in an attempt at rebirth, "as naked as when my mother bore me" and in despair¡X"I had to do something"(166). Yet the narrator has no intention of following Mustafa's path, as we have seen; this is a trial by water, a baptism in which the narrator searches for and finds the fourth shore of masculinity.
That shore is the narrator's self-identity, which he has found¡X"My adversary is within and I must . . . confront him" (134)¡Xafter rejecting the two types of ego-driven maleness represented by Mustafa and Wad, and diverging somewhat from the conservative, pious masculinity of his grandfather. But the narrator never actually swims for shore; in a typically impotent act, he cries for help. It is this very plea for assistance, however, that points to a rebirth of the narrator as a more communal person. He is not simply a "man" but a human who has transcended the boundaries of gender, who understands that he is on his own, yet must also rely at times on those around him and not be ego-driven. The narrator realizes the importance of a life with family, a life rooted in the community and the earth, as his grandfather has shown him, but he seeks a life where everyone in the community¡Xmen and women equally¡Xare to be valued and relied on. It is a masculinity not defined by maleness or by how the narrator shall treat women¡Xafter all, he shows scant concern for his wife and daughter throughout the text¡Xbut by a selfhood anchored in community. Thus, an almost androgynous voice takes over the text in the final pages, the narrator's new voice, not a voice like Mustafa's or obsessed with his persona, for "I [will] not let him complete the story" (166).
The new voice and identity are at one with their surroundings, balanced between ego and selflessness, the "I" and the community: "my body settled down into restful harmony with the forces of the river" (166). The narrator is where all directions of the compass converge¡X"Turning to left and right, I found I was half-way between north and south" (167)¡Xthe centre of his world (Siddiq 103), yet he is crying for help, for community. This is no longer just a masculine crisis but an existential human dilemma: "I veered between seeing and blindness. I was conscious and not conscious. Was I asleep or awake? Was I alive or dead?" (167) When the narrator is in the river, it is a moment out of time, much like he experienced with his grandfather (73) or when he was, for an instant separated from all consciousness, Mustafa's son (56-7). The difference here is that the narrator's baptismal, transcendent moment of life and near-death is utterly detached from any masculine model. The narrator is truly reborn, his own self buoyed by a new spirit and identity: "suddenly, with a force that came to me from I know not where¡XI raised my body in the water" (167). In the mid-point between North and South, East and West, the narrator, caught in existential limbo yet sensible of the constancy, the heartbeat of nature¡X"for an indeterminate period, quiet and darkness reigned, after which I became aware of the sky moving away and drawing close, the shore rising and falling" (168)¡Xfinally decides. He thirsts for a cigarette, recalling the Bedouin who ehad xemplified a love for life by smoking "with such gusto . . . indescribable avidity," followed by a near-death epileptic fit and then a return to life (109); this grotesque exemplification of the rapturous ephemerality of being seemed to infect the narrator at the time with an unearthly joy, as he sang and feasted and danced "in the manner of girls" with a community of Bedouins in which everyone seemed beautiful to him, and they were all like "some tribe of genies" (114). As John E. Davidson claims, "Smoking is always a communal act in Season" (395); in the river, this violent desire for a cigarette is "a hunger, a thirst" for life and community and precipitates "the instant of waking from the nightmare" (168).
The narrator has found his self, his human identity. He realizes he is not part of the river, that he doesn't want to die, and that he has also found, in the humanness of selfhood outside masculine models, potency¡Xa potency based on a selfhood which balances personal duties with a reliance on community: I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born¡Xwithout any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. . . . I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water. . . . I screamed with all my remaining strength, 'Help! Help!' (168-9)
Of course, the narrator is an "I" and it is his body and self on which the passage concentrates, but such egotism is compromised by his desperate cry for help at the end. The narrative proves that the narrator survives (see Geesey 138), affirming the necessity of community, for it is members of the community who must save the narrator from himself in the river. Admittedly, the "audience" for whom the narrator survives to tell the tale is male, and much of what has come before¡Xthe narrator's guardianship of Mustafa's sons, his seeming lack of concern for his matrilineal family¡Xpointed towards a continuation of a male-dominated mindset on the narrator's behalf. However, the "narrator gives the impression that he will foreswear his previous habit of indecision and passivity" (Geesey 138), and only the narrator undergoes a crisis and resolution of self-identity. He is the sole character to truly develop and even metamorphose in the novel. By the end of the book, no longer has the narrator "chosen nothing"; no longer has his world "withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me" (134). The narrator's hatred for what Mustafa's masculinity represents¡Xthe hatred of oneself displaced through the selfish lust for sex and the conceited possession of women¡Xis gone. It is finally conquered by the love for others that the narrator so desired (134), that he found briefly when dancing with the Bedouins, and that he has surrendered to in his desperate plea for help to those whom he loves and still love him: his community.
