Hanan: Tayeb, guess what? I am nominating you to become a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.
Tayeb: Even though I am dead?
Hanan: Yes, you constantly come into my thoughts – and help me think again as I am pondering or writing. I still remember when I read your brilliant novel Season of Migration to the North in Arabic in the late sixties and how captivated I was. Everything about it was different from anything that I had ever read. Astonishing and new, its modern style, poetry like prose – classical Arabic poetry, centuries old, mixed with Shakespeare.
Tayeb: I wrote Season of Migration to the North when I was living in London. I came to London in 1952 to study and then I worked as Head of Drama at the BBC Arabic Service. I was like a palm tree pulled from its roots in Sudan and planted in England. My protagonist in this novel is Mustafa Saiid, who starts searching for his true identity as he lives between two cultures, East and West, for the shadow of years of overwhelming colonialism in Sudan lingers on and never leaves him. A battle is fought between his two personalities as he searches for his true self and confronts life and all its complexities.
Mustafa Saiid becomes a brilliant economist, lectures in universities, loves English poetry, sees the plays of Bernard Shaw, and listens to Beethoven. He frequently visits the pubs and bars of Hampstead and Chelsea and serenades the fair English women who gather around him. As he becomes intimate with them they would say things like: “I want to smell you – you carry the scent of the rotten leaves in the jungle of Africa and the smell of mango and papaya.” “The color of your tongue is like sunset in the tropics.” “I am in love with a black man, my mother will go insane and my father will kill me if they learn I am in love with a black man”.
Hanan: I remember what an English professor told Mustafa Saiid:
“You are the best example of the failure of our cultural mission in Africa. All our work is in vain because after all our efforts, sometimes I see you act as though you’ve just emerged from the jungle for the first time in your life!”
I want to tell you too, how much I admire the sensuality and sexuality, and the women in the novel. I loved the 80-year-old woman, Bint Mahjoub: she was as bawdy as the men, sat with them, gossiped, drank alcohol and talked to them about her sexuality when she was young and yet she was pious, feared god and was respected by everyone – women and men.
Tayeb: Obviously all this came from my background in Sudan and the tribe I am descended from. Did you know that the cow’s milk I used to drink was from the flock from which my ancestors drank too? The teacher told us the myths and folk tales, read the Koran and recounted the prophet’s sayings. I learned from adults, from the farmers and the dates pickers. I learned the alphabet and to write with a stick on the sand. Yet as I remember it, I was learning about backwardness, tradition and modernity at the same time.
Hanan: You wanted the new, and the modern world, and yet you celebrated the people of the village and their old traditions, you reveal their humour and make fun of them. I could not believe that this is why Season of Migration to the North was banned in Sudan and a few other Arab countries when it was published! I remember telling you once: “did the ones who banned it forget how explicit our ancestors were?” And you answered me, laughing: “I don’t think they forgot! They never knew, never cared to read history!”
Tayeb Salih is a truly universal writer who intertwined reality and illusions, the West and the exotic East, pre- and post-colonialism, always trying to mend the scars they left on the soul. The magical modern technique he added to the traditional storytelling he learned in childhood and as a young man in his village, is the work of a magician.
Hanan al-Shaykh is one of the Arab world’s most acclaimed writers, whose work has been translated into 28 languages. She is the author of the short story collection I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops and her novels include The Occasional Virgin, Only in London, The Locust and the Bird, a memoir of her mother’s life, and One Thousand and One Nights, her acclaimed reimagining of Arabic folktales.
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) was an Arabic-language novelist, short story writer and broadcaster. His works explore both traditional and modern life in Africa. Writing in poetry and prose, they reflect on some of the tensions faced by those living in modern-day Africa, torn between past and present.