One night, shortly after learning of the details of Hosna’s murder-suicide, the narrator stands outside of the secret room in Mustafa Sa’eed’s house. He enters. Inside, he strikes a match and sees a face. He thinks it is the face of Mustafa Sa’eed, but as he approaches, he realizes that it is his own face. The narrator finds a lamp, lights it, and sees that the four walls of the room are covered in books. He is astonished to find that there is also a fireplace—a real English fireplace—in the room. The narrator begins to set fire to the rugs, but then puts it out.
In mistaking himself for Mustafa Sa’eed in the mirror, the narrator reveals the extent to which his own identity has become intertwined with Sa’eed’s as a result of their shared experience of migration. The fireplace in the room is astonishing, primarily because it reveals Sa’eed’s desire to maintain a memento of—and a link to—his former English life in England. Of course, the fireplace is completely unnecessary in a hot climate like Sudan’s.
The books on the walls are on all topics; among them are Mustafa Sa’eed’s own published books. None of the books is in Arabic. Above the mantelpiece is a painting of a woman. There are also photographs of Mustafa Sa’eed and a photo of Sheila Greenwood, which she signed. She told Sa’eed that her mother would go mad if she found out her daughter was romantically involved with a black man, and her father would kill her. She was completely engrossed by Sa’eed’s exotic appearance and cultural roots before she committed suicide.
The fact that the books are all in English further reveals that Sa’eed’s secret room is a kind of temple to his English life. Clearly, in spite of settling in Wad Hamid, he was unable to give up his connection to England, as well as to the many English women with whom he developed relationships that ended tragically. The secret room also exemplifies the complications of colonialism; Sa’eed drew meaning from the nation that oppressed his people, even as he was filled with violent rage over that very oppression.
Another signed photograph depicts Isabella Seymour. When she met Mustafa Sa’eed, she was a church-goer and a married woman, raising two children. In a letter she left Mustafa Sa’eed before her death, she wrote that she hoped that Sa’eed would find as much happiness as he had given her. In court, her husband took the stand, admitting that his wife had cancer before her death, and testifying that she had admitted the affair to him a few days before she died. Nonetheless, he said that he felt no bitterness towards her or the accused, Mustafa Sa’eed.
Clearly, Sa’eed’s encounters with English women often turned their lives upside down. Seymour, however, seems to have been glad to have had her life shaken up by Sa’eed..Seymour’s positive interpretation of their relationship, despite the fact that Sa’eed intentionally dominated her, seems to mirror the way that Sa’eed remembers Britain fondly, even as he hates its colonizing influence.
The narrator thinks that, after all these victims, Sa’eed still managed to crown his life with another—Hosna Bint Mahmoud. The narrator picks up a third photograph—this one of Ann Hammond. He remembers what Sa’eed told him about her: that she had begun spending more and more time in London, neglecting her studies at Oxford, in order to be with him. She would inhale the smell of his armpits and tell him how it was the smell of “rotting leaves in the jungles of Africa…the smell of rains in the deserts of Arabia.” Sa’eed had met her in Oxford after giving a lecture on the Arabic poet Abu Nawas.
Hammond’s comments about Sa’eed’s smell reveal how, like many of his other English lovers, she fetishized him, taking him to be a symbol of his ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ native land. The associations she establishes evoke colonial stereotypes about the colonized ‘other’—and Africa specifically. Her comments reveal how the colonial relationship leads people to view each other in reductive, essentialist ways that may even reproduce the dynamics of colonialism in interpersonal settings.
Sa’eed would quote Arabic poetry to Ann Hammond, and she would tell him that in his eyes she could see deserts. He took her to his “oriental” London apartment, where Ann would play his slave girl and he her master. She was found after she gassed herself in her flat, leaving behind a note that said: “Mr. Sa’eed, God damn you!”
The play-acting of Hammond and Sa’eed, in which she would play his slave girl, suggests how their relationship merely reversed the terms of the colonial oppression, rather than challenging it. Sa’eed becomes ‘master’ over Ann, in the same way that the British were ‘masters’ of Sudan. The gender dynamic of this ‘slave-master’ relationship demonstrates how women are subjugated across the globe, while also linking that oppression to the dehumanizing effects of colonization.
The narrator picks up a photo of Mustafa Sa’eed with Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Robinson in Cairo, in 1913, and remembers the letter he received from Mrs. Robinson recently, in which she spoke of Sa’eed as “dear Moozie,” remembering her and her husband’s love for him. She mentioned in the letter that she was writing a book about their life together.
Mrs. Robinson’s love for Mustafa Sa’eed, though platonic, suggests that she—like the other English women—fell prey to his immense charms and talents.
The narrator opens a notebook entitled “My Life Story—by Mustafa Sa’eed.” There is hardly anything in the notebook, except for a cryptic sentence. He finds sketchbooks with Mustafa’s sketches, as well as scraps of notes and poetry. The narrator grows tired of putting these pieces together; he realizes that Sa’eed wanted to be “discovered;” he wanted the narrator to puzzle together these pieces of his life.
The fact that Sa’eed expects that the narrator will bring together these scraps reveals that Sa’eed understood that his and the narrator’s identities were inextricably linked, as a result of their shared experience of migration. For the narrator, however, this challenge is an exhausting one; his desire to set aside this puzzle suggests that he would also like to be able to stop puzzling over his own identity.
The narrator turns to the painting of Jean Morris above the English mantelpiece. He recalls, again, Mustafa Sa’eed’s story of his relationship with Jean Morris, how she would torment and humiliate him at parties. Sa’eed had fallen in love with her nonetheless. Once, he had kept away from her for two weeks, but she showed up at his house, driving away Ann Hammond in tears. She stripped naked before Sa’eed, but whenever he tried to touch her, she would demand to destroy his valuable belongings—which he allowed her to do. When he finally came near her, she hit him. Sa’eed pursued her for three years until she agreed to marry him.
The extremely conflicted relationship between Jean Morris and Sa’eed reveals how, in Jean Morris, Sa’eed met his match. Unlike his other English lovers, Jean Morris represented a challenge to Sa’eed, inflicting violence on him in ways that he had never confronted with other women. Of course, this reciprocal violence only ends in more tragedy; it’s clear from Sa’eed and Jean’s relationship that meeting violence with violence makes conflict worse rather than solving it.
After their marriage, Jean Morris refused to let Mustafa Sa’eed sleep with her. Two months into the marriage, he threatened her with a knife. She bared her chest to him then and told him to kill her, but he was too afraid. It was then that Sa’eed remembered that he had received news of his mother’s death nine months earlier. He wept belatedly. One day, as they were sitting together in a park, Jean finally kissed him, and they made love right then and there, on the park bench. This sexual contact with Jean made Sa’eed feel like an “invader,” a conqueror arriving from the south.
Jean Morris’s refusal to sleep with Sa’eed echoes Hosna bint Mahmoud’s refusal to sleep with Wad Rayyes. In both cases, women refuse men access to their bodies, thereby asserting their ownership over their own bodies. But like Hosna, Jean ultimately finds that her efforts are futile; both women escape oppression only through death. That Sa’eed feels like an “invader” when Jean Morris does finally allow him to sleep with her suggests that Sa’eed views his sexual relationship to her in terms of conquest, a dynamic that mirrors Britain’s colonial domination over Sudan.
While Mustafa Sa’eed had his moments of ecstasy with Jean, most of the time they were at war, even resorting to physical fights. Jean would make him jealous by flirting with other men. One day, he found a handkerchief which didn’t belong to him in the house and he questioned her about it, demanding to know whom it belonged to. However, whenever he questioned her about her lovers, she challenged and rebuffed him.
The war that characterizes the marriage between Jean and Sa’eed reveals how Sa’eed’s relationships to women were framed by violence and conflict. The handkerchief that Sa’eed discovers is an allusion to William Shakespeare’s play Othello, in which the eponymous hero—convinced that his wife Desdemona is betraying him—confronts her about a man’s handkerchief he discovers.
One cold winter’s night in February, Mustafa Sa’eed returned home to find Jean Morris stretched out naked on the bed in his London apartment, her thighs open. As his eyes roamed over her body, he took out a knife. On this night, he felt in control, and indeed, Jean seemed to have given herself up to his power. She had kissed the blade that he held in his hand and urged him to take her. It was then that Mustafa had pressed the dagger between her breasts, and then lay on top of her, pressing it down into her chest. She was ecstatic as he did so, telling him that she thought he wouldn’t have had the courage to kill her. As she was dying, they told each other that they loved one another.
Sa’eed’s description of murdering his wife suggests that Jean desired, indeed welcomed, her own death; it seems, in a way, to have been a suicide like those of the other English women and perhaps Mustafa himself. That this murder takes place in the context of sex—with Jean stretched out naked on the bed beneath Mustafa—reinforces how closely love, sex and violence are intertwined in the novel. Indeed, the three are indistinguishable from one another in this scene.