Mustafa's ego drove him to death, his self-constructed, sexually conceited Oriental masculinity leading, "for all intents and purposes, [to his] death that night" with Jean Morris (Abbas 54); "Mustafa Sa'eed himself tells us that 'his life achieved completion that night' . . . 'and that there was no justification for staying on' (p. 68). . . . The hour of execution is delayed¡X that is all" (Abbas 54). Wad Rayyes, too, in his effort to stave off death through sex, instead found death in the hands of the very woman he sought to possess. Even Hajj Ahmed is neither driven towards nor tries to fight off death, living out the remainder of his life piously but passively, according to the patriarchy co-opted rules of Islam. What saves the narrator from beaching himself on any of the three polluted shores of masculinity is also, in a sense, the narrative itself, a narrative which shows a man exploring the dilemma of his masculinity and rediscovering his humanity. The narrator is rescued by his self-consciousness, his awareness that even he is "not immune from the germ of contagion" (104) of egocentric, aggressive sexual lust and "wanderlust" (67) exhibited by Mustafa and Wad, which "oozes from the body of the universe" (104) and leads to the death of Jean Morris (and Mustafa, in a sense) where "'the universe, with its past, present and future, was gathered together into a single point before and after which nothing existed'" (165). The narrator, too, brings himself to such a crossroads in the river, but knows that a world exists beyond him and any selfish masculinity he might choose to pursue. The river cleanses the narrator of any germ of primitive, regressive masculinity that has existed for time immemorial and reminds him that there is a world of community ahead, where people can fight the restrictions of patriarchy, can resist the selfishness of violent lust, and can thirst for life, not death.
It is only the narrator who acts with true free will; in a moment of
transcendence and rebirth, he fights off death as he rediscovers his human-ness: life is not about existing within the constricting
limits of an ego-driven masculinity, but about living simply and in harmony
with both the self's needs and the greater good of the community. Yet that cry
of "'Help!'" not only lingers as a warning to the
"gentlemen" and the reader, but as a message from Salih
to the wider world that no man is an island of the self, a conceited,
sex-driven ego who can survive apart from others. This is a story told to other
men, a story about masculinity, just as legendary
1. I will use North/West and South/East throughout
the essay to refer to the European/Western world vs.
2. It could also be argued that the self-created lie of Mustafa as Oriental, phallic invader (see endnote 3) dies in his battle of wills with the European martyr Jean Morris, and that the lie had so subsumed, and to an extent become, his life that he is but a shadow of his former self once back in Sudan, slowly but surely fading away.
3. This "acting" of a masculinity fits with the 'lustful, phallic Oriental subject' mask which Mustafa chooses to don, for "Underlying all the different units of Orientalist discourse . . . is a set of representative figures, or tropes. These figures are to the actual Orient¡Xor Islam, which is my main concern here¡Xas stylized costumes are to characters in a play" (Said 71).
5. It would be too reductive to state that the East
is masculinized in the book, while the West is
feminized. The Englishwoman Jean Morris is aggressively masculine, for example,
while the narrator refuses or criticizes certain patriarchal customs in
6. It is precisely the narrator's potent talking, however, which is the narrative of the book, a narrative intended to demonstrate to his male listeners the harm of these models of masculinity and the preferable alternative of a communcal selfhood.
7. Of course, the few women shown in the novel further blur notions of masculinity by often exhibiting the supposedly masculine traits of sexual dominance and sexual violence: Hosna's savage, emasculating murder of her new, repressive husband Wad Rayyes replicates the way in which Mustafa killed the usually dominant and sexually aggressive Jean Morris in bed. Wad's eldest wife, utterly acting against uxorial custom, said "'Good riddance!'" upon hearing of his death and gave "trilling cries of joy" (128). Only Bint Majzoub, an elderly woman who smokes and socializes primarily with men and is characterized by a "strong, mannish" laugh (70), is indecorous enough to tell the narrator of Wad's murder, a story which no one else repeat. Such actions show an adoption of the more violent expressions of masculinity in order to resist the patriarchy those very expressions often perpetuate (as when Wad 'takes' women as wives whenever he wishes, including Hosna). Back
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