Wanderlust and the Goddess of Death: Search for the Lost Mother in Tayeb Salih's "Season of Migration to the North"

by Vincent A. Walsh

February 23, 2012



Critical discussion has centered on Mustafa Sa’eed’s destructive relationships with white women in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. I suggest a psychological approach that lends depth to our understanding of Mustafa’s deeply misogynistic character. Relying on the theoretical framework suggested by German psychiatrist Alice Miller, I examine Mustafa’s mistreatment of females in light of his lifelong quest to fill an emotional void within, one that derives from his never having known the intimacy of a nourishing relationship with his mother. According to Miller, one’s relationship with others throughout life is profoundly influenced by the quality of this initial interaction. Mustafa’s degradation of women can be seen as an acting out, in the grown man, of the infant’s rage at being denied intimacy with a loving mother. A void within propels him into a lifelong quest for mother substitutes, on whom he wreaks revenge for the initial rejection. 









Vincent Walsh

Department of English

Lehigh University



      Recent critical appraisal of Talib Salih’s richly woven, highly nuanced classic, Season of Migration to the North, focuses on two main areas; the second in many ways reflects the first. G.A.R. Hamilton and Patricia Geesey rely on Homi Babha’s notion of the “hybrid” to describe Mustafa Sa’eed, and emphasize the colonized subject’s inherent predisposition to contaminate imperial discourse as he reflects it back at colonizers. Native peoples are expected to turn into “reassuring mimics of the European form,” generated as representations of the “civilizing mission” (Hamilton 55) which is said to justify the imperial project, yet it never seems to work out this way. The colonized subject, having been drawn away from deep connection with his original culture by contact with Europeans, ends up suspended between cultures in an indeterminate space; he can never become fully assimilated into the ranks of the colonizers. At the same time, his adaptation of civilized norms inevitably entails a variation of response that subverts and undermines the authority of the civilizing discourse itself.

     According to this view, Mustafa Sa’eed’s treatment of women – which I think must be perceived as the central focus of the novel[1] -- is part of his conscious effort to subvert colonial rule and undermine the master discourse. Other critics, such as Benita Parry, Nouha Homad, and Joseph Lowry, extrapolate this idea of subversion to the point where they view it as the acting out of a deep-seated rage, driven by desire for revenge in the face of the perceived injustices of colonial oppression.[2] As Nouha Homad puts it rather succinctly, “the European woman has to pay for the humiliation her countrymen have caused to the people they colonize” (60). Although there can be no doubt that racial stereotypes and colonial presuppositions, on both sides of the interpersonal dynamics involved, play a significant role in shaping the encounters Sa’eed has with English women, it is not entirely clear from the text, in my opinion,  that Sa’eed’s attraction is based purely on racial difference, or that he is motivated by conscious intentions to subvert or take revenge on the oppressor. I am not denying that these motivations indeed operate on some level, but I am suggesting that they may not account for all that we observe.

     Other critical responses emphasize a different layer of interpretation, not necessarily divorced from the idea of the undermining influence of the hybrid response, but extending it further. The intercultural space occupied by the hybrid enables him to call into question not only the discourse and premises of the imperialistic project, but the social practices that derive from traditional, pre-colonial culture as well. Commentators such as Stefan Meyer, Brian Gibson, Sonia Ghattas-Soliman, Byron Caminero-Santangelo, John Davidson, and Saree Makdisi all point out that while Salih’s text clearly serves to highlight the injustices of imperialistic practice, it also challenges the assumptions of traditional native culture as well, particularly the paternalistic practices that oppress women. If Sa’eed’s depredations among females in English society form the main focus of the novel, the fate of Hosna Bint Mahmoud stands out as parallel in importance. From this perspective, one could argue that the hybrid position is the only one that holds promise for a brighter human future generally; if we must admit and move beyond the oppressive practices of colonialism, then it is imperative that we also do the same with regard to the benighted mores of traditionalism, as well.[3] The hybrid perceives the inadequacies on both sides of the colonizer/colonized divide; thus, only he can point in the direction of meaningful reform and progress.

     While I respect and appreciate the valuable insights embodied in analyses that emphasize both these points of view – the hybrid as subversive of dominant discourse, and the corollary critique of traditionalism – I want to suggest yet another perspective that might throw further light on the profound complexities embodied in Tayeb Salih’s intricately nuanced narrative. I believe that an important key to understanding Mustafa Sa’eed is to be found in his relationship, or lack of relationship, with his mother; this early childhood experience has a fateful influence on all his interactions with women throughout the rest of his life. To support this contention, I draw on the theoretical work of Alice Miller, a German psychiatrist and theorist who was trained first in Freudian psychoanalysis, but after decades of practice repudiated Freud’s theories. Due to evidence presented by clients, Miller gradually came to believe that psychological disturbances derive not from innate drives, as postulated by Freud, but from the neglect and abuse children experience at the hands of adults. In addition, Miller believes that the period of initial bonding between infant and mother is crucial for the future emotional health of the child.

     One reason I think Miller’s perspective might be helpful is that it enables us to explain more fully what seems to be going on between Mustafa Sa’eed and Jean Morris. If Mustafa’s seduction and abandonment of white women is motivated solely by a desire for revenge, why does he remain so obsessed with Jean, despite easy access to other, more willing victims? Mustafa mentions frequently that he feels helpless to resist the attraction/repulsion compulsion he experiences in his relationship with Jean; at their second meeting, she insults and taunts him: “I’ve never seen a face uglier than yours.” He resolves to retaliate: “I swore I would one day make her pay for that” (27). His previous pattern has been routine and predictable: “I would do everything possible to entice a woman to my bed. Then I would go after some new prey” (26), yet he becomes preoccupied with Jean. She comes to his apartment unannounced while Mustafa is engaged in a lovemaking session with Ann Hammond; Ann is driven from the scene, completely humiliated. Does this episode possibly correlate with Ann’s suicide? For her part, Jean strips off her clothing, entices him, destroys priceless treasures of his in return for a promise of sex, then kicks him in the groin and leaves him helpless. After they are married, she openly flirts with other men in public, makes no attempt to hide evidence of her adulterous trysts while he is out of the house, and physically assaults him on a regular basis, so that the marriage becomes transformed to nightmare: “My bedroom became a theatre of war; my bed a patch of hell” (29). Yet no matter how much abuse she heaps on him, Mustafa remains determined to possess her.

     Jean misses no opportunity to humiliate and degrade her husband. She refuses to have sex with him for weeks after their marriage (which strikes me as oddly parallel to Hosna’s refusal to be touched by Wad Reyyes, although these are two completely different situations, and two completely different women), and then finally surrenders in the compromising and potentially scandalous setting of a public park. Whatever physical relationship they sustain after that seems sporadic and tumultuous, more a form of combat between deadly enemies than an expression of affection or form of mutual pleasure. Jean is reckless and clearly self-destructive, and she seems to need to destroy Mustafa at the same time: “Come with me. Come with me. Don’t let me go alone” (136), she implores with her dying breath. For his part, Mustafa neither understands why he feels trapped and helpless, nor is able to stop himself from pursuing a relationship which he knows can only bring suffering and destruction:

              there was nothing I could do. Having been a hunter, I had become the quarry . . . I no longer saw or was conscious of anything but this catastrophe, in the shape of a woman, that fate had decreed for me. She was my destiny and in her lay my destruction . . . How often have I asked myself what it was that bound me to her! Why didn’t I leave her and escape? But I knew there was nothing I could do about it and that the tragedy had to happen. (132, 134)

     It is quite accurate, I think, to point out the political context of the deadly struggle between Jean and Mustafa, as many critics have done. Nouha Homad maintains that Jean acts the way she does because, “Like her countrymen, she wants to dominate the ‘other’ whom she believes inferior” (61), and certainly this is a reasonable assumption. The question remains, however: why does Mustafa submit so utterly, so abjectly? If he is intent on revenge for the injustices of imperialism, how is it that he allows himself to become so easily sidetracked and subdued? Stefan Meyer asserts that the political context accounts for what transpires between Sa’eed and all of these English women: “Mustafa’s lovers, despite their professed idolatry of him, are the more powerful in the sense that they represent the politically, economically, and culturally dominant West. . . . Mustafa plays a ‘masculine’ role through his sexual conquests, but in terms of political and cultural power, he is the one who is ‘feminized’ ” (143). While I see the merit in this assessment, I also want to suggest there might be another way of approaching the issue of Sa’eed’s relationship with women, particularly his fatal obsession with Jean. The approach I am proposing does not necessarily constitute a contradiction or alternative to these other arguments, but rather can be regarded as complementary to them. There is undoubtedly something strikingly different about Mustafa’s attitude toward Jean when compared with the rest of his lovers; I hope the analysis that follows will shed more light on that bizarre, ultimately tragic dynamic.

     As Jean continues to refuse him access to her body after their marriage, Mustafa finally threatens to kill her, wielding a knife over her naked, prostrate form.[4] Jean’s response, rather than fear or apprehension, is further mockery: “My sweet, you’re not the kind of man who kills.” Mustafa is quite specific in describing his immediate emotional response to this cutting remark; significantly, this episode causes him to remember his mother, and, presumably, to weep for the first time at her absence from his life:

              I experienced a feeling of ignominy, loneliness, loss. Suddenly I remembered my mother. I saw her face clearly in my mind’s eye and heard her saying to me “It’s your life and you’re free to do with it as you will.” I remembered that the news of my mother’s death had reached me nine months ago and had found me drunk and in the arms of a woman. I don’t recollect now which woman it was; I do, though, recollect that I felt no sadness – it was as though the matter was of absolutely no concern to me. I wept so much I thought I would never stop. (131-32)

It is important to note the specific terms Mustafa employs to describe his overwhelming reaction to Jean’s condescending, belittling statement; Jean’s sarcastic tone conveys total contempt and scorn. His emotional response to Jean’s dismissive comment involves “ignominy,” a powerful term that denotes “disgrace,” “dishonor,” “shame” and “humiliation” – all with a special emphasis on the idea of public disgrace or humiliation. From the French ignomine, meaning literally “not name” or “loss of good name,” further connotations of the word include deserving opprobrium, obloquy (which implies denunciation, revilement, vilification), reproach, blame, ill repute, and infamy.

These strongly negative connotations are accompanied by a profound sense of

isolation and deprivation – “loneliness, loss.” From Alice Miller’s perspective, Mustafa

suffered as a young child because of lack of validation from his mother. Thus, he lives in a perpetual state of public dishonor; he can have no “good name” in a society where he has never truly felt wanted or accepted. The very fact of his presence among others is itself a matter for vilification and scorn. Mustafa experiences a deep feeling of rejection as an infant and a little boy in reaction to his mother’s perceived indifference; Jean

Morris’s derision provokes the same feelings, for she has become the new mother figure that he vainly pursues, hoping to claim the acceptance that has never been, and can never be his.

     Salih is quite specific in his descriptions of the tenuousness of the communication between Mustafa and his mother. In his memory, Mustafa sees his mother as a grim, distant, unapproachable, essentially unknowable figure: “I see her clearly with her thin lips resolutely closed, with something on her face like a mask . . . a thick mast, as though her face was the surface of the sea. . . . It possessed not a single colour but a multitude, appearing and intermingling . . . It was as if she were some stranger on the road . . . We used not to talk much” (18). Farouk Topan notes that this lack of interaction suggests lack of affection -- “There was not much communication between the boy and his mother; one wonders whether there was even much love” (243); sadly, there seems to have been little, if any, sustained exchange of affection in this mother-child relationship.

     The image of the mother’s face appearing as the surface of the sea is unusual and compelling, and repeats itself a few pages later when Mustafa describes his voyage to England: “I immediately felt an overwhelming intimacy with the sea. I knew this green, infinite giant, as though it were roving back and forth within my ribs. The whole of the journey I savoured that feeling of being nowhere, alone, before and behind me either eternity or nothingness. The surface of the sea when calm is another mirage, ever changing and shifting, like the mask on a mother’s face” (24). Several important considerations are suggested by this passage. For one thing, the mother figure is correlated with the source of life itself – the sea. Mother/ocean is elemental, the foundation of existence: “roving back and forth between my ribs.” This last phrase corresponds, I believe, with the narrator’s unusual remark just before he finally enters Mustafa’s secret room: “I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me” (111); he feels that somehow all the world exists within, just as all of the infinite sea is contained within the young boy’s ribs. The narrator also connects the waters of the Nile, which is the source of life for all the people in the region, to the concept of mother and the creation of life when he plunges into the river after exploring Mustafa’s private room: “I entered the water as naked as when my mother bore me” (137).

     The mask covering the mother’s face suggests that she is inaccessible; it also implies that she is emotionally distant, that she is unknowable: one can never be certain just what she feels. Because of this uncertainty, the child can never be sure of his place in the world, or his identity as a self. This confusion correlates with the word “roving”: the child must go in search of this primal bonding, which he perceives himself to be lacking based on the ambiguity of his mother’s response.[5] This process of seeking to establish secure connection to the source of life, embodied in the mother and symbolized by water (the element in which the unborn fetus develops) suggests that the “wanderlust” which impels Mustafa’s restless lifestyle, and which he is so anxious to forestall in his own sons, derives from his endless striving to establish a crucial bond which he has been heretofore cruelly denied. In his final instructions to the narrator, in what probably constitutes a suicide note, Mustafa urges the boys’ new guardian: “do your best to spare them the pangs of wanderlust and help them to have a normal upbringing and to take up worthwhile work” (54).

     He does not want his sons to experience the eternal dislocation of the perpetual wanderer, a fate to which he was condemned from the start. In his endless pursuit of a nourishing bond with a mother, complicated now because of the anger he feels over the initial rejection, he moves from woman to woman, until he encounters Jean, who reminds him powerfully of the original ambivalence he experienced from his own biological mother. Thus, he becomes fixated with her; he engages in endless, futile pursuit of her, continuing even many years after her death: “It was inevitable that my star of destiny should come into collision with hers and that I should spend years in prison and yet more years roaming the face of the earth chasing her phantom and being chased by it” (127).

     This notion of indeterminacy corresponds with the concept of the “abject hybrid” described by Hamilton and Geesey, though from Miller’s perspective Mustafa’s sense of inner emptiness stems more from disruption of a basic biological process than the intermingling of different cultures. Mustafa feels himself suspended in an ontological void because his presence in the world has never received the necessary recognition, validation, and affirmation, which can only come from close bonding with the mother. This is why, I believe, we find the following sentence couched in-between the reference to the sea moving within the boy’s ribs and the reference to the mask on the mother’s face: “The whole of the journey I savoured the feeling of being nowhere, alone, before and behind me either eternity or nothingness.” Alone, without the intimate connection to the mother, the child cannot situate himself, nor truly confirm his ontological status – he cannot be certain he even exists. Alice Miller’s description of the crucial importance of the mother-child relationship, from the first moments after birth, reveals the fundamental dynamics that are involved: “The human child comes into the world as a bundle of needs, relying totally on the warmth of human arms, watchful eyes, and tender caresses” (Banished Knowledge 2); “Every child has a need to be noticed, understood, taken seriously, and respected by his mother. In the first weeks and months of life he needs to have the mother at his disposal, must be able to avail himself of her and be mirrored by her . . . This initial intimacy can never again be created, and its absence can be a serious obstacle right from the start” (The Drama of the Gifted Child 27-29).

     Mustafa has been deprived of this crucial intimacy, or at least we can reasonably surmise this is the case; his mother’s capacity for feeling love, and for expressing it, seems severely limited. Perhaps this ought not to be surprising, since she herself was sold as a slave, possibly at an early age. Her position in her marriage may well have relegated her to an inferior status as a result; she may even have been forced to marry against her will. If so, it is quite possible she had no love for the child’s father, and thus felt resentful at her son’s birth – inhibiting her maternal instincts for nourishing, tender affection. An infant would experience this detachment in the mother on a physical level, even if he had no conscious awareness of it. This detachment continues to mark their relationship. When Mustafa excitedly informs his mother of his decision to attend school, she seems inclined at first to hold him close, as if reluctant to be separated from him. She seems to want to express pride and pleasure in his determination, but then quickly represses both impulses: “For a moment she glanced at me curiously, as though she wanted to hug me to her, for I saw that her face had momentarily lit up, that her eyes were bright and her lips had softened as though she wished to smile or to say something. But then she did not say anything” (20). The detailed description of body language here indicates the child’s need to study his mother’s face carefully, constantly searching for the kind of affirming response that Alice Miller describes.

     This same manifestation of repressed maternal reaction occurs when the boy, slightly older now, comes to inform his mother of his intention to leave home to attend school in Cairo: “Once again she gave me that strange look. Her lips parted momentarily as though she wanted to smile [out of pride, perhaps?], then she shut them and her face reverted to its usual state: a thick mask, or rather a series of masks.” When she tells her son that he is free to come and go as he pleases -- “Do as you wish, depart or stay, it’s up to you”

 -- he correctly interprets this statement as an expression of indifference (regardless of what her actual feelings may or may not have been – we cannot know, because she remains masked; perhaps she does not know either, since her feelings are probably masked from her own awareness, as well). When mother and son part for the last time, no emotion is evident at all, on either side: “That was our farewell: no tears, no kisses, no fuss. Two human beings had walked along a part of the road together, then each had gone his way” (21). 

     The connection between Mustafa’s mother and Jean Morris seems confirmed by the fact that, immediately after describing this rather detached goodbye, Mustafa mentions that he would weep over this parting scene later in life – namely, right after he threatens to stab Jean and she responds by mocking him. There is no pain in the separation from the mother, because feelings have been repressed: “After long years and numerous experiences, I remembered that moment and I wept. At the time, though, I felt nothing whatsoever” (21-22). Repressed pain does not go away, and suppressed feelings are bound to fester, and continue to affect behavior, whether one is consciously aware of this or not. Repression serves as a survival mechanism for the child – protecting him or her[6] from unbearable anguish and devastating emotional trauma, but this same repressed emotion becomes a vehicle of destruction in the adult. Alice Miller is quite emphatic on this point:

              when . . . she has never known what it is to be loved and protected by someone, this child will eventually also be incapable of protecting herself and organizing her life in a meaningful and productive manner. This child will continue to torment herself in destructive relationships, taking up with irresponsible partners and suffering from them; but she is unlikely to be able to grasp . . . the origin of all this suffering . . . That former labor of repression to ensure survival renders such an insight impossible, contrary now to the interests of the adult who was once that child. If, to survive, a child is required to ignore certain things, the chances are that she will be required to continue to ignore those things for the rest of her life. . . . The life-saving function of repression in childhood is transformed in adulthood into a life-destroying force. (Banished Knowledge 38-39)

     The indifference experienced by the emotionally hungry child, who requires affirmation, support, and love from his mother, constitutes severe deprivation and trauma.  The child needs unconditional acceptance and affection in order to form an integrated and balanced sense of self; according to Miller: “If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring, available mother . . . then a healthy self-feeling can gradually develop . . . The automatic, natural contact with his own emotions and needs gives an individual strength and self-esteem. He may experience his feelings . . . He knows not only what he does not want but also what he wants and is able to express his wants, irrespective of whether he will be loved or hated for it” (Drama of Gifted Child 28).

     Conversely, an attitude of indifference or rejection projected by the mother becomes intolerably painful, and must be buried or repressed. Because the experience of being spurned is so unbearable, inner feelings and any sense of deep need for acceptance and love is denied; the child decides he is invulnerable: “I had felt from childhood that I – that I was different . . . I wasn’t affected by anything, I didn’t cry when hit, wasn’t glad if the teacher praised me in class, didn’t suffer from the things the rest did. I was like something rounded, made of rubber: you throw it in the water and it doesn’t get wet, you throw it on the ground and it bounces back” (18-19). This reaction, according to Miller, is to be expected; it is crucial for mere survival. When an infant or small child is subjected to neglect or abuse:

              these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed, and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled. It is this lack of hope of ever being able to express repressed traumata by means of relevant feelings that most often causes psychological problems. We already know that neuroses are a result of repression, not of events themselves. . . . the anger and helpless rage [that the infant instinctively feels at not having his most basic emotional needs met] does not disappear, but is transformed with time into a more or less conscious hatred directed against either the self or substitute persons, a hatred that will seek to discharge itself in various ways. (For Your Own Good 7, 61)

     Among the “various ways” Mustafa displaces the early trauma of rejection, we

need to include Mustafa’s hatred for Jean, along with his obsessive compulsion to seduce and abandon women generally. All these women, Jean included, represent the rejecting mother, to whom the child must continually return seeking the original maternal affirmation that he was denied. Mustafa feels nothing but contempt for Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour, because each falls so easily into the trap he lays for her. He has elicited the affection and admiration he craves, but because of his own self-hatred (which originates from the initial rejection by his biological mother), he cannot accept or reciprocate these feelings. If he is not capable of feeling love for himself, then he will also be unable to accept love from others; in fact, he is likely to view those who do show him love as contemptible fools, deserving only disdain, for they do not perceive his actual unworthiness. This, I think, is why Mustafa keeps referring to himself as a “lie.” His lack of self-esteem makes even the effort to achieve affection itself an expression of falsehood, even though he cannot fully repress this repetitive appeal for fulfillment of the fundamental emotional need for acceptance and affection.

     The adult is doomed because he was deemed unworthy of love as an infant; he feels that his every attempt to fill the emotional void within can only be an act of utmost hypocrisy, for he is convinced he does not deserve the love he seeks. So, after he entices his “prey” and achieves its submission, instead of accepting the love he is offered,[7] he exacts revenge for the initial rejection by his mother. This initial rejection enraged him, though he could not admit or acknowledge this feeling at the time, for fear that his mother, on whom he was still dependent, would sense it and retaliate. Similarly, he becomes fearful that Elizabeth Robinson will detect his sexual attraction to her, which might cause him to be rejected yet again by the mother figure (as well as punished by her husband, who represents the father figure he has never known; this punishing paternal presence is a mysterious, forbidding force, made even more formidable because it is unfamiliar. The punishing father appears again in the courtroom, where, interestingly, he fails to punish, or to punish with the sentence of death Mustafa hopes for and expects). Mustafa abandons each of his victims after seducing and corrupting her; this degradation of the prey is deliberately intended as part of the revenge[8] for the early abandonment. Although the little boy was not physically abandoned, he certainly was cast adrift by his mother in an emotional sense.

     Because the infant and small child cannot afford to express his rage at being rejected, he represses his anger, but then later as an adult, unleashes it on other women who appear to him as mother figures.[9] Memory of the biological mother’s rejection is denied, and the biological mother becomes idealized – for she can never be admitted as the true object of the child’s rage. The very notion is too disturbing and threatening, for the child was totally dependent on this mother throughout his early life. This displaced rage is directed at other women, however, without compunction or restraint. Alice Miller comments on this phenomenon of displacement, and its catastrophic consequences, describing it as a psychological shifting whereby the child tends to “idealize his mother, since every human being needs the feeling (and clings to the illusion) that he was really loved; but he will despise other women, upon whom he will take revenge in place of the mother” (Drama of Gifted Child 74).

     Mustafa acts out his anger toward Ann, Sheila and Isabella by simply using and then discarding them. Jean, however, repeats the pattern of tantalizing, teasing ambiguity he suffered from in his earlier interactions with his biological mother; Jean entices and repels him at the same time, offering, and then just as quickly withdrawing her acceptance and affection. He finds himself unable to let her go, gradually becoming more and more frustrated and exasperated, until rage finally overwhelms him and he kills her. He has not won the love he sought, but he believes he has mastered the person who is the source of all his inner pain. He vainly believes he has resolved the fundamental conflict in his being by eliminating its cause: “My life achieved completion that night and there was no justification for staying on” (57). This feeling of mastery, too, is illusory, for as years go by he remains obsessed with her haunting presence; she remains the saving mirage in the midst of the baking, endless desert that constitutes his emotional life.[10]

     Other critics have articulated ideas similar to those I am suggesting here. Susan Stanford Friedman, for example, acknowledges that, “Mustafa’s mother . . . raises her son without affection or warmth. . . . she remained a ‘stranger” to him, with a mask-like face

. . . Her coldness is reborn in his, which is manifest in his relations with the white women[11] in London” (49). Of course, in my analysis this coldness stems from repression of natural affect, obvious in both mother and son. It is not simply an inherited character trait.  R.J. Krishnan maintains that “Sa’eed’s experience in England . . . is marked by self-loathing, despair, and a desire for annihilation . . . [a] felt difference from others, a moral hollow at the core of his being” (7, 10). As we have seen, Mustafa clearly perceives such a difference, stemming from his lack of normal emotional response to the events of everyday life. In Alice Miller’s terms, self-hatred and a despairing sense of unworthiness – to the point of not even believing one even has a right to be alive – all constitute predictable reactions on a child’s part to the lack of early affirmative response from one’s biological mother. Because withholding of motherly affection prevents validation of existence and suffocates development of self-esteem, it is only to be expected that a child who suffers from such neglect might well grow up with a feeling of terrible inner emptiness.

     Brian Gibson insists that, “Mustafa’s [version of] masculinity represents . . . the hatred of oneself displaced through the selfish lust for sex and the conceited possession of women” (10). I agree completely that Mustafa’s treatment of women reflects a displacement of self-loathing; I do not think, however, think that characterizing his motivation as stemming merely from “selfish lust” and “conceited possession” adequately accounts for his obsessive behavior, especially when it comes to Jean Morris. My view is that Mustafa is desperately trying to resolve the early trauma of initial rejection by his mother in all of his interactions with women. This is a hopeless task; as Miller emphasizes, the intimacy required for establishing the mother-infant bond can never again be reduplicated. Thus, when Ann, Sheila, and Isabella surrender so easily, they quickly become objects of scorn, because of Mustafa’s profound sense of self-contempt. When Jean both lures and at the same time repulses him, he experiences anew the ambivalence manifested by his biological mother: “When I avoided her she would entice me to her, and when I ran after her she fled from me” (129). On a deep level, Mustafa realizes he is pursuing an illusion in Jean, but he cannot stop himself, because he is driven by a longing for connection he neither recognizes nor understands: “I pursued her for three years . . . the mirage shimmered before me in the wilderness of longing . . . it was inevitable the tragedy would take place” (29). No matter how cruelly Jean repudiates him, he is drawn repeatedly back into the early, futile pattern of trying to win acceptance and approval from the mother figure she represents, even though he believes the effort can never succeed.

     Jean’s refusal to extend unreserved, unqualified affection and acceptance, significantly, elicits a deep-seated and vaguely familiar affective response in Mustafa: the “challenging defiance in her eyes . . . stirred remote longings in my heart” (129); he refers to these profound, mysterious yearnings as a “wilderness of longing,” as we have just seen. This same sense of vague, primordial hunger seems to characterize all his interactions with women: “I drove my camels till their entrails ached and I myself almost died of yearning” (30).  Mustafa registers a similar arousal of vague desire at his first encounter with Elizabeth Robinson:

              all of a sudden I felt the woman’s arms embracing me and her lips on my cheek. At that moment, as I stood on the station platform amidst a welter of sounds and sensations, with the woman’s arms around my neck, her mouth on my cheek, the smell of her body – a strange, European smell – tickling my nose, her breast touching my chest, I felt – I, a boy of twelve – a vague sexual[12] yearning I had never previously experienced. I felt as though Cairo,[13] that large mountain to which my camel[14] had carried me, was a European woman just like Mrs. Robinson, its arms embracing me, its perfume and the odour of its body filling my nostrils. (22-23)

     This restless yearning, which provokes endless roaming in pursuit of attainment of an illusory goal, explains why Mustafa cannot leave his past behind. Even after years of stable, fruitful marriage to Hosna, accompanied by return to esteemed status in his adopted African community, he still feels driven to continue his quest for Jean -- that is, for the original mother-child bond. Because this endeavor can never be successful, and is rendered even more hopeless by the fact of her death, the only remaining option for him is to die, as well. Jean persists in haunting his consciousness as the goddess of death, despite the passage of time; she continues to beckon: “Come with me. Come with me. Don’t let me go alone.” The letter Mustafa leaves behind after his death articulates the mysterious and fateful dimensions of his dilemma; Mustafa reveals that he feels impelled by subliminal forces he cannot understand. There can be no resolution, no peace:

