After seven years pursuing graduate studies abroad in England, the unnamed narrator of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North returns to Wad Hamid, the small village on the banks of the Nile river in northern Sudan where he grew up. After his long estrangement, he is happy to be home amidst the familiar sights and people of his native country. But upon his return to the village, he encounters a stranger: a middle-aged man by the name of Mustafa Sa’eed, who had settled in the village five years previously. Little is known about the stranger. However, the villagers have accepted and welcomed him in the village, given that he has established himself as a good neighbor and village citizen.
One night, as he drinks together with some villagers, the narrator is shocked when Mustafa Sa’eed begins reciting poetry in English. It is then that he realizes that there is more to Sa’eed’s identity than meets the eye. Indeed, soon, Sa’eed arrives at the narrator’s house and, over the course of a long night, narrates his life story. He tells the narrator that he comes from near the capital, Khartoum. His father died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother. After distinguishing himself as a child prodigy in the colonial schools he attended in Sudan, he was sent off to study on scholarships in Cairo, and then in London. In London, he commenced a series of relationships with English women, many of whom were drawn to him because of his exotic, “Arab-African” roots. Mustafa Sa’eed himself had encouraged the women’s fetishization of him, playing up his identity as a “noble savage,” similar to Shakespeare’s Othello, with roots in the jungles and deserts of Africa. Three of the English women with whom Sa’eed commences relationships eventually commit suicide.
His nemesis, however, is Jean Morris, an English woman who taunts and provokes him—refusing to submit to his power, even after she marries him. Their marriage is an endless war, pervaded by verbal and physical violence, sexual betrayal, and degradation. One cold February night, Sa’eed returns home to find Jean waiting for him, naked, in bed. As he makes love to her, he plunges a dagger into her chest, killing her—an act which Jean herself strangely seems to welcome. Sa’eed is then put on trial in London for the murder of Jean Morris; however, while the jury finds him guilty, he is sentenced only to seven years in prison. After his release, he wanders far and wide to many different places and countries, before finally returning to make a home in the small, remote village of Wad Hamid, where the narrator encounters him.
Mustafa Sa’eed’s life story sets the narrator’s world upside down. While the narrator, upon his return to Sudan, had felt rooted and connected to his country and his people, his encounter with Sa’eed leads him to experience a deep sense of alienation: suddenly, he wonders whether, like Sa’eed, he is also estranged and cut off from those around him as a result of his long migration abroad. Nonetheless, the narrator continues with his life, taking up a job in the capital Khartoum, and returning to the village only occasionally. Soon, news reaches him that Sa’eed, during a season of especially severe flooding in the village, has disappeared while out tilling his field one day: he has drowned in the flooded river, possibly by suicide. He leaves the narrator as guardian of his wife, Hosna bint Mahmoud, and his two young sons.
Even after his death, Sa’eed continues to haunt the narrator. The narrator is once again drawn into Sa’eed’s affairs when, visitng the village one year, he learns that an old villager, Wad Rayyes, has set his eyes upon Sa’eed’s widow Hosna. He is intent on marrying her, in spite of the 40 years’ age difference between them, and in spite of the fact that Hosna herself does not want to marry. Although Hosna appeals to the narrator to help her, the narrator does not, and he returns to Khartoum. Within weeks, he rushes back to the village, upon receiving terrible news. Hosna’s father had forcibly married her to Wad Rayyes. In the village, he learns that, shortly after the marriage, Wad Rayyes had attempted to rape Hosna and, in response, she murdered him and killed herself. This horrendous act of violence sends shockwaves through the sleepy, peaceful village, which had never experienced such an event before. The villagers simply attempt to cover up the murder-suicide, but it is clear that things will never be quite the same again.
The narrator, who had himself developed feelings for Sa’eed’s widow, is devastated by this event. During his time in the village, he finally decides to enter the secret room in Mustafa Sa’eed’s house, whose key Sa’eed had entrusted him with after his death. Upon entering the room, the narrator is shocked to find that it is a temple to Sa’eed’s life in England: among the thousands of books that line the shelves, there is not one single volume in Arabic. Furthermore, the room contains a proper English fireplace—even though it is located in a small village in Sudan, on the equator, where there is no need of fireplaces. In the room, the narrator finds further traces and fragments of Sa’eed’s life in England, including journal entries and photographs of the various women he had been involved with. He spends hours there, further piecing together Sa’eed’s life abroad.
After leaving the room in the very early hours of the morning, the narrator, disturbed, decides to calm himself by going for a swim in the Nile river. He enters the river, and begins making his way to the other bank. However, he soon becomes disoriented and exhausted, and feels the current pulling him downwards, into its darkest depths. As the waters close over his head, he feels overwhelmed by the desire to give himself up to the river, and to die, like Mustafa Sa’eed had done before him. Suddenly, however, he awakens: he decides that he wants to live, and, with a huge effort, begins swimming again while calling for help.