Both the narrator of Season of Migration to the North and the protagonist, Mustafa Sa’eed, leave their native land of Sudan to undertake long migrations to England, where they travel to study and ultimately live for many years. Upon encountering each other in the small village of Wad Hamid in Sudan after their travels abroad, the narrator and Sa’eed must confront the extent to which they have become alienated both from themselves and from those around them—their native countrymen. Through the example of these two men, the novel suggests that migration creates a loss of identity and a sense of displacement which can, if not confronted directly, lead to destruction.
Both Sa’eed and the narrator migrate to England to study, and thereby spend many of their formative years in a culture other than the one in which they have roots. As a child in Sudan, Sa’eed proves to be something of prodigy, and so he is sent abroad to study, first in Cairo and then in England. He then settles in England for thirty years. While the narrator of the novel doesn’t spend quite as much time abroad, he also migrates to England to study. There, he spends seven years pursuing a doctorate researching the life of an obscure English poet. After their long migrations, both the narrator and Sa’eed return to Wad Hamid, where the narrator has roots, and where Sa’eed hopes to build a new life as a farmer on the banks of the Nile river.
Although Sa’eed tries to settle down again in Sudan, he finds that, as a result of his time in England, he is caught between two worlds that he has trouble reconciling. Sa’eed’s sense of being lost between two worlds is most acutely illustrated in his two rooms—the one in England and the one in Sudan. In England, he decorates his London apartment to suggest his ‘exotic’ origins, and he uses the room to lure English women.
In the small village of Wad Hamid in Sudan, however, Sa’eed has a secret room. This room recalls his life in England and the culture he left behind. The room is filled with English books—there are no Arabic books whatsoever. There is also an English fireplace in the room, something of an absurdity considering that the room is located in a on the equator, where there is no need for heating. Sa’eed feels that he belongs neither in England nor Sudan. Indeed, in the letter he leaves the narrator before his death, he suggests that his “wanderlust”—his inability to remain in one place and feel a sense of belonging there—leads to his death. It is quite possible that Sa’eed commits suicide as a result of his inability to be at ‘home’ either in England or in Sudan.
At first, the narrator of the novel—in contrast to Sa’eed— seems to be much more connected to his native land of Sudan, but he also begins to experience a loss of identity and a strong sense of displacement shortly after his return from England. While at first the narrator believes that his links to his native village have held fast in spite of his time abroad, he soon begins to realize this is not the case. When Sa’eed recites English poetry to the narrator one night as they are drinking together, the narrator suddenly feels completely out of place and alien in his environment. Additionally, the narrator begins to realize that his values no longer align with those of the villagers with whom he has grown up. This becomes especially clear when he defends Hosna, Sa’eed’s widow, after she kills Wad Rayyes following her forced marriage to him. While many of the villagers—including Mahjoub, the narrator’s good friend—condemn Hosna, the narrator defends her, and this leads to major conflict between him and other villagers. While the narrator can see the injustice to which Hosna has been subjected as a woman, the other villagers cannot.
Over time, the narrator realizes that Sa’eed’s cultural alienation in fact reflects his own. He begins to feel estranged from the villagers and his surroundings as a result of connecting with Sa’eed and reliving their shared experience of living abroad. This is most acutely reflected in the scene in which the narrator enters Sa’eed’s secret room, shortly after Hosna’s murder of Wad Rayyes. In the room, the narrator mistakes his own face in the mirror for Sa’eed’s. This moment of misrecognition suggests how much the narrator has in common with Sa’eed. Like Sa’eed, the narrator experiences a sense of alienation as a result of his migration to the north. In this scene, he is unable even to recognize his own face, which suggests a radical loss of identity. Nonetheless, unlike Sa’eed, the narrator survives his identity crisis. Whereas Sa’eed drowns (either by accident or by suicide) during floods in the village, the narrator exhibits a will to live, as reflected when he escapes the flood at the end of the novel. Ultimately, Sa’eed is destroyed by his loss of identity, whereas the narrator survives—literally and metaphorically—his loss of identity.
Season of Migration to the North suggests all the ways in which migration can lead to a sense of cultural confusion, loss of identity, and disconnection. Stuck between England and Sudan, both the narrator and Sa’eed find that they are unable to belong fully in either place. However, the narrator, unlike Sa’eed, is able to confront and assimilate his loss of identity in such a way so that it does not destroy him. Through their contrasting stories, the novel suggests that only actively confronting this kind of identity crisis can prevent it from becoming destructive.
Migration and Identity ThemeTracker
Migration and Identity Quotes in Season of Migration to the North
I hear a bird sing or a dog bark or the sound of an axe on wood—and I feel a sense of stability, I feel that I am important, that I am continuous and integral. No, I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field.
I tell you that had the ground suddenly spit open and revealed an afreet standing before me, his eyes shooting out flames, I wouldn’t have been more terrified. All of a sudden there came to me the ghastly, nightmarish feeling that we—the men grouped together in that room—were not a reality but merely some illusion.
“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.”
I struck a match. The light exploded in my eyes and out of the darkness there emerged a frowning face with pursed lips that I knew but could not place. I moved towards it with hate in my heart. It was my adversary Mustafa Sa’eed. […] I found myself standing face to face with myself.
How ridiculous! A fireplace—imagine it! A real English fireplace with all the bits and pieces.
“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.”
Was I asleep or awake? Was I alive or dead? Even so, I was still holding a thin, frail thread: the feeling that the goal was in front of me, not below me, and that I must move forwards and not downwards. But the thread was so frail it almost snapped and I reached a point where I felt that forces lying in the river-bed were pulling me down to them.
Now I am making a decision. I choose life […] I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water […] I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!”