On a July night, during a summer season when the Nile river floods, Mustafa Sa’eed disappears. The village men search for him along the riverbank, but they cannot find his body—it seems that he has drowned. The narrator, who has returned to Khartoum for work, hears of Sa’eed’s death in the capital. Since the night of Sa’eed’s long narration, the narrator has been seized by strange feelings. He wonders, especially after Sa’eed’s death, whether Sa’eed had even existed, or whether he was simply a figment of the narrator’s imagination.
Mustafa Sa’eed’s death is as mysterious as his life: he simply disappears without a trace in the floods. Clearly, the narrator’s encounter with Sa’eed leaves the narrator feeling destabilized. That their relatively brief interaction is enough to make the narrator question even his own perception of reality shows how fragile the narrator’s seemingly strong identity may actually be.
The narrator recalls that, after Mustafa finished narrating his life story on that night, he left Mustafa’s house and wandered through the deserted village. Although the village was deeply familiar to him, he had never walked through it at such a late hour. As he walked, he heard one of the villagers, Wad Rayyes, making love to his wife, and he remembered Mustafa Sa’eed’s description of “two thighs, opened wide and white” in London.
The narrator’s recollection of wandering the village after listening to Mustafa suggests that he is seeing the village in a new light—literally, because he has never wandered through the village at such a late hour, but also metaphorically, because Sa’eed’s narration somehow changes his perception of things. Indeed, his association of the sounds of Wad Rayyes’ lovemaking with Mustafa’s narration suggests that the narrator’s observations of the village are now being filtered through Mustafa’s life story.
The narrator then went to his grandfather’s house, where he found him already preparing for his morning prayers. In the presence of his grandfather, the narrator felt a sense of stability and rootedness, feeling connected to the village again after missing it during his time abroad. He thought of the colonizers—the British—ruling over Sudan, and mused that, sooner or later, they will leave. With these thoughts, he left his grandfather’s house and finally went to bed. Soon after that evening of Mustafa Sa’eed’s narration, the narrator relocated to Khartoum to take up a job working for the ministry of education.
As in other instances in the novel, the narrator’s relationship to, and contact with, his grandfather helps to re-affirm his sense of connection to the village, and therefore his sense of his own identity as tied to it. His thoughts on British colonialism suggest that he takes a rather matter-of-fact attitude towards colonial rule. He does not seem to be disturbed by it, but views it rather as a passing phase. This attitude shows how even something has oppressive as colonialism can become normalized over time.
Although Mustafa Sa’eed died two years earlier, the narrator continues to think of him while living in Khartoum. Sa’eed has become a “phantom” in the narrator’s mind. At strange occasions, Sa’eed comes up. On a train journey one day, the narrator begins a conversation with a retired civil servant, a Mamur, who, reminiscing about his school days, suddenly mentions Sa’eed. The Mamur had been in the same class as Sa’eed in school, and he tells the narrator that Mustafa had been the most brilliant of the students—especially in the English language. He was so brilliant that he had been sent on scholarships to study in Cairo and London. But nothing was heard of him again.
The fact that Mustafa Sa’eed continues to haunt the narrator even after his death indicates the depth of the effect that Sa’eed has on him. This haunting also implicitly suggests that the narrator has more in common with Sa’eed than he might be willing to admit. Their shared experience of migration links them, while the fact that the narrator keeps encountering people who knew Sa’eed suggests that some fateful links the two men.
The narrator listens to the Mamur, without mentioning that he himself had known Mustafa Sa’eed, and that he has died by drowning (quite possibly a suicide). When he died, Mustafa left the narrator as the guardian of his two sons.
The narrator’s suspicion that Sa’eed has in fact committed suicide alludes to the way that Sa’eed was ultimately unable to settle down and make a new life in Wad Hamid. A suicide would suggest that some sense of loss and rootlessness motivated him to take his life. By leaving the narrator as guardian of his two sons, Sa’eed also solidifies the link between him and the narrator.
Mustafa again appears to the narrator unexpectedly, less than a month after the encounter with the Mamur. At a party in Khartoum, a group of guests begins discussing who was the first Sudanese to marry an English woman. Someone identifies Mustafa Sa’eed as the first.
The news that Sa’eed was the first to marry an English woman confirms another way in which Sa’eed’s life was exceptional: not only was he an academic prodigy, but he was the first to break cultural and social barriers by marrying a British woman. However, the reader already knows at this point that this marriage was full of terrible conflict, suggesting that colonialism creates inherently violent relationships between cultures and individuals.
The man who identifies Sa’eed says that Sa’eed had settled in England and had worked for the British in the 1930s, helping them to keep a hold on the colony of Sudan. Mustafa Sa’eed, he says, was one of the most loyal supporters of the British—and of their colonial enterprise in Sudan. Now, the man says, Mustafa is a millionaire living in the British countryside. The narrator corrects him. He tells him that, at the time of his death, Mustafa Sa’eed owned very little and lived in a small, obscure village in northern Sudan.
The man’s assertion that Sa’eed was a supporter of the British brings up the question of where, in fact, Sa’eed’s loyalties lay. Sa’eed, after all, benefitted immensely from British rule—it was under this rule that he found the opportunity to pursue his education and to migrate to England. However, it’s also clear that Sa’eed’s fury over colonialism was, in part, the reason that he chose to inflict such violence on English women. Again, the overall effects of colonialism seem to remain uncertain and complex.
An Englishman at the party goes on to recount what he heard about Mustafa Sa’eed: that he had become a darling of the British aristocracy in England, as well as of the leftists, who used their relations with him to show how liberal they were. In England, Sa’eed had developed a reputation for being a great ladies’ man.
The Englishman’s further comment that Sa’eed was beloved both by aristocrats and leftists reaffirms the mystery of Sa’eed’s true loyalties and identity. In England, it seems he was embraced by very different groups of people, whom he may well have been manipulating in the same way he manipulated the women he met in England.