              It’s futile to deceive oneself. That distant call still rings in my ears. I thought that my life and marriage here would silence it. But perhaps I was created thus, or my fate was thus – whatever may be the meaning of that I don’t know. . . . But mysterious things in my soul and in my blood impel me towards faraway parts that loom up before me and cannot be ignored. How sad it would be if either of my sons grew up with the germ of this infection in them, the wanderlust. (56)

     It is impossible to exclude the political context of Mustafa’s crimes – I include his

treatment of Ann, Sheila, and Isabella among them, for his actions were cold-blooded even if they were not technically illegal; Mustafa himself describes them in political terms. He imagines making a speech to the court, exhorting the jury and magistrate to impose the ultimate penalty, and to understand his behavior as predictable payback from a victim of colonial oppression:

              I, over and above everything else, am a colonizer, I am the intruder . . . They [English troops] imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world had never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. “I am no Othello. Othello was a lie.” (79)

The references to Othello in this novel have been accorded a variety of interpretations. My own feeling is that for Salih, Shakespeare’s Othello was supposed to represent some kind of reconciliation of English and African cultures; the fact that he was accepted into white society and honored with command of an imperial fleet certainly suggests this. Perhaps one could argue that Othello’s failure to live up to that responsibility, even after receiving full confidence from the white people who place their lives in his trust, proves his innate inferiority as a black man. In any case, Salih seems to believe that the original conception is unrealistic and implausible, in the same way that Mustafa’s rise to eminence in the world of English academe can never entail equal social status with whites. As Mustafa looks over the members of the jury who will pronounce judgment over him, he reflects: “had I asked one of them to rent me a room in his house he would as likely as not have refused, and were his daughter to tell him she was going to marry this African, he’d have felt that the world was collapsing under his feet” (79).

     In an interview published in 2001, Salih articulated his ideas about Othello, and about why he chose to include such an allusion in this modern novel:

              From the very beginning I thought there was something wrong with Othello! . . . The reasons for Othello killing Desdemona were not sufficient, and the question of jealousy, I felt, was not enough. . . . I came to the conclusion that the clash is one of culture and background, that he is a black. To start with, a black man who was a moor is probably a misnomer, in my view; I think he was an Arab. Something like a northern Sudanese, in fact. To become the commander of one of the greatest European powers at the time and to be accepted – just like that – doesn’t seem convincing. It doesn’t make sense to me. So this is why I used the analogy between the main character in the novel and Othello. (84)

These comments are interesting, but they do not resolve the problem of determining the exact correlation between Mustafa and Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Perhaps Othello is a lie because there never can be satisfactory assimilation for a black man like him, or for Mustafa, no matter how brilliant he is or what he accomplishes; perhaps Mustafa calls Othello “a lie” because English women are so easily seduced by the reference, and the process of seduction itself is nothing but a lie. In any case, there can be no question that the political context of Mustafa’s relationships with English women is a crucial aspect of this text. My purpose here is not to discount that context, by any means, but rather to suggest another layer of nuance in the overall evaluation we make of this extremely complex narrative.

     Mustafa perceives himself as a colonizer and an intruder, but he does not recognize the repressed emotions that drive him on a deeper level. Revenge for colonial injustice cannot completely account for his ongoing obsession with Jean Morris; Alice Miller’s analysis, I think, offers us more trenchant and pertinent insights into the twisted interpersonal dynamics in this relationship, and adds to our understanding of what is at stake. For one thing, we have already noted Mustafa’s serious problem with low self-esteem. He despises himself for what he has done to all four of these women. So it is natural that he would characterize himself categorically, and harshly. He understands his true motivations no better than the narrator does his. A perfect example of the narrator’s lack of self-comprehension can be found in a rather surprising, and somewhat troubling passage near the close of the novel, where the narrator asserts that it is Mustafa who is responsible for the tragic death of Hosna: “I feel bitterness and hatred, for after all those victims he crowned his life with yet another one, Hosna Bint Mahmoud, the only woman I have ever loved. She killed poor Wad Reyyes and killed herself because of Mustafa Sa’eed” (117). What can this possibly mean? Is the narrator suggesting that Hosna should have complied with Wad’s insistence that she marry him, and allowed herself to be treated like just another donkey? Is he claiming that by treating her like a modern woman, Mustafa is responsible for her death just because he showed her that she had the right to demand respect and autonomy from men? John Davidson points out the positive influence Mustafa has had on Hosna’s life: “When Mustafa married Hosna, he brought

 . . . [a] Western, bourgeois attitude toward women to their marriage by treating her well. While this may be another subjugation in European eyes, it represents a vast improvement on, and liberation from, the traditional ways of the village. It is Mustafa’s treatment that prevents the already the outspoken Hosna from becoming like Bint Majzoub” (393-94).

     The narrator’s harsh characterization – one could say blanket condemnation – of Mustafa reveals his own lack of self-scrutiny. Critics have tried to explain his refusal to marry Hosna, which would have prevented the tragic outcome of her forced marriage to Wad Reyyes. Davidson claims the narrator may have feared Hosna would turn into a kind of Jean Morris: “the possibility that Hosna would become his (albeit very different) Jean Morris immobilizes him” (393), but this is hardly convincing. Hosna displays none of the volatility and violence that is so characteristic of Jean. Nor is the narrator deeply insecure and driven for recognition and acceptance by women the way Mustafa obviously is. The narrator comes from a strong and stable family background, firmly supported by a father and mother, by an entire community. Saree Makdisi contends that the narrator’s elation at arriving back in his home village, with which the novel opens, represents an attempt on the narrator’s part to retreat into illusion; this is particularly manifest, Makdisi believes, in the narrator’s idealization of his grandfather: “Hajj Ahmad becomes his link to a pre-colonial past that he tries to construct, and to which he would like to escape” (809). Although it is true that the narrator does become somewhat disillusioned with his grandfather’s behavior regarding the forced marriage imposed on Hosna, his attachment to his home and his people only becomes stronger and deeper as the drama unfolds, as we see in the final scene, when he resolves to turn back and seek rescue from the southern shore of the Nile: “I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to fulfill” (139). In contrast, Mustafa is characterized as “the stranger” from the opening pages; he has no roots, no foundation. He is doomed to roam the earth looking for the mother he has never known.

     One of the most challenging aspects of trying to come to grips with this profoundly complex novel is that we cannot trust either the narrator or Mustafa’s account of events to reveal what it is Salih is saying to us. Mustafa is lost, wrapped up in hopeless anger and confusion, driven by emotional forces he cannot comprehend. The narrator, for his part, displaces the anger he ought rightfully to feel at himself for his weakness and indecision in the Hosna affair onto Mustafa, making him the villain and scapegoat, instead of confronting himself. This is the significance of his mistaking the picture he sees upon lighting a match in the dark and mysterious “secret room;” at first he thinks he is confronting an image of his “adversary,” only to realize that he has come face to face with himself, as he needs to do. Patricia Geesey attributes the narrator’s hesitation to marry Hosna to his abject position as a hybrid: “the narrator’s symbolic sterility – that of the true hybrid – is revealed by his inability to move from uncertainty to decisiveness when he recognizes that he has fallen in love with Sa’eed’s widow Hosna” (132). This argument is compelling, but it seems to excuse the narrator from culpability for his indecision – choosing not to act is itself a decision. The narrator admits to his closest friend, Mahjoub: “I wish I’d done as you advised and married her” (97), yet he never seems to take responsibility for his lack of action. When confronted with our own shortcomings and mistakes, it always seems so much easier to pass the blame onto someone else.

