Crystal Rivas December 16, 2010
Seasons of Migration to the North Versus Heart of Darkness
Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih is a work that revolves around a man named Mustafa Sa’eed, whose life and death influenced many lives, including Effendi, who works to unfold its mystery. The novel is told from the perspective of Effendi who discovers new things about himself as he unfolds the riddle of Mustafa. The novel’s characteristics reflect a similarity to Heart of Darkness which critics have proclaimed to be racist, sexist and unsuitable of being ranked as one of the finest books ever written. One of the most active members of such criticism is Chinua Achebe who wrote “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” and depicts the story in a dark and unfathomable light of injustice of Africa and its inhabitants. Salih’s Seasons of Migration to the North has not received the harsh criticism that Achebe is capable of formulating. This story presents the reader with various settings, descriptions, and characteristics that work to correct some of the negative and racist points that Achebe has described and accused Heart of Darkness of having along with its author. Achebe plainly states that Heart of Darkness should not be considered a great work of literature. As its counterpart I believe that Chinua Achebe would not feel the same way about Tayeb Salih’s Seasons of Migration to the North.
Tayeb Salih describes the village along the Nile in the Sudan through the heart and eyes of the narrator Effendi. There is a welcoming tranquility about the village which is described by Effendi , a native. “I heard the cooing of the turtle-dove, and I looked through the window at the palm tree standing in the courtyard of our house and I knew that all was still well with life…I experienced a feeling of assurance” (Salih 4). The Sudan, located in the continent of Africa where so called “Barbarians” roam, is depicted as gentle and serene, with a sense of tradition, civility and acceptance that Heart of Darkness failed to present. The use of Africa as a setting is one of the elements that Achebe was unhappy with. He states, “The question is whether a novel which celebrates the dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot” (Achebe 344). Salih approaches an African setting not as a mystery or as Achebe accuses Heart of Darkness of projecting “The image of Africa as “the other world”(Achebe 338), but really as a true home that is familiar.
On the one hand Europe is presented with a civility and cultural imperialistic ego as individuals travel to Europe, from Africa for an education. “After three years the headmaster -who was an Englishman- said to me, ‘this country hasn’t got the scope for that brain of yours, so take yourself off. Go to Egypt… or England” (Salih 21). On the other hand Europe is presented in an artificial order that masquerades as civility. It is depicted as a stranger and mysterious entity as Salih writes “A transparent veil of mist is spread about the valleys… The smell of the place is strange like that of Mrs. Robinson’s body… This is an ordered world; its houses, fields, and trees are ranged in accordance with a plan. The streams too do not follow a zigzag course but flow between artificial banks” (Salih 24). There seems to be an unnatural order that seduces and poisons an Arab-African man. Achebe might have been satisfied to know that Africa was not “the other world.” Salih manages to bring to light that perception is everything.
Chinua Achebe’s constant dissatisfaction with Conrad’s dehumanization of Africa would have found Salih’s use of setting description a breath of fresh air. Salih manages to present Sudan in a tranquil, hard working light that consist of a simplistic and peaceful existence, breaking the Barbaric illusion of Africa that has been embedded within the minds of millions of readers everywhere. In fact, it is the European influence that has poisoned an African mind. Their expectations and need for an artificial order leads to their own destruction as they search to tame a beast that does not exist. Salih writes, “‘Ravish me, you African demon. Burn me in the fire of your temple, you black god. Let me twist and turn in your wild and impassioned rites’(Salih 88) is what a Ms. Isabella Seymour would whisper to Mustafa Sa’eed when making love, but Mustafa was far from this description. He was a man who was educated by European means.
This literature can be easily compared with Heart of Darkness as its counterpart. Here we are presented with Effendi who encounters a man of brilliance but due to some unfortunate circumstances and whose mind has been infected by the seduction of the European culture, is pushed into an act of inhumane behavior. Much like Marlow’s experience with Kurtz. Achebe may be pleased to know that Africa was not used as the motive for the deterioration of a European man. In fact it is the complete opposite.
Africa is present through various angles. It is not just Sudan but also Egypt, and Khartoum expressing the vastness of Africa and the impossibility of placing it under one category. Achebe was angered by the use of the Congo. He accused Conrad of pinpointing his story on one part of Africa and expressing it in a way that represented Africa as a whole. Achebe wrote “The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that ‘Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world’” (Achebe 338). The Congo and Africa itself is void of any civility.
I believe that Achebe would not be completely fawned of Seasons of Migration to the North but he would approve of it. The man in question, Mustafa an Arab-African is constantly portrayed as an inhuman, emotionless, calculative machine whose bestiality and barbaric ways lead four European women to death. However, Africa and Africans are not a mere backdrop as it was in Heart of Darkness, it is a home filled with a harmony, calm, and genuineness that Europe lacked as Salih emphasized and described it’s “Artificial Canals” compared to the raw, and rustic structure of the Nile river that seemed to be the very icon of the land. It seems to address Achebe’s complaints of Africa simply being used as a backdrop, “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and African’s which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world” (Achebe 344). In fact, it is the European influence that lead to the poisoning of a brilliant Arab-African mind.
Although Season of Migration to the North manages to portray Africa in a humane and traditional light compared to that of Heart of Darkness, one thing that Achebe might note is that one can argue the sexist and offensive impressions, not of a race of people but to an entire gender. Europe is personified as a mysterious and seductive woman whose smell arouses Mustafa Sa’eed and infects him with the desire to conquer. Conquer what? Who? Well, Europe and its women of course and this reasoning has lead Mustafa in to a downward spiral of incident and misfortune destroying a brilliant and eloquent mind. “I felt as though Cairo, that large mountain to which my camel had carried me, was a European woman just like Mrs. Robinson, its arms embracing me, its perfume and the odor of its body filling my nostrils”(Salih 23). Achebe would probably bring to light the defense that Salih is not sexist but really it is Mustafa Sa’eed. Yet, women are expressed as a commodity not only by Mustafa but by a range of different characters and descriptions.
There is a contrast of women. Salih portrays women as a commodity. Salih writes, “ ‘Any way if the woman’s father and brothers are agreeable no one can do anything about it.’ ‘But if she doesn’t want to marry?’ I said to him. ‘You known how life is run here,’ he interrupted me. ‘Women belong to men, and a man’s a man even if he’s decrepit’”(Salih 83). European women are the opposite of Sudan-Arabian women. Achebe demonstrates Conrad’s use of the contrasting woman to emphasis the barbarianism, “The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration”(Achebe 341). Immediately at the start of the novel the narrator tries to correct the misconceptions that people from his village have about the women in the west. Yet, the very west is described as a seductive woman. The women from the west were the very downfall of Mustafa Sa’eed. Mustafa’s final wife Hosna Bint Mahmoud , an Arad African woman, was depicted as shy, conservative, responsible woman who was faithful and obedient. “She was a woman of noble carriage and of a foreign type of beauty –or am I imagining something that is not really there?… I said something that made her laugh and my heart throbbed at the sweetness of her laughter”(Salih 75). Hosna was described as the ideal woman, but sill a possession that can be used and abused.
Salih managed to subtly present the racism that is within the European world towards Africa and it inhabitants. This is seen through the interactions of the characters. “‘You, Mr. Sa’eed, are the best example of the fact that our civilizing mission in Africa is of no avail. After all the efforts we’ve made to educate you, it’s as if you’d come out of the jungle for the first time’” (Salih 78). This word “civilizing” comes up often. I’m sure Achebe would look at this quote with disgust. What exactly is this notion of “civilizing” if not the stripping one of his history and culture and replacing it with another then refusing them entrance because they appear different, and parade them around to satisfy their own ego on how caring and wonderful they are to help such loathsome people, and killing them off if they do not conform. It seems to me that “civilizing” is conformity. Achebe has stated before, “If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray-a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate”(Achebe 347-348). Mustafa was to the European mind a “Dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs”(Achebe 340). He was never truly accepted within European society.
The African-Arabs are not the barbarians that Achebe was appalled at reading in Heart of Darkness. Although it was not the artificial order that is seen in Europe there is a sense of peace and togetherness; a community that is united as they follow their own customs and traditions. They have real conversations not the meaningless bubbles of sounds that Achebe described in Heart of Darkness. “In place of speech they made ‘a violent babble of uncouth sounds.’ They ‘exchanged short grunting phrases’ even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy” (Achebe 341). This very simple notion of speech further dehumanized African but Seasons of Migration to the North rectifies it by providing the meaning to the sound that Conrad neglects to offer.
Despite what I believe are flawed and reflective opinions of the author Seasons of Migration to the North provides a new African experience that is far from the racism that Achebe has described in Heart of Darkness. I believe that if Achebe were to read this novel he may find it refreshing to see Africa through a positive perception. However, with analyzing the novel in the way that Achebe would, it has become apparent to me that Salih is sexist. Tayeb Salih has managed to successfully create a counter to Heart of Darkness and its racism. This is an interestingly well written book that should be read and appreciated in it’s positive view of Africa and it’s people.