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Excerpt: 'Season of Migration to the North'

It was, gentlemen, after a long absence — seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe — that I returned to my people. I learnt much and much passed me by — but that's another story. The important thing is that I returned with a great yearning for my people in that small village at the bend of the Nile. For seven years I had longed for them, had dreamed of them, and it was an extraordinary moment when I at last found myself standing amongst them. They rejoiced at having me back and made a great fuss, and it was not long before I felt as though a piece of ice were melting inside of me, as though I were some frozen substance on which the sun had shone — that life warmth of the tribe which I had lost for a time in a land "whose fishes die of the cold." My ears had become used to their voices, my eyes grown accustomed to their forms. Because of having thought so much about them during my absence) something rather like fog rose up between them and me the first instant I saw them. But the fog cleared and I awoke, on the second day of my arrival, in my familiar bed in the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my life in childhood and the onset of adolescence. I listened intently to the wind: that indeed was a sound well known to me, a sound which in our village possessed a merry whispering — the sound of the wind passing through palm trees is different from when it passes through fields of corn. I heard the cooing of the turtle-dove, and I looked through the window at the palm tree standing in the courtyard of our house and I knew that all was still well with life. I looked at its strong straight trunk, at its roots that strike down into the ground, at the green branches hanging down loosely over its top, and I experienced a feeling of assurance. I felt not like a storm-swept feather but like that palm tree, a being with a background, with roots, with a purpose.

My mother brought tea. My father, having finished his prayers and recitations from the Koran, came along. Then my sister and brothers came and we all sat down and drank tea and talked, as we have done ever since my eyes opened on life. Yes, life is good and the world as unchanged as ever.

Suddenly I recollected having seen a face I did not know among those who had been there to meet me. I asked about him, described him to them: a man of medium height, of around fifty or slightly older, his hair thick and going grey, beardless and with a moustache slightly smaller than those worn by men in the village; a handsome man.

"That would be Mustafa," said my father.

Mustafa who? Was he one of the villagers who'd gone abroad and had now returned?

My father said that Mustafa was not a local man but a stranger who had come here five years ago, had bought himself a farm, built a house and married Mahmoud's daughter — a man who kept himself to himself and about whom not much was known.

I do not know what exactly aroused my curiosity but I remembered that the day of my arrival he was silent. Everyone had put questions to me and I to them. They had asked me about Europe. Were the people there like us or were they different? Was life expensive or cheap? What did people do in winter? They say that the women are unveiled and dance openly with men. "Is it true," Wad Rayyes asked me, "that they don't marry but that a man lives with a woman in sin?"

As best I could I had answered their many questions. 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. "Are there any farmers among them?" Mahjoub asked me.

"Yes, there are some farmers among them. They've got everything-workers and doctors and farmers and teachers, just like us." I preferred not to say the rest that had come to my mind: that 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 and most of the weak are no longer weak. I did not say this to Mahjoub, though I wish I had done so, for he was intelligent; in my conceit I was afraid he would not understand.

Bint Majzoub laughed. "We were afraid," she said, "you'd bring back with you an uncircumcised infidel for a wife."

But Mustafa had said nothing. He had listened in silence, sometimes smiling; a smile which, I now remember, was mysterious, like someone talking to himself.

I forgot Mustafa after that, for I began to renew my relationship with people and things in the village. I was happy during those days, like a child that sees its face in the mirror for the first time. My mother never wearied of telling me of those who had died that I might go and pay my condolences and of those who had married that I might go and offer my congratulations, and thus I crossed the length and breadth of the village offering condolences and congratulations. One day I went to my favourite place at the foot of the tall acacia tree on the river bank. How many were the hours I had spent in my childhood under that tree, throwing stones into the river and dreaming, my imagination straying to far-off horizons! I would hear the groaning of the water-wheels on the river, the exchange of shouts between people in the fields, and the lowing of an ox or the braying of a donkey. Sometimes luck would be with me and a steamer would pass by, going up- or down-river. From my position under the tree I saw the village slowly undergo a change: the water-wheels disappeared to be replaced on the bank of the Nile by pumps, each one doing the work of a hundred water-wheels. I saw the bank retreating year after year in front of the thrustings of the water, while on another part it was the water that retreated. Sometimes strange thoughts would come to my mind. Seeing the bank contracting at one place and expanding at another, I would think that such was life: with a hand it gives, with the other it takes. Perhaps, though, it was later that I realized this. In any case I now realize this maxim, but with my mind only, for the muscles under my skin are supple and compliant and my heart is optimistic. I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand. I looked at the river — its waters had begun to take on a cloudy look with the alluvial mud brought down by the rains that must have poured in torrents on the hills of Ethiopia — and at the men with their bodies leaning against the ploughs or bent over their hoes, and my eyes take in fields flat as the palm of a hand, right up to the edge of the desert where the houses stand. I hear a bird sing or a dog bark or the sound of an axe on wood-and I feel a sense of stability, I feel that I am important, that I am continuous and integral. No, I am not a stone thrown into the water but seed sown in a field. I go to my grandfather and he talks to me of life forty years ago, fifty years ago, even eighty, and my feeling of security is strengthened. I loved my grandfather and it seems that he was fond of me. Perhaps one of the reasons for my friendship with him was that ever since I was small stories of the past used to intrigue me, and my grandfather loved to reminisce. Whenever I went away I was afraid he would die in my absence. When overcome by yearning for my family I would see him in my dreams; I told him this and he laughed and said, "When I was a young man a fortune-teller told me that if I were to pass the age when the Prophet died — that's to say sixty — I'd reach a hundred." We worked out his age, he and I, and found he had about twelve more years to go.

My grandfather was talking to me of a tyrant who had ruled over the district in the days of the Turks. I do not know what it was that brought Mustafa to mind but suddenly I remembered him and said to myself that I'd ask my grandfather about him, for he was very knowledgeable about the genealogy of everyone in the village and even of people scattered up and down the river. But my grandfather shook his head and said that he knew nothing about him except that he was from the vicinity of Khartoum and that about five years ago he had come to the village and had bought some land. All of the inheritors of this land had, with the exception of one woman, gone away. The man had therefore tempted her with money and bought it from her. Then, four years ago, Mahmoud had given him one of his daughters in marriage.

"Which daughter?" I asked my grandfather.

"I think it was Hosna," he said. Then he shook his head and said, "That tribe doesn't mind to whom they marry their daughters." However, he added, as though by way of apology, that Mustafa during his whole stay in the village had never done anything which could cause offence, that he regularly attended the mosque for Friday prayers, and that he was "always ready to give of his labour and his means in glad times and sad"-this was the way in which my grandfather expressed himself.

Two days later I was on my own reading in the early afternoon. My mother and sister were noisily chattering with some other women in the farthest part of the house, my father was asleep, and my brothers had gone out on some errand or other. I was therefore alone when I heard a faint cough coming from outside the house and on getting up I found it was Mustafa carrying a large water melon and a basketful of oranges. Perhaps he saw the surprise on my face.

"I hope I didn't wake you," he said. "I just thought I'd bring some of the first fruit from my field for you to try. I'd also like to get to know you. Noon is not the time for calling — forgive me."

His excessive politeness was not lost on me, for the people of our village do not trouble themselves with expressions of courtesy — they enter upon a subject at one fell swoop, visit you at noon or evening, and don't trouble to apologize. I reciprocated his expressions of friendship, then tea was brought.

I scrutinized his face as he sat with bowed head. He was without doubt a handsome man, his forehead broad and generous, his eyebrows set well apart and forming crescent-moons above his eyes; his head with its thick greying hair was in perfect proportion to his neck and shoulders, while his nose was sharply-pointed but with hair sprouting from the nