The narrator, addressing a group of “gentlemen,” recounts his return to his home village on the banks of the Nile river in Sudan, after seven years of studying in Europe. The narrator is happy to be home—he had missed his people while abroad—and they welcome him back to the village with open arms. In his first day and night in the village, he feels a sense of rootedness and belonging. On his second day in the village, however, he recalls that, among those who had gathered to greet him on his arrival, there was a strange man. He asks his father about him, and his father tells him that the man is named Mustafa, a stranger about whom little is known. Mustafa arrived in Wad Hamid five years earlier and married a local woman, Hosna bint Mahmoud.
The narrator’s arrival in the village marks his return to his native roots. The feeling of belonging that he instinctively experiences in the village suggests his deep sense of connection to his native land and its people. His identity—in spite of seven years spent studying abroad—seems to still be securely anchored in the village. And yet, the stranger Mustafa’s appearance also alludes to the fact that there have been changes in the village since the narrator’s departure: all is not entirely the same as he left it.
In his first days in the village, the narrator goes to his favorite place, under a tree by the Nile river, and, looking out at the water, he feels a sense of stability and rootedness. He thinks of the fact that his grandfather can tell him stories about the village as it was fifty—or even eighty—years ago. During a visit, the narrator asks his grandfather about Mustafa, but his grandfather cannot tell him anything about the stranger’s roots. However, he praises Mustafa’s good character.
The continued sense of ease and rootedness that the narrator experiences as he visits familiar places in the village suggest the extent to which he is connected to the place and its people, in spite of his time abroad. However, the mystery surrounding Mustafa foreshadows how this sense of connection will become more complicated as the novel continues.
Two days after the narrator’s visit to his grandfather, Mustafa knocks on the narrator’s door. The narrator is at home with his family during the quiet afternoon hours, and he invites Mustafa in. He is struck by Mustafa’s excessive politeness, and by the mix of strength and weakness apparent on his handsome face. When he asks Mustafa where he is from, Mustafa answers that he is from the outskirts of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and that he had been in business there, but decided to come up north and settle in the village to farm.
The narrator’s first impressions of Mustafa’s face suggest that Mustafa may be a conflicted person: two opposing qualities—weakness and strength—are both present in his face. This instinctive perception hints at the identity crisis that both Mustafa and the narrator will come to experience.
Two months pass by in peace, during which the narrator occasionally encounters Mustafa. One evening, he is at a drinking gathering at his friend Mahjoub’s house, and Mustafa stops by to ask Mahjoub something about the agricultural project they both participate in. Mahjoub insists that Mustafa join them in drinking. Mustafa is clearly reluctant, but he is pressured and finally agrees. The narrator watches as Mustafa becomes more and more inebriated. Suddenly, to the narrator’s shock, Mustafa begins reciting a poem in English. The narrator jumps up, confronting Mustafa, wanting to know where he has learned the poem, but Mustafa leaves.
Mustafa’s drunk recital of English poetry is shocking to the narrator because it suggests that Mustafa is in fact not who he claims to be. While Mustafa previously told the narrator that he was a businessman from Khartoum, his recital of English poetry here suggests that he has been deeply immersed in English culture and language. In other words, he is not just an ordinary Sudanese farmer. He is a man with a secret identity, one with links to England. His previous reluctance to reveal this identity, as well as the narrator’s strong reaction to discovering it, suggests that English identity is an emotionally charged topic for both of them.
The next day, the narrator goes to find Mustafa in his fields. He again confronts him about speaking in English the previous night. Mustafa tells him he can’t remember what he had said or done the night before; he was drunk. The narrator, nonetheless, implicitly threatens Mustafa, telling him it’s best if he shares the truth about who he is.
Mustafa’s attempts at evading the narrator’s demands to reveal who he truly is—by claiming he can’t remember what he had done or said the night before—reaffirm the sense that there is something about his identity that he wants to hide, hinting that this secret may be painful for him.
The narrator doesn’t have to wait long. Mustafa appears at his house later that day and invites him to come over the next evening. The narrator goes to Mustafa’s house as arranged. There, Mustafa makes him swear that the narrator will keep what he is about to share to himself; the narrator agrees. Mustafa then proceeds to show him two passports—Sudanese and British—that reveal that he was born in Khartoum. The British passport is stamped with many foreign visas, which further intrigue the narrator.
In making the narrator swear that he will keep this secret, Mustafa suggests that the story he is about to tell is explosive in some way. His further revelation of the much-stamped British passport (in addition to the Sudanese passport) affirms that there is much more to Mustafa’s identity than meets the eye. The two passports also suggest that Mustafa’s identity may be similarly split in two; he is neither entirely English nor entirely Sudanese.