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Season of Migration to the North tells the story of Mustafa Sa’eed, a prodigy from Sudan who goes to study first in Cairo and then in London, where he hunts women but eventually falls for one himself. After a marriage consummated by violence and a prison sentence, he returns to Sudan, moving to a small village on the Nile, where he marries again and has children. He disappears mysteriously in a flood. Season of Migration to the North is complex, in its framing, in its episodic style, in its use of metaphor, and in the variety of material it canvasses. It touches on colonial arrogance, sexual mores and the status of women, the politics of independent Sudan, and more. There are lyrical fragments with no direct connection to the story, describing the rhythms of agriculture, travel along the Nile, a spontaneous night celebration by travellers in the desert, and so forth. And there are references to European novels about encounters with the exotic in Africa and the Middle East. Most of this is only hinted at, and never elaborated on, but there is enough here to keep students of post-colonial literature busy for a long time. Season of Migration to the North is short and immediate, however, and can be appreciated without any literary theory.
Most of the rest of the novel concerns his recollections of the exceedingly strange story that MS tells him – a story which haunts and oppresses, yet also challenges him in terms of defining his own value system in ‘postcolonial’ Sudanese society – in the context of “the new rulers of Africa, smooth of face, lupine of mouth, … in suits of fine mohair and expensive silk” (118). The life story MS had narrated began with the account of his (British, colonial) schooling, which had led him to the discovery of his own mind, “like a sharp knife, cutting with cold effectiveness” (22). So brilliant is he that from Khartoum he is sent to Cairo and then to London for advanced study – here he is nicknamed “the black Englishman” (54). In British society he becomes a sexual predator, setting up as his lair a room seductively decorated with ersatz ‘African’ paraphernalia. Englishwomen of a wide range of classes and ages easily succumb to and are destroyed by him. Three of these women are driven to suicide; while he eventually murders the most provocative of them, who had humiliated and taunted him before – and also during – their stormy marriage. This act (a sort of sex-murder) is in his own eyes, however, the grand consummation of his life:
‘The sensation that … I have bedded the goddess of Death and gazed out upon Hell from the aperture of her eyes – it’s a feeling no man can imagine. The taste of that night stays on in my mouth, preventing me from savouring anything else.’ (153)
Elsewhere MS says of this relationship that he “was the invader who had come from the South, and this was the icy battlefield from which [he] would not make a safe return” (160).
On his return to the village, the narrator at last enters a secret room that MS had built next to his home – a replica of a British gentleman’s drawing room! Pride of place has been given to MS’s painting of his ‘white’ wife, Jean Morris. The room also contains a book, purportedly the “Life Story” of MS, dedicated “To those who see with one eye … and see things as … either Eastern or Western” (150-151). This brief account cannot accommodate the complicated structure, subtle allusiveness and richly metaphoric style of this difficult text, but may give some indication of its ironic (or sardonic) perspective and of its deep and lasting relevance to the political and cultural predicament of many Africans. Its demonstration of the harsh parallels between colonial racism and local sexism confirms that this text is, as Salih himself has stated, “a plea for toleration” at all levels. It is an unforgettable work.
That being said, the second storyline, told by ‘Mustafa,’ a stranger to the village, revolves around him using weak British women for sex and then leaving them so heart-broken they turn to suicide. While it’s easy to read this as a comment more on colonisation, I still felt uncomfortable seeing so many women reduced to objects or symbols. Since Mustafa was telling the story, though, I believe the objectification rested with him and his character, as opposed to Salih. This didn’t necessarily make reading it any more pleasant, but it did justify it, for me at least. Can you sense the murkiness I feel on this aspect of the book? My wrestling with it made my experience of the book less enjoyable, but it didn’t diminish the book’s worth in my eyes. I didn’t feel a similar inner battle over the issues of colonisation raised in the book. Mustafa is the primary engine of this; he tells his story of being a smart, poor kid from Sudan who ends up going first to Cairo and then to London to become a ‘famous’ economics professor who simultaneously seems to spend most of his energy sleeping with white British women. He basically learns how to turn British prejudices about the ‘exotic’ to his advantage, and he talks about seducing girls with stories of imaginary animals running across the harsh, evocative landscape of his childhood. Throughout his narrative, he’s portrayed as lacking something vitally human, a kind of warmth towards his fellow species that leaves him all cold intellectâ€¦as a young boy, he doesn’t know how to connect with his schoolmates and doesn’t even seem bothered by his friendlessness. And once he’s an adult, while he must enjoy sex (why else seduce so many women?), he never feels any emotional attachment to the women, and I don’t think he even sees it as a way to connect so much as a way to use and dominate. None of the women he encounters are ever shown as real human beings, although the only one to resist him does have more complexity about her than the others. As I mentioned in the above paragraph, it’s all too easy to read this as a metaphor for colonisation. But even while Salih is exploring this, he never makes it a black-and-white issueâ€¦nuances and complexities are explored, and he leaves up to the reader to try to figure out what’s being said
Your comments on Mustafa’s emotional coldness & exploitation of white women even as they’re also exploiting him reminds me SO strongly of Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the narrator’s conflicted relationship with white women in that novel. Like you with Season of Migration to the North, I was never sure how to feel about that aspect of the story, especially since I can’t help locating the objectification with Ellison as well as his narrator. Complicated stuff.
During the whole story I was anticipating a shocking twist at the end where we find out that Mustafa Sa’eed and the narrator are the same person. At the end of the book I noticed the narrator was swimming in the Nile river when he finally decides consciously on living, and that Mustafa Sa’eed had dissapeared earlier in the story while swimming in the Nile. This suggests possibly that they are the same character, although not clearly enough to leave me satisfied with such a conclusion. Over at wikipedia they must have had a similar idea, because they described Mustafa Sa’eed as the narrator’s doppelganger. Their explanation lead me to believe that maybe the narrator had came back so shook from his experience in the West that he didn’t know if he wanted to live anymore, and so he had viewed himself in 3rd person through the character of Mustafa Saeed and then finally decided on living while swimming the Nile!
Font and Edna return to Egypt at the eruption of the Suez crisis, but Ram stays on in Britain, is ejected because his visa has lapsed, and then works for a period in a factory in Germany. He is afraid of seeing Edna again when he gets back to Cairo and he also avoids seeing Didi Nackla, a young Egyptian journalist who had later lived with them in London. There he had turned to Didi, despairing of Edna’s feelings for him, and initiated a sexual relationship with her. Self-deprecating as he is, Ram allows us only glimpses of the actually hugely risky political business he is engaged in. He has been collecting evidence of the torture and murder of political activists in Egyptian jails, where (in a pattern typical of this society) wealthier or higher-class prisoners will not be subjected to such treatment.
England is leaving Egypt, finally, in 1954. The Egyptian army has overthrown the royal family and instituted a republican system that both embodies the nationalistic and progressive hope of many Egyptians, and also becomes increasingly repressive. The characters, Ram and Font, are Egyptians who are Anglophone and upper class, and so are out of touch with the new order.
Ram is an educated, well-connected Copt, probably in his mid-twenties. His best friend is Font, another Copt. Ram and Font spent four years in England and are obsessed with English civilization and culture, but they also despise British colonialism and hypocrisy and they participated in guerilla fighting against the British during the Suez War. The Egypt of BEER IN THE SNOOKER CLUB is at a stage of political, economic, and religious uncertainty or indecision. One of the central issues of the novel is, “What is an Egyptian?” And the same uncertainty or indecision extends to Ram’s personal life: what to do with himself, whether or not to live attached to the purse strings of his rich aunt, whether or not to marry, and who?
He has been educated in the British school system in Cairo, and dreaming of the mythical London of Piccadilly Circus and pubs, he and his best friends, Font and Edna, travel to England to experience sexual and political freedom and find as well dreariness and meanness and small-mindedness. There he and his lover, Edna, drift apart, and he returns to Cairo understanding that England has ‘killed something natural’ in him.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
How to be kind? And thoughts on Beer in the Snooker Club
It occurs to me that people in England, at least, are starved of opportunities to be kind, to be useful. If one watches the eagerness with which people jump up on the bus when someone even approaching old age gets on, and the keenness with which a stranger directs you to the address you cannot find, or gives unsolicited advice in a shop, then one feels the terrible and unexploited desire to be ‘good’, when so many situations call for one to be cynical: critical and uncompromising for fear of being taken advantage of, being laughed at, being ‘unnatural’.
Our suspicion is thus killing something in us, for it reveals to us day in, day out, the frightful, hard, trapped creature we have become, with our knowing faces frozen in a semi-permanent frown or sneer.
On a suffocating coach ride, Bath-London, the hulking vehicle turned a difficult corner, and I observed from the window an elderly man making a signal to the driver that is was clear and safe for him to advance. It was a completely superfluous, foolish act, as red-lights prevented the other cars from advancing into our slowly turning rear end, but who amongst us would have wanted to shout out, “what are you doing old man; there is no need for your help.”?
After I finished reading Beer in the Snooker Club by Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, I lived for a long time with that book in my flat in Cairo overlooking the depressing Ministry of the Interior, and wandering the streets of downtown, burdened further with the thought of Ghali killing himself in the spare bedroom of British publisher, Diana Athill. I felt an immense sorrow that I could not fully explain by my own loneliness as a foreigner.
Later I returned to the novel and considered Ram’s role in his own life, and found it an excruciatingly circumscribed and pitiful one. Ram, that narrator of Beer in the Snooker Club, born to a landowning Coptic Christian family, is the only son of the poor relative: his mother was widowed young and now relies upon the generosity – with all its attendant obligations – of her siblings. He has been educated in the British school system in Cairo, and dreaming of the mythical London of Piccadilly Circus and pubs, he and his best friends, Font and Edna, travel to England to experience sexual and political freedom and find as well dreariness and meanness and small-mindedness. There he and his lover, Edna, drift apart, and he returns to Cairo understanding that England has ‘killed something natural’ in him.
What Ram subsequently fails to do is to act out his compassion, and desire for other people. And this is during a period in Egypt, the late 1950s, post the 1952 ‘revolution’, when the young people are moving out of the spaces and roles formerly proscribed entirely for them by their parents, a corrupt elite and the British presence. Font – a dogmatic Marxist, scornful of his privileged roots, adopts the garb and posture of a street vegetable seller. Ram, finds this absurdly and depressingly ‘gimmicky’ just as the communism of Edna, an Egyptian Jew, and her incessant championing of the fellaheen leaves him cold.
So, he reasons, to act ‘righteously’ in the defense of the downtrodden, is to be a parody both of oneself and ones roots, and of those that one is claiming to stand up for; it is to proscribe who and what is authentically Egyptian and to disdain and reject everything – even one’s innocent childhood – and everyone else that does not take this purging seriously.
Ram does act briefly – alone and secretly – to send photographs to the newspapers that expose abuses by the government. But he jokes that for his pains – the real risks involved, he prefers the idea of
having gone to prison, rather than the heroic act of actually going.
His potent hatred of his wealthy French-speaking family’s disingenuineness, their greed and cowardice and sham magnanimousness, does not provoke him to act and speak upon any legitimised, public platform against both them and their class. Rather, Ram chooses to expose himself to ridicule and mere disapproval by performing apparently childish pranks – pushing his odious American-educated cousin into the pool, making a scene at a society party. By making it impossible for anyone around him to consider his protests as serious and legitimate political acts, he can be disruptive and irreverent from within; but it is a lonely and claustrophobic role which engenders only greater cynicism and emotional numbness in the young man.
As long as Ram divides his time between his politically committed friends and a depraved and decadent elite, he has only the rare opportunity to show kindness, for with the former he feels too self-consciously as if he is performing a political or social role, and with the latter in order to resist the powerful obligation upon him to be the good son, he can only be flippant – ‘naughty’ and ‘rude’.
there is this comparsion of the eastern culture vs the western culture that made the novel intresting to view from one point. ram the narrator is being confused by the two worlds that he has lived with, although he finds himself more with the western culture rather the eastern.
I don’t know whether or not he intended this, but I enjoyed his terse writing style. I also found it fascinating to learn that Egypt had its own “lost generation.” Some of the depictions of Cairo and its society and undoubtedly still true today, such as Gezeira Club, of which I am a member. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1231621.Beer_in_the_Snooker_Club?page=1
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