In Season of Migration to the North, the protagonist, Mustafa Sa’eed, thinks of himself as an avenger of the wrongs done to him and his people under British colonization of his native land, Sudan. During his time in England, he seeks to get revenge on white women, whom he approaches as embodiments of the European culture that subjugates his people. The novel suggests that the experience of colonization—an experience characterized by conquest and exploitation—corrodes relations between cultures and people. Colonialism, the novel suggests, not only corrupts the colonizer’s view of the colonized, but it also distorts the colonized’s attitude towards the oppressor.
Colonization of Sudan by the British was fundamentally a relationship of conquest and exploitation. As Mustafa Sa’eed notes, the British ships that sailed down the Nile river during colonialism at first brought “guns not bread.” Furthermore, schools were established by the British in order to teach the Sudanese people to “say ‘Yes’ in their language.” British colonization also sowed seeds of discord amongst the Sudanese themselves. As a retired Mamur—a petty government official—tells the narrator on a train journey one day, the British “sowed hatred in the hearts of the people for us, their kinsmen, and love for their colonizers.” The British did this by pursuing a policy of ‘divide and rule’—by creating conflicts between different groups of Sudanese. British colonialism also continues to foster conflict even after the official end of colonial rule. Although Sudan has achieved its independence from colonial rule, as the Mamur notes, the British continue to direct the country’s “affairs from afar.” As a Western global power, the British are interested in maintaining their grip over the affairs of Sudan. In other words, the British still try to influence their former colonies, demonstrating that the effects of colonialism are profound and far-reaching.
This large-scale relationship of conquest and exploitation leads similarly corrupt relationships between individual people. Many of the English women Sa’eed encounters during his time in England view him in a simplistic way that echoes the stereotypes and images of the “other” made prevalent through colonialism. Ann Hammond, for instance, views Sa’eed as a symbol of “tropical climes, cruel suns, purple horizons.” To her, the smell of his sweat evokes “the jungles of Africa” and “rains in the deserts of Arabia.” Ann Hammond, in other words, views Sa’eed only in terms of stereotypical depictions of his native land. Sheila Greenwood, too, fetishizes Sa’eed as the exotic “other.” She is fascinated by his black skin, telling him that it is “the colour of magic and mystery and obscenities.” As the narrator notes, colonial relations lead Europeans to view those from the colonized world in terms of unrealistic extremes. He states: “Just because a man has been created on the Equator some mad people regard him as a slave, others as a god.’” Europeans—including Sa’eed’s lovers such as Ann Hammond and Sheila Greenwood—can only view people from colonized regions in stereotypical terms, which are reductive and simplistic. It is true that Sa’eed himself encourages these stereotypes, but he is not the one who creates them—rather, they are the product of the exploitative and reductive colonial relations between England and Sudan.
Colonialism also twists and corrupts the perspectives of colonized people in the novel, rendering them unable to escape the framework of conquest and subjugation on which the entire colonial enterprise is built. Mustafa Sa’eed, for example, is critical of the subjugation that has been imposed on him and his people as a result of British colonialism, but he nonetheless repeats the same attitude of exploitation and conquest in his relations with the British women with whom he becomes romantically involved. With Ann Hammond, in particular, he plays the role of “slave master” to her “slave,” thus repeating—in reverse—the same relationship of subjugation imposed by the British on many of the peoples—including the Sudanese—whom they conquered.
Likewise, Sa’eed approaches Isabella Seymour as if he is a conqueror. He imagines himself as one of the Arab soldiers who invaded Spain as part of the Islamic Empire’s conquest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Sa’eed takes great pleasure in likening his romantic and sexual “conquest” of Isabella Seymour to the Arab soldiers’ conquest of Spain. In this way, he merely reverses the terms of conquest and exploitation imposed on him by the British, by exploiting and “conquering” a British woman. Sa’eed also frames his murder of Jean Morris in terms of (reverse) colonialism and re-conquest. Describing the night he kills her, he tells the narrator: “I was the invader who had come from the South, and this was the icy battlefield from which I would not make a safe return.” Again, rather than rejecting the terms of conquest and exploitation implicit to colonialism, Sa’eed simply attempts to reverse them, thus corrupting his own view of those over whom he has power .
Thus, in Season of Migration to the North, colonialism is depicted as a framework of exploitation and conquest that leads to the corruption of relations between people and cultures. The English women whom Sa’eed becomes involved with view him in reductive, stereotypical terms that evoke colonial clichés of the ‘noble savage.’ Likewise, Sa’eed’s own attitude towards these English women is corrupted, as he views them as representatives of their European culture on which he can seek revenge.
Conquest and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Conquest and Colonialism Quotes in Season of Migration to the North
“As we drank tea, she asked me about my home. I related to her fabricated stories about deserts of golden sands and jungles where non-existent animals called out to one another. I told her that the streets of my country teemed with elephants and lions and that during siesta time crocodiles crawled through it […]There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungles.”
“The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “Yes” in their language.”
[Mahjoub] will not believe the facts about the new rulers of Africa, smooth of face, lupine of mouth, their hands gleaming with rings of precious stones, exuding perfume from their cheeks, in white, blue, black and green suits of fine mohair and expensive silk rippling on their shoulders like the fur of Siamese car, and with shoes that reflect the light from chandeliers and squeak as they tread on marble.
How ridiculous! A fireplace—imagine it! A real English fireplace with all the bits and pieces.
“How marvellous your black colour is!” she would say to me—“the colour of magic and mystery and obscenities.”
“In London I took her to my house, the den of lethal lies that I had deliberately built up, lie upon lie: the sandalwood and incense; the ostrich feathers and ivory and ebony figurines; the paintings and drawings of forests of palm trees along the shores of the Nile, boats with sails like doves’ wings, suns setting over the mountains of the Red Sea, camel caravans wending their way along sand dunes on the borders of the Yemen, baobab tress in Kordofan, naked girls from the tribes of Zandi.”
“The moments of ecstasy were in fact rare; the rest of the time we spent in a murderous war in which no quarter was given. The war invariably ended in my defeat. When I slapped her, she would slap me back and dig her nails into my face...”