On Al-Tayyib Salih

Al-Tayyib Salih was one of my favorite authors, and his passing on 18 February was quite disappointing. I do not usually comment on literature, but it worth the detour to reflect on one of the better Arab writers in recent years: The tardiness is the result of busyness. Being as young as I am, I was introduced to Salih’s Season of Migration to the North rather recently. This was the first work of modern Arab fiction I have enjoyed (aside from poetry). It is among two or three works of literature I have studied that was really enjoyable in an overwhelming way. The other two are The German Refugees and Things Fall Apart (I have a preference for the more modern). Season of Migration was especially valuable in my eyes because it spoke angry truth. It is direct: Independence is not necessarily liberation. Knowledge is not in and of itself power. Conditions, quality, circumstance and integrity all matter in the context of decolonization and post-colonial leadership has failed to ensure that decolonization truly took place on the terms of the colonized. Salih presented this even before many of the worst civil wars, coups, correctional movements and mass graves of the post-colonial era, though the processes that produced these were well underway by 1966. There is a very sober foresight in Season of Migration, and while other Arab authors attempt to achieve the same level of relevance these efforts are ultimately insufficient. Naguib Mahfouz often gets much praise for similar descriptions of life in Egypt, but the scope is narrow and ultimately too flowery (and yet base) to have the full impact that Salih had. (Which is not to deny his importance, though I cannot recall a Mahfouz novel that I would put on the same level with Salih’s; The comparison is somewhat strained, admittedly.) Much of the troubles described Season of Migration persist today throughout Africa, and much of the Arab world, though this  is true more so in Francophonie Arab Africa (particularly the Maghreb) than in the Levant.

[The British] sowed hatred in the hearts of the people for us, their kinsmen, and love for the colonisers, the intruders. Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do. [Pg. 53]

This is not to blame colonialism for African maladies, though it surely to recognizes the role of the Europeans in setting the foundations for many of the great failures that would follow British, French, Belgian, Portuguese and American entanglement. It is a warning against the surrender of sovereignty — not just in terms of borders and economics but also minds.

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