     Brian Gibson maintains that “the narrator wills himself not to marry Hosna, for then he would simply be possessing a woman in order to prevent her from being possessed by Wad; thus he would be just like Wad” (6), but this is not convincing either. The marriage Hosna envisions would entail no possession by anyone; it would have been merely a superficial arrangement. As Mahjoub informs his friend: “All she wanted was to become formally married to you, nothing more” (109). Certainly, the narrator must already have realized this, for Bint had already made it abundantly clear that: “After Mustafa Sa’eed, I shall go to no man” (80). There would have been no disruption or dishonor to the narrator’s wife and daughter in such an arrangement, nor any transgression of Islamic law. But the narrator remains ineffectual, probably because of inner weakness and a tendency to cling stubbornly to family tradition: “We were in fact known in the village for not divorcing our wives and for not having more than one” (67). Rather than throw a blanket condemnation at the departed to Mustafa, in an attempt to displace the blame for his own lack of resolute intervention on Hosna’s behalf, the narrator ought to scrutinize his own motivations. Perhaps when he emerges from his near-drowning experience in the river we can assume that he has finally arrived at a more honest and nuanced understanding of himself, but this is not entirely clear; regardless, we must admire his renewed determination to embrace life.

     The narrator is contemptuous of the numerous photographs Mustafa has left prominently displayed in his secret room, speculating, “He wants to be discovered, like some object of historical value” (127), yet this is not obvious. We never get the impression that Mustafa is vain about his past: “everything I did after I killed her was an apology, not for killing her, but for the lie that was my life” (26). The dedication in Mustafa’s empty diary  -- “To those who see with one eye, speak with one tongue and see things as either black or white, either Eastern or Western” (125) – has been the subject of much critical commentary and analysis. My own reading of this seminal phrase suggests that Mustafa’s story can only be fairly and accurately conveyed by one who appreciates the complexities involved. Those who persist in perceiving the unfolding events in terms of polarities, binaries of “either black or white, either Eastern or European” (125), cannot comprehend the profound interrelations and subtle psychological factors that contribute to and constitute the drama of any one single human life, and certainly not one as tortured and convoluted as Mustafa’s. The narrator seems on the verge of understanding this when he comments on the various sketches his counterpart has left behind: “Mustafa Sa’eed had drawn them with a clarity of vision and sympathy that approached love” (125); he wants to vilify Mustafa, especially because of the grief he feels over Hosna’s  death, and his unwillingness to face his own role in precipitating this tragic outcome. Yet when he looks at the drawings, he is forced, if only reluctantly, to admit that there are dimensions of Mustafa’s character, possibly admirable ones, that he does not fully comprehend.

     I think it is helpful to examine the lamentable outcomes that unfold in this novel from the perspective of a theorist like Alice Miller because it enables us to see what happened with more than one eye, and to articulate its meaning with more than one tongue. Yes, Mustafa is a predator and a killer. His actions do resonate with intimations of the colonized subject wreaking revenge on the colonial master through destruction of his women. But on a personal, intimate level, this story also reveals the drama of the abandoned child forced to spend a lifetime wandering the earth in search of a loving, accepting, nourishing mother, the mother he has never known, and will never find. Suggestions of this element of Mustafa’s story permeate the novel. For example, when Mustafa first encounters Isabella among the crowd in Hyde Park, he immediately associates her with another mother figure, Mrs. Robinson;[15] he then extrapolates this association by visualizing his attraction for her in terms of imagery of a mother horse and her baby male offspring: “I felt her warmth pervading me. I breathed in the odour of her body, that odour with which Mrs. Robinson had met me on the platform of Cairo’s railway station. . . . Then came the moment when I felt that she and I had become like a mare and foal running in harmony side by side” (32).

     As the interaction between them develops, the foal becomes the one who takes control: “I felt the flow of conversation firmly in my hands, like the reins of an obedient mare” (33). In the re-enacting out of the primal bonding experience, the child is now in charge; he will not allow the mother’s affection to slip away from him this time around. He has achieved mastery at last. Unfortunately, while he can entice Isabella’s love, he cannot reciprocate it. Nor does he feel any compunction for the pain he causes this mother substitute; since he is driven by subconscious forces he does not recognize or understand, he begins to think of himself as an impersonal influence in his dealings with Isabella, as if he is just another force of Nature. He does the same with Ann Hammond and Sheila Greenwood. His goal is to gain access to and take control of the mother figure’s affection, which he must finally pin down at any cost. He seeks power and mastery, not an exchange of nourishing emotion; if the consequences are devastating for his partner, well, it is just one of those vicissitudes that derive from living in the natural world: “when, puffing, I reach the mountain peak and implant the banner, collect my breath and rest – that, my lady, is an ecstasy greater than love, than happiness. Thus I mean you no harm, except to the extent that the sea is harmful when ships are stranded against its rocks, and to the extent that the lightning is harmful when it rends a tree in two” (35). This same sense of an impersonal lethal energy repeats again when the narrator hears of a woman who has murdered her husband on his trip through the desert: “I said to them that she had not killed him, but that he had died of sunstroke – just as Isabella Seymour had died, and Sheila Greenwood, Ann Hammond, and Jean Morris. Nothing happened” (91-92).

     I fully agree with critics who point to a sense of disillusionment with traditionalism, alongside a critique of colonial practice, as it unfolds in this novel, accompanied by an implicit message that improvement in mores and human relationships generally will rely on humankind’s ability to learn from and overcome the depravity manifest in both in order to create more just and equitable social conditions in the future. At the same time, I remain resistant to the skepticism of critics like Saree Makdisi and Joseph Lowry, who maintain that the narrator’s remarks about the common humanity shared by all peoples, colonized as well as colonizers, reflect only hopeless naiveté. The narrator describes in the opening pages how he shared his favorable impressions of the English people with the curious villagers who welcome him home: “They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people.” Significantly, the narrator also conveys what he had failed to add, presumably out of fear that he would meet only with incomprehension and resistance:

              just like us they are born and die, and in the journey from the cradle to the grave they dream dreams some of which come true and some of which are frustrated; that they fear the unknown, search for love and seek contentment in wife and child; that some are strong and some are weak; that some have been given more than they deserve by life, while others have been deprived by it; but that the differences are narrowing[16] and most of the weak are no longer weak.[17] (5)

     Lowry claims that these words of the narrator’s:

              evidence a wholly uncritical and naïve perspective that the encounter with Sa’eed will force the narrator to abandon as the novel unfolds. . . . Sa’eed brings the narrator violently face-to-face with notions which are at the outset excluded from his placid descriptions of a uniform and harmonious (European) humanity . . . The narrator has understood Europeans only in terms of trite generalities, has not tried to understand what the other is saying to him, quite unlike Sa’eed, who has understood all too well the implications of the other’s course of conduct, and resolved to take revenge for the violence he believes it does to him. (179, 183)

I disagree with Lowry’s analysis of these passages, because I believe he relies too much on the presumption that Mustafa’s relations with English women are motivated solely by a desire for revenge, and because he fails to take into account that the narrator is describing his evaluation of the English people after his traumatic experience in

Mustafa’s secret room, and after his decision to choose life in the middle of the Nile. It is my contention that Salih is inviting the reader, by means of these passages, to contemplate the travesties wrought by both imperialism and traditionalism, and to accept the fact that all of us, east and west, north and south, face a common dilemma, and share a common humanity.

