Season of Migration to the North


Tayeb Salih

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Season of Migration to the North Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tayeb Salih

Born in Sudan at a time when it was still ruled jointly by the British and the Egyptians under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, Tayeb Salih grew up in a small rural community made up mostly of farmers in northern Sudan. He distinguished himself at school and went on to pursue university studies in London. It was in England, where he settled, that he began publishing work in Arabic. Season of Migration to the North, published in 1966, became a huge success, and was followed by the collection of stories The Wedding of Zein in 1967, as well as the two volumes that make up the novel Bandarshah, published in 1971 and 1976, respectively. In addition to his writing, Salih led a parallel career in broadcasting, working for the BBC’s Arabic service. In England, he met and married a Scottish woman and had three daughters. While he visited Sudan regularly, he never returned to live there, and died in his adopted home of England in 2009. 
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Historical Context of Season of Migration to the North

The key historical event with which Season of Migration to the North grapples is Anglo-Egyptian colonialism of Sudan, which lasted between 1899 and 1956. In 1898, the British conquered Sudan, and from that period on, ruled it jointly with Egypt—although the Egyptians were only nominally rulers, and real power rested with the British. The British imposed their own laws on the territory, transformed the educational system (mandating, for instance, the teaching of English in schools, in addition to Arabic), and exerted political power to benefit from Sudan’s vast agricultural and other resources, thus enriching themselves in the process. As such, Anglo-Egyptian colonialism of Sudan led to massive political, cultural, and economic upheaval, as colonialism everywhere on the continent of Africa did. As a subject population, the Sudanese had little control over their own lives and destinies. Salih’s novel, therefore, deals with the violence that framed the colonial encounter between Sudan and Britain. In Season of Migration to the North, the novel’s protagonist, Mustafa Sa’eed, strives to repay the violence that has been done to him and to his people, in the name of the “civilizing mission” of British colonialism.

Other Books Related to Season of Migration to the North

Two key texts of the English literary canon, William Shakespeare’s play Othello (1604) and Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1902), inform and frame Season of Migration to the North. Salih explicitly sets his Arabic novel—which deals with the encounter between “east” and “west,” between Europe and Africa/the Orient—in relation to, and in the context of, these two European texts. On one level, Season of Migration to the North can be understood as a rewriting of Shakespeare’s famous play Othello. In fact, the protagonist of Salih’s novel, Mustafa Sa’eed, likens himself to Shakespeare’s tragic hero and describes himself in terms of Othello’s ethnic identity, as an “Arab-African.” Through these references to Othello, Salih’s novel frames itself as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, with the encounter between an “Arab-African” protagonist and western European culture set within the framework of colonialism. Likewise, Salih’s novel recalls Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which tells the story of a European colonial merchant who journeys down the Congo river into the “heart of darkness”—a problematic and derogatory reference to the “heart” of the African continent. Salih’s novel tells the story of a reverse journey: of an Arab-African protagonist who journeys from Africa into the “heart of darkness” of Europe, where he confronts firsthand the colonial violence at the center of European civilization. As a postcolonial text, therefore, Season of Migration to the North can be seen as “writing back” to, and challenging, key literary works of European (and particularly British) culture, and it thereby inscribes a postcolonial counter-narrative to these colonial “master” narratives of Europe.
Key Facts about Season of Migration to the North
  • Full Title: Season of Migration to the North
  • When Written: 1966
  • Where Written: London, United Kingdom
  • When Published: 1966
  • Literary Period: Modern
  • Genre: Literary fiction
  • Setting: Wad Hamid (Sudan) and London (UK)
  • Climax: Mustafa Sa’eed plunges a dagger into Jean Morris’ chest
  • Point of View: First person narration

Extra Credit for Season of Migration to the North

Award Man. The literary influence of Tayeb Salih is such that an award has been named in his honor: The Al-Tayeb Salih Creative Writing Award, established in 2010, is open to contestants writing in the Arabic language from anywhere in the world. 

Lover of the Nile. Like the narrator of his novel Season of Migration to the North, Salih grew up in a small village on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan. In interviews, he mentions that the river has been an important source of inspiration in his literary work.