http://weekly. ahram.org. eg/2009/936/ cu1.htm
Al-Tayeb Saleh (1929-2009) -- No Othello
Dying to get published, aspiring Sudanese writers hope to follow in the late Al-Tayeb Saleh's footsteps and reach out to the wider world through their literature, observes Gamal Nkrumah
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Nubians don't have any quaint illusions about theirs' being the fairest of lands (excuse the pun). They have traditionally sought greener pastures, northwards and south. "The Nubian civilisation was not an echo of the Arab civilisation. It was a civilisation itself," extrapolated Al-Tayeb Saleh.
Born in Karmakol, in northern Sudan, Saleh was raised in the narrow strip of paradise that lined the banks of the Nile, with the encroaching desolation enveloping the primordial valley. His was a land pristine and paradisiacal. And yet he left it to make a living elsewhere -- first to Khartoum, then onto Britain, and later in life the Gulf. His characters reflected this wanderlust. Such a wanderer requires entrepreneurial skill of the highest order. How much time Saleh actually spent in museums that were on his doorstep and how much travelling he undertook remain unanswered questions. We can only guess from work. "Sudan is really a mound of civilisation and I approach it like an archeologist. I am very grateful to have been born in this area."
What emerges from reading those works en masse is that Saleh and his characters, like most Africans and Arabs in Britain in the aftermath of World War II, faced the rabid racism of the locals somewhat stoically. But what made his writing so special? Is it his ingenious linguistic skill or the profound substance of his message? Typically his style was forceful and forthright. It had a modern ring to it. There was a huge reaction from readers. He was eulogised by Arab critics as a literary master. He monitored one of the greatest social turnarounds in Third World history. Poverty engineered this transposition. But the passage back and forth, north and south was an ancient Nubian tradition.
Saleh was a purpose-driven author. Yet he never wrote about his intentions as a writer. He never devoted his life entirely to writing. He was a professional broadcaster, schoolmaster and public official at different stages in his long career. Saleh was not exceptionally prolific, but Season of Migration to the North has been flying off the shelves ever since it was published in 1966. In retrospect, perhaps it is one of the most powerful novels originally written in the Arabic language. It was translated into more than 40 languages.
In 2001, Season of Migration was voted the "most important Arabic novel of the 20th century" by the Damascus-based Academy of Arabic Letters. But like the author and the hero of the novel, Mustafa, the work transmigrated across cultures. It is widely believed that sexual innuendo inundated Saleh's opus, even if the pornographic imagination did not feature prominently, but there is more shadow than substance to it. His was a courageous, even perilous undertaking.
To aspiring Sudanese novelists, Saleh's works provide plenty of oracular guidance for the future. Saleh pleaded with the reader to sympathise with the savage assailant. "Each one of us chose his role, she to act the part of the slave girl, and I that of the master." White women submitting to black men, rather than wielding the colonial stiletto. "While still in the throes of fantasy, intoxication and madness, I took her and she accepted, for what happened had already happened between us 1,000 years ago."
History was a powerful stimulus for Saleh, but it never had as much punch as the present. He was proud of his heritage, yet he had issues about how it more recently unfolded. British culture jolly laid on its curious array of star-spangled performances for the country bumpkin who stars in his enchanting opus. White women with a particular penchant for exotic black men made for the real entertainment, though.
If you consider what women find sexy, it appears that the old cliches no longer apply. The charismatic hero of The Season of Migration to the North obviously wanted to have his women and eat them too -- both the black and white varieties -- who, besotted with their paramour, wanted to have their frock and wear it. A Sudanese heart-throb in Britain in the last throes of shedding off its cumbersome colonial millstone. White women with progressive liberal tendencies proved to be the perfect respite. And it took a Sudanese, of all Arabs, to articulate the hurt, pain and pleasure. Saleh did it all with dignity. This was taken for modesty.
The violence in Season of Migration to the North is incessant. "They found her dead in her flat in Hampstead." The novel penetrated deeply the opacity of the period. Its portentousness was constant and it doesn't pretend to come out with a great scheme. It was a breakthrough of sorts. But let's not go overboard. For its own time, the novel was just a novel, yet it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published half a century ago. We have a black President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama. We never knew what he would have made of that. In Saleh's day, the Obama phenomenon would have been unthinkable. It is a tad more difficult to laugh at or patronise black men now that it is.