     The age of imperialism is past; traditional, pre-colonial customs and mores no longer suffice (if they ever did). Humanity’s hope must be directed toward the future; it cannot be realized through blanket condemnation of imperialism and a return to traditional ways. We all share the same world, and are affected by the same problems and crises. The possibilities for improvement in our circumstances, and in the quality of our lives, depend on a global social order we have yet to envision, much less begun to construct. We now face a crossroads where “Everything seems probable. . . . The world . . . as brief as the blinking of an eyelid, is made up of countless probabilities, as though Adam and Eve had just fallen from Paradise”[18] (47).  Mustafa Sa’eed has left the pages blank for the narrator, who angrily rejects the challenge: “he wanted history to immortalize him. But I do not have the time to proceed further with this farce. . . . I did not let him finish his story” (128, 137). Nevertheless, the narrator, eventually, will be compelled to do so, for the story of the future is an inescapable responsibility for him, and for the rest of us, as well; we all find ourselves compelled to inscribe the story of humanity’s promise on the blank pages Mustafa has left behind.

     As night falls and brings blessed relief from the blazing heat of the sun after his arduous day’s trek through the trackless desert, the narrator imagines a better world for all humanity, one we will forge together, regardless of color, religion, nationality, or race:

              The war ended in victory for us all: the stones, the trees, the animals, and the iron, while I, lying under this beautiful, compassionate sky, feel that we are all brothers; he who drinks and he who prays and he who steals and he who commits adultery and he who fights and he who kills. The source is the same. . . . This is the land of poetry and the possible – and my daughter’s name is Hope. We shall pull down and we shall build, and we shall humble the sun itself to our will; and somehow we shall defeat poverty. (93)

Perhaps we shall defeat slavery, exploitation, misogyny, racism, religious bigotry

and intolerance, and child neglect and child abuse, as well. Perhaps then we will

finally achieve a reasonable modicum of social justice in our world, come to know

enduring peace and shared prosperity at last, and recover the original Garden of Eden, the heaven on earth that was our birthright before the Fall.



Works Cited


Caminero-Santangelo, Byron. “Legacies of Darkness: Neocolonialism, Joseph Conrad,

     and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.” A Review of International

     English Literature 30 (1999): 7-33.


Davidson, John E. “In Search of a Middle Point: The Origins of Oppression in Tayeb

     Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.” Research in African Literatures 20 (1989):



Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Cultural Parataxis and Transnational Landscapes of Reading:

     Toward a Locational Modernist Studies.” Approaching Modernism. Eds. Vivian Liska and Astradur Eysteinsson. International Comparative Literature Association, 2006. 35-52.

Geesey, Patricia. “Cultural Hybridity and Contamination in Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-

     hijra ila al-Shamal (Season of Migration to the North).” Research in African

     Literatures 28 (1997): 128-140.


Ghattas-Soliman, Sonia. “The Two-sided Image of Women in Season of Migration

     to the North.” Ed. Kenneth Harrow. Faces of Islam in African Literature.

     Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991. 91-103.


Gibson, Brian. “An Island Unto Himself? Masculinity in Season of Migration to the

     North.” Jouvert 7 (2002):

     http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v7is1/gibson.htm5/20/2009. 1-12.


Hamilton, G.A.R. “The Minor Movement of the Abject-Hybrid: Tayeb Salih’s Season of

     Migration to the North.” New Literatures Review 43 (2005): 53-65.


Homad, Nouha. “Distorted Love in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.”

     International Journal of Arabic-English Studies 2 (2001): 55-73.


Krishnan, R.S. “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.”

     The International Fiction Review 23 (1996): 7-15.


Lowry, Joseph E. “Histories and Polyphonies: Deep Structures in al-Tayyib Salih’s

     Mawsim al-hijra ila al-shamil (Season of Migration to the North).” Edebiya^t 12



Makdisi, Saree S. “The Empire Renarrated: Season of Migration to the North and the

     Reinvention of the Present.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 804-820.


Meyer, Stefan G. “The Confessional Voice in Modern Arab Fiction: Season of Migration

     to the North by Tayeb Salih and The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun.” Estudos

     Anglo-Americanos 16 (1992): 137-147.


Miller, Alice. Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries. New York: Random

     House, 1991.

---. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.

     New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

---. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York:

     HarperCollins, 1997.


Parry, Benita. “Reflections on the Excess of Empire in Tayeb Salih’s Season of

     Migration to the North.” The Journal of the Modern Critical Theory Group

     28 (2005): 72-90.


Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Intro. Laila Lalami. Trans. Denys

     Johnson-Davies. New York: New York Review of Books, 2009.


Shaheen, Mohammed. “Interview with Tayeb Salih.” Banipal 10-11 (2001): 82-85.


Topan, Farouk. “Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.” African Novels

     in the Classroom (2000): 241-250.













[1] There is general disagreement among critics as to whether Mustafa Sa’eed or the narrator is the true protagonist; many perceive Sa’eed as a double of the narrator. I am not taking a position on that issue here, because I am not convinced it is pertinent to the argument I intend to propose.

[2] Parry maintains that when Sa’eed arrives in England, he deliberately situates himself as “the exotic outsider”: “he assumes the form of colonialist fears, an enraged African-Arab libertine seeking vengeance on his masters by bewitching and debauching white women whom he designates as his prey” (82). Lowry claims that Sa’eed retaliates in the face of English hypocrisy: “Ironically, it is Sa’eed who has taken the moral high ground during his razzia among the colonizers: His is a clear-cut act of revenge, reflecting precisely the tactics that he perceives have been used against him” (179). Lowry, moreover, maintains that Sa’eed’s actions derive from a more realistic appraisal of the colonizers than his counterpart: “The narrator has understood the Europeans only in terms of trite generalities, has not tried to understand what the other [the colonizer] is saying to him, quite unlike Sa’eed, who has understood all too well the implications of the other’s course of conduct, and resolved to take revenge for the violence he believes it does to him” (183)

[3] As Sonia Ghattas-Soliman and others have pointed out, there are numerous contradictions within the Islamic creed as practiced by the villagers that operate in direct contravention of Muslim precepts; one obvious example is the prohibition against the consumption of alcohol. Another is the treatment of women as mere property. Ghattas-Soliman insists that according to Islamic law, the rights of widows are explicit, and that compelling Hosna to marry Wad Reyyes is a serious violation of the teachings of the Koran. Thus, Hosna’s treatment demonstrates the corruption that exists within pre-colonial society itself. The narrator’s recognition of this, and his determination to affirm life at the end of the novel, as he cries out for help from the middle of the Nile, points to the promise of a better future for all humanity, freed from the oppressive constrictions of both imperialism and traditionalism. Benita Parry supports this notion, asserting that Season of Migration to the North reflects “an anti-colonial sensibility, a post-independence disillusion and anticipations of the postcolonial ‘not yet’  ” (79).

[4] There are frequent instances throughout the narrative where the metaphor of a knife is employed; in some places it represents the keenness of Mustafa’s intellect, in others it refers to the chilling image of the “operating theatre” he envisions as his bedroom, where seduction becomes analogous to the cutting open of the body by a surgeon. In the scenes with Jean, particularly the moment of her murder, the knife substitutes for the penis. All of this suggests that Sa’eed’s conception of sexual intercourse with a woman is inextricably connected to violence, which implies that there is much repressed rage in his general orientation toward women in general. The one exception to this pattern may be Elizabeth Robinson, though that is not entirely clear either. Mustafa does perceive his physical attraction for her as a transgression, which he hopes she does not discover. Yosif Tarawneh and Joseph John have pointed out the incestuous nature of this attraction for a substitute mother figure, and describe it as a variation of Freud’s Oedipus Complex. According to this analysis, Mustafa restrains his instincts out of fear of the father figure, Mr. Robinson.

[5] Susan Friedman points out that Season of Migration to the North employs “representational strategies [that] rely on rupture, self-reflexivity, multiperspectivity, jumbled chronology, simultaneity, ambiguity, and a crisis of normative certainties. . . . [reflecting] psychodynamic processes of consciousness, memory, desire – embodying or implying the mechanisms of repression and the symptomatic return of the repressed  . . . [couched in] migratory motifs” (39). I would argue that there is a “crisis of normative certainties” associated with usual patterns of mother-infant bonding in Mustafa’s case that sets him off on a “migration” in search of the initial affirmation he missed in early life.

[6] It is quite possible, based on her behavior, that Jean Morris has also been the victim of neglect, or perhaps even downright physical abuse – maybe sexual abuse – in her childhood, and that her relations with men as an adult are driven by her desire for revenge against men in general, just as Mustafa makes it his business to punish women for his initial rejection by his mother. From this perspective, her perception of Mustafa as an abuser of women would make him all the more likely to be a principal target for her repressed rage. Mustafa has clearly “met his match” when he encounters Jean Morris.

[7] I do not mean to suggest that the “love” he receives from English women such as Ann Hammond is the genuine article; Ann is clearly projecting colonialist fantasies onto Mustafa, thus depersonalizing him. Still, she seems to relish his company, and treats him like a king (offering herself as his “slave”) – a marked contrast to the abuse he suffers at the hands of Jean Morris.

[8] Concerning Ann Hammond, Mustafa comments, “In my bed I transformed her into a harlot. My bedroom was a graveyard” (27). Regarding Sheila Greenwood, he says, “She entered my bedroom a chaste virgin and when she left it she was carrying the germs of self-destruction within her” (30), seeds that bear fruit in her subsequent suicide. Mustafa also speaks forthrightly about the effects his calculated manipulations will have on Isabella Seymour; in employing exotic incense to aid in seducing her, he is quite aware that he is “filling her lungs with a perfume she little knew was deadly” (36).

[9] Mustafa deliberately furnishes his bedroom so that when he succeeds in seducing one woman, he feels the gratification of bending all women to his will: “on the walls were large mirrors, so that when I slept with a woman it was as if I slept with a whole harem simultaneously . . . My bedroom was like an operating theatre in a hospital. There is a still pool in the depths of every woman that I knew how to stir” (27).

[10] It is revealing and highly significant, I think, that while married to Hosna, Mustafa continues to cry out for Jean in his sleep. Right after Hosna mentions this, the narrator recalls the sound of Mustafa’s voice, and then hears the agonized cry of a child piercing the quiet night: “ ‘He kept repeating words in his sleep, like Jeena Jeeny’  . . . The shriek of a child reached me from some place in the quarter” (77).

[11] Though we cannot be certain from the text, it seems to me arguable at least that Mustafa’s hostility toward women may not have been limited to white women only – an important consideration, for if that is the case it would undermine the idea of Mustafa’s actions as indicative of a desire to exact revenge on colonizers by victimizing their women. There is a brief reference to a fellow student with whom he becomes involved while still at school in Africa, a dark-skinned woman in all likelihood, who seems to have a reaction to him similar to Ann Hammond’s in her terse suicide note, which read only: “Mr. Sa’eed. God damn you!” (121). Mustafa recalls: “a fellow student had fallen in love with me and had then hated me. ‘You’re not a human being,’ she said to me. ‘You’re a heartless machine’ ” (25). It seems quite probable that this native woman suffered the same kind of exploitation at Mustafa’s hands that the white women in England endure.

[12] By the age of twelve, puberty would have set in, so it is only natural that the longing for connection with the mother, that “vague . . . yearning,” would be experienced as sexual. Hormones are operating in the young boy that are not present in the infant. Thus, though his attraction for Mrs. Robinson might be described as “Oedipal,” this in no way affirms Freud’s theory of innate sexual drives in infancy as far as Alice Miller is concerned. In fact, Miller adamantly rejects Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex: “childish curiosity and sensuality and the desire for physical closeness, for stimulation by stroking, for caressing and soothing, for gentle touching, for the physical warmth of another person, and for the numerous pleasure experiences in the child’s body, including in the genitals . . . doesn’t amount to sexuality . . . Sexuality is the copulative urge of human beings . . . I do not find this sexuality in children” (Banished Knowledge 41).

[13] There are numerous comparisons in the text between women and the city, and with the city on the hill. These deserve further examination and analysis, though there is no space for that here. Suffice it to say, the boy, because he is “roving” around in a lifelong search for connection with his mother, naturally seems to equate fulfillment of his desire with travel and with attainment of undiscovered, enticing spaces; the goal of his journey entails attainment of the “city,” which symbolizes Europe, and guarantees recognition and acceptance in the world of humankind.

[14] The camel represents the only assurance of life in the desert.

[15] There are several passages that explicitly refer to the notion that both Mustafa and Elizabeth Robinson are quite aware of her role in his life as a substitute mother. On the day he is sentenced to prison, Mustafa relates, “I found no bosom but hers on which to rest my head. ‘Don’t cry, dear child,’ she had said to me, patting me on the head. They [she and her husband] had no children” (23). Later, in her letter to the narrator after Mustafa’s death, Elizabeth refers to Mustafa by the pet nickname she has for him, “Moozie,” and urges the narrator to reassure Hosna: “Let her think of me as a mother” (122).

[16] This was the cherished dream of many progressive-minded individuals at the time this book was published;  it is sad to reflect that, almost half a century later, that dream seems to be unraveling. Disparities world-wide between haves and have-nots are greater than ever before, thanks to the ravages being wrought by current neoliberal economic policies.  Still, economic justice remains an essential part of the dream for a brighter future for all of humanity, one that must continue to impel us forward, regardless of severe setbacks and daunting obstacles.

[17] Especially women, symbolized by the strength Hosna displays in resisting the forces of patriarchy that would enslave and degrade her.

[18] When Jean comes unbidden to Mustafa’s room to interrupt his tryst with Ann Hammond, she tempts him like the serpent tempts Eve: “she stood before me, erect and lithe, her eyes agleam with a dangerous brightness, her lips like forbidden fruit that must be eaten” (130).

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Vincent A. Walsh "Wanderlust and the Goddess of Death: Search for the Lost Mother in Tayeb Salih's "Season of Migration to the North"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/walsh-wanderlust_and_the_goddess_of_death_sear. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2012, Published: February 23, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Vincent A. Walsh