Tayeb Salih was the most eminent writer from the largest country in Africa, yet as Leonard Lopate pointed out last year on a radio program called Underappreciated, his work was barely known in the U.S. He died in London around dawn on February 18, after suffering from a kidney ailment. He was said to be eighty years old, though his exact date of birth was apparently unknown.
Salih was born in the town of Marawi, at a place in northern Sudan where the Nile flows from east to west. As a writer of fiction, he returned there in his imagination, but like so many African writers he did it from outside his own country.
After studying at the University of Khartoum, Salih traveled to England and attended the University of London. He made his living primarily as a broadcaster, and worked for the BBC, for the Ministry of Information in Qatar, and for UNESCO in Paris. For more than a decade he wrote a weekly column for the Arabic-language magazine Al Majalla.
Salih was the author of four novels and a collection of short stories. Season of Migration to the North, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies and published by Heinemann in 1967, was by far his best-known work. In 2001 the Arab Literary Academy, based in Damascus, called it “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century.”
“I wanted actually to write a thriller to begin with. That was my intention. A straightforward murder story.” That was how Salih described the genesis of the book in a 1997 interview.But the book took on more dimensions than its author intended.
Season of Migration to the North (reviewed here by Marina Harss) describes the experiences of two Sudanese men in a remote village, each of whom has spent time in Europe. The narrator is a gentle, nostalgic soul. The other man, Mustafa Sa’eed, is a kind of monster who exploits his “exotic” charms to seduce and destroy a succession of young English women. “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis,” he declares in the book’s most infamous line.
Salih was known as a “political” writer who explored the conflict between East and West, the colonized and the colonizers. Season of Migration to the North drew fire for the violence and sexual explicitness with which he treated those themes.
But Salih was also a writer of psychological subtlety, with a powerful sense of place and a gift for sensual description. What lingers in my mind from that book are not the passages that provoked scandal but the quiet, deeply felt scenes of life on the Nile.
I breathe in that smell peculiar to my grandfather’s house, a discordant mixture of onions and chillies and dates and wheat and horse-beans and fenugreek, in addition to the aroma of the incense which is always floating up from the large earthenware censer. The aroma of incense puts me in mind of my grandfather’s ascetic manner of life and the luxury of his accessories for prayers: the rug on which he prays, made up of three leopard skins stitched together, and which he would use as a coverlet when it turned excessively cold; the brass ewer with its decorations and inscriptions, which he used for his ablutions, and the matching brass basin. He was especially proud of his sandalwood prayer-beads, which he would run through his fingers and rub against his face, breathing in their aroma; when he got angry with one of his grandchildren he would strike him across the head with them, saying that this would chase away the devil that had got into him.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.