Yet President Obama himself is, quite literally, a product of the union of black man and liberal white woman. And the white woman's desire for black men is no longer such a big thing. White women are no longer the exclusive obsession of black men, as they were in Saleh's generation. Yet racism persists, and white women tend to be less racist than white men -- at least so the stereotype suggests. Reliable statistics are yet to verify the theory. It is de rigueur that they crave black men, or rather a particular black man. King Kong is as compelling as ever.
Where are they now? At the moment they seem to have disappeared. He was temperamentally suited to the delicate chess game of the Cold War era. In spite of his entire oeuvre, he was no Othello.
But what about post Cold War global politics? Loathed by men and loved by women, Saleh's hero was a compulsive liar. Here was a scene familiar of many black men who spent some time in post-war Europe. We people, black as much as white, still think of the white woman who has fallen for a black man as a fool. Race to this day occupies a preeminent position in the literary outpourings of black people. The brutal treatment visited on blacks has left seemingly irrevocable psychological issues. The testament, for instance, of Saleh's compatriot, Al-Jazeera photojournalist Sami Al-Haj, after his unceremonial release from Guantanamo Bay, gives a graphic description of the physical and psychological scars he endured right up to his release.
Poignant issues such as colonisation and gender cropped up not only in Season of Migration to the North but in other writings of Saleh such as A Handful of Dates, a riveting short story set in the sleepy Nubian village of Wad Hamid. It displays more miscellaneous sides to Saleh's trophy of talents. His novella, The Wedding of Zein, is replete with archetypal ideas and conventional imagery. But at no point does it imperil his stand.
Saleh's state funeral in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, was an enormous affair; almost a quarter of a million people flocked to pay him their last respects. Sudan's political celebrities jostled with journalists, writers and academics, recalling how journalism and the presentation of academic papers took over from history in the last phase of his writing. And writ large on Saleh's outpourings is his unbridled affection for a beloved Sudan. Although the public image of Saleh in Europe and the Arab world was that of a black writer, in Africa south of the Sahara he was viewed as essentially Arab.
Was he the reluctant African? Not to my knowledge -- but southern Sudanese resented his supposedly disparaging remarks on their own unadulterated culture. I personally know of no such remarks, but as they say there is no smoke without fire. In Africa it is ill-mannered to speak of the dead. Although public perception of Saleh as the foremost Arab novelist of his generation did not go down too well with Africans south of the Sahara, he was enough of a literary giant. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, Arab critics reached identical conclusions. Saleh was not in the least astonished -- and not a little sceptical. For Africans south of the Sahara, as a result, he remains an enigma. And there remains a question about whether he disowned the blacker segments of his being?
Alternately karmic and volcanic, Saleh was a most entertaining storyteller. First the University of Khartoum, then the University of London -- but through his writings, one could glimpse that it was simultaneously an exhilarating and a heart-wrenching experience. Whatever it was, it was a rich life. After a stint as a schoolmaster, Saleh went to the adventurous field of broadcasting, which opened new vistas to the budding writer. He then experienced a brief spell as the director general at the Ministry of Information in Doha, Qatar.
Saleh wrote without irony upon his return to Britain that he enjoyed the country in spite of his experiences. But what about his contemporaries? They have long been made to drink of the bitter cup of exile, not necessarily political -- more commonly economic. And in this context the reader is reminded what an awesome place Nubia remains. Inadvertently, perhaps, Saleh made the personal political. Writing across cultures, his argument was as simple as it was compelling, yet he instinctively rejected the impulse to impose uniformity in thought and action.
His mission was not to keep white women from being knifed or committing suicide, but gave them invaluable. How do you live your life the rational British way? When passion takes over, it is basically too late. They eventually come to the realisation that it isn't always, everywhere, about them. Then the battle is over. "The words 'black' and 'white' do not exist in Arabic. People are red, blue or green," Saleh scoffed at the Western perception of racial categorisation.
Over all, Saleh was more conciliatory than dogmatic. He was able to see when African interests could come before Arab rhetoric. Indeed, with Saleh there was always a reverse worry as far as black Africans were concerned. He wrote in Arabic. And so, as an African, one worries -- suspecting about a writer who seems to follow the wrong lead on race, to write in what seems to be the language of the slaver. The author himself was candid on the subject. "People today fuss about whether one is Arab or African."
What on earth made him write? Arabs and Africans have been publicly feuding in Sudan for generations. It was his own silly fault. It never occurred to him that he'd been invited to have sex with white women specifically to shoot himself in the face. Saleh is survived by his wife and three daughters.