Un-Orientalising: Reversing a Discourse in Season of Migration to the North

26 Feb

SPOILER ALERT: Though I sincerely tried, I could not find a scholarly article worth writing about that handled only the first half of the book. Thus, I’ve included a spoiler alert before my last paragraph. Honestly I don’t think it’s THAT big of a deal, but read cautiously, thanks!

Though there is much scholarly work surrounding Season of Migration to the North, I found it most interesting to focus in on the multiple works that specifically look at this novel in relation to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One such article, “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North” by R.S. Krishnan, makes an argument about the relationship between the two books, and Season of Migration to the North’s larger impact within the discussion of Orientalism. He writes that Salih works to “resist, reinterpret, and revise [Heart of Darkness] from the perspective of the colonized Other,” and in doing so “reinscribes the ‘truth’ of colonial encounter from the perspective of the colonize, and in so doing, engages in a dialect of cultural discourse that reverses the narrative and ideological conventions that inform Conrad’s dark fiction” (7, 15).

Krishnan demonstrates Salih’s repositioning of Heart of Darkness through a number of explicit examples, including the river that grounds the “root” of civilization (the Thames, and in Season, the Nile), the omnipresent narrators that move in and out of telling past and living present (Marlowe, and our unnamed man), and the ostensible “villains,” (Kurtz and Mustafah Sa’eed). Krishnan meticulously proves that these similarities between the novels are no accident by showing how precisely Salih has used these points of reference to turn the binaries of Orientalism on their heads. Ultimately, we see that Sa’eed’s journey to England becomes the journey from the fertile womb of civilization into the “Heart of Darkness,“ beautifully mirroring Kurtz’s similar and yet entirely oppositional experience in Conrad’s novel.


However, Krishnan makes note of one essential aberration from this smooth reversal of Conrad. While Marlow concedes to recognize a glimmer of himself in Kurtz (or perhaps vice versa), our narrator acknowledges the possibility that he could become Sa’eed, then resists that notion. As Krishnan puts it, “Salih concludes Season with the narrator’s rejection of Sa’eed’s vision of himself, to not let him ‘complete his story’” (14). Krishnan marks this as the point of the “rejection of colonial ideology” and the ultimate reversal of the discourse that permeates Heart of Darkness.

I think that Krishnan could take this one step further. It is clear, firstly, that Salih’s story is not a “perfect” reversal of the discourse of Orientalism – there are many points in which its vestiges remain engrained. One example: though Sa’eed bucks the stereotype of a “feminized” Arabic male, it must be noted that his ferociously masculine sexuality is only awakened by his first “taste” of Europe in the form of Mrs. Robinson. Secondly, this moment of awakening for the narrator does not strike me as a “reversal” – I think that is far too soft a word for the work that Salih is actually doing here. As McLeod reminds us in his summary of Said’s Orientalism, “orientalism constructs binary oppositions” (49). Orientalism works not because Europe is “light” and Africa is “dark,” but because they are placed in opposition at all. To reverse the discourse would simply be to make Europe dark and Africa light, which Salih does to an extent. However, by refusing to allow Sa’eed to be manifested within himself, the narrator breaks the binary – his fate is no longer tied to this cyclical way of thinking. In this way. he pushes beyond Conrad, and thus rather than merely reversing the discourse, Salih attempts to escape it entirely.

 Krishnan, R.S. “Reinscribing Conrad: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.The International Fiction Review 23 (1996) : 7-15. Print. 

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