Mustafa begins telling his story, informing the narrator that he was born in Khartoum, as his passports show, but that his father died a few months before his birth. He had no siblings, and he had a distant relationship with his mother. One day, a British colonial officer asks Mustafa, still a young child, whether he wants to go to school, and Mustafa says he does. When he does begin school, it immediately becomes apparent that Mustafa is something of a child prodigy: he is so ahead of his classmates that, by the age of 12, the headmaster—a British man—tells him that he should go abroad to study. Mustafa himself, though still young, feels a deep need to move on to bigger things.
The British colonial officer reveals that Mustafa grew up under British colonialization of Sudan. At the time of his childhood, the Sudanese were a subject people to the British, who oversaw the country’s affairs, including the education of Sudanese. This incident also hints at the complicated realities of colonialism; Mustafa was subjugated under British rule, but British people were also the ones who gave him opportunities to excel. Mustafa’s prodigal talents as a school student indicate how, even at a young age, his identity was unique amongst those that surrounded him.
A scholarship is arranged for Mustafa to attend high school in Cairo. His mother seems happy when he tells her that he is going, although they never say good-bye properly. Mustafa arrives in Cairo, where he is looked after by the headmaster of the school there, Mr. Robinson, and his wife, Mrs. Robinson. Mustafa is attracted to Mrs. Robinson and feels the stirrings of sexual desire when she hugs him upon arrival. He associates the city of Cairo with her, and he remains there studying for three years, during which time he continues to greatly impress his teachers with his intellectual achievements. He is so brilliant that, at fifteen, he secures a government scholarship to continue his studies in London.
Mustafa’s travels to Cairo to study mark the beginning of his migration out of his native land of Sudan. This migration is also associated with the awakening of his sexual identity, which will become central to his experiences as an adult in England. His continued academic brilliance in Cairo again marks him out as unique—as a young man with exceptional talents, and therefore exceptional opportunities. At this point, this unique identity seems purely beneficial; Mustafa doesn’t yet experience the conflicting identities that will torment him later in life.
Mustafa arrives in London, which he finds to be incredibly green and orderly. It is interesting to hear the English language (which he had mastered at a phenomenal speed in school) actually spoken by the English people around him. In London, he enters the world of a woman named Jean Morris. He says that everything that had happened before his encounter with her was a “premonition,” and that “everything I did after I killed her was an apology, not for killing her, but for the lie that was my life.”
As Mustafa begins to recount to the narrator his arrival in England, he almost immediately jumps forward to his encounter with the English woman Jean Morris. His confession that he has killed her is shocking—indeed, it confirms that Mustafa’s past, and therefore his identity, is framed by violence, specifically violence toward women. It also begins to explain why Mustafa might want to keep his past a secret.
Mustafa goes on to recount to the narrator the moment of his meeting with Jean Morris at a party in London, when he was twenty-five. The second time he met her, she told him that he was ugly, and he had sworn then and there that one day he would make her pay. The next morning, he had woken up with Ann Hammond in his bed in his London apartment—a young, intelligent, pretty woman from an upper-middle class family. Mustafa had slept with her—as he had with other women—in his bed, in a room decorated with mirrors, which gave the impression of him sleeping with a harem. Shortly after her relationship with Mustafa, Ann Hammond committed suicide by gassing herself. She had left a note behind saying, “God damn you, Mustafa Sa’eed.”
Clearly, from the beginning, Mustafa’s relationship Jean is full of conflict: she insults him and he wants to make her pay. His mention of his lover Ann Hammond’s suicide note, in which she ‘damns’ him, suggests that she blames him for the misery that led her to take her own life. Mustafa’s relationships to women, it seems, are full of violence and conflict. His description of the mirrors he put up on his bedroom walls also suggests that he seeks experience stereotypically masculine, even misogynistic power over women.
Mustafa skips from the memory of Ann Hammond’s suicide to his trial in a British courtroom. There, he remembers being cross-examined by the prosecutor, who asked him whether he had caused the suicides of Ann Hammond, Isabella Seymour and Sheila Greenwood. Mustafa replied, “I don’t know.” However, to the prosecutor’s question of whether he had killed Jean Morris, he answered, “Yes.”
That three women Mustafa has had relationships with commit suicide indicates that something was terribly awry in Mustafa’s relationships to these women—even if in his trial he says he ‘doesn’t know’ if it was because of him that they killed themselves. And his acknowledgment that he had, in fact, killed Jean Morris affirms that violence—whether physical or emotional—was integral to his relationships with these women.
Mustafa pursued Jean Morris for three years. One day, she gave in to him, telling him that she was tired of him chasing her. They then married. But Mustafa tells the narrator that their bedroom was a “theater of war,” one which always left him defeated, after his days spent working as a lecturer of economics at the University of London.
In characterizing his marriage to Jean Morris as a war, Mustafa affirms that his relationship to her was full of conflict and suggests that violence is a key aspect of how he relates to women.
Mustafa then recalls another of his lovers, Sheila Greenwood, wondering aloud how she had found the courage to commit suicide. A girl from a humble background, she had worked as a waitress in a Soho restaurant, where Mustafa had first met her. After her relationship with Mustafa, she also committed suicide. Mustafa remembers that, during his trial for the murder of Jean Morris, the prosecutor pointed out that Mustafa, in the period between 1922 and 1923, lived with five different women simultaneously, going by a false name with each one and making promises of marriage to each.
That Mustafa lived with five different women over the span of a year, and went by a different name with each one, shows that he consistently deceived and manipulated his lovers. Though the reader doesn’t yet know why Mustafa treats women this way, the shocking story of his actions (and the tragic consequences for Sheila) makes it clear that Mustafa’s relationships are examples of toxic gender dynamics.
Mustafa then recalls his encounter with Isabella Seymour—another of his victims. He met her in a London park on a summer’s day, quickly seducing her with his exotic descriptions of the Nile river and the wild animals in the jungles of his homeland. When she asked him what his race was—whether he was African or Arab—Mustafa had replied that he was “like Othello,” “Arab-African.” Playing on her desire to fetishize him, Mustafa seduced her, and a month after their meeting, brought her to his London apartment—to his room evocative of the oriental “East”—to sleep with her.
Mustafa clearly exploits English women’s desire to fetishize him as an ‘exotic’ other. This works on Isabella Seymour, who is captured by the colonial stereotypes and tropes that Mustafa evokes, including his likening of his racial identity to that of the famed Shakespearean tragic hero, Othello. In manipulating Isabella’s impressions of him in this way, Mustafa seeks to gain power over her by playing on the very colonial power dynamics that oppress Sudanese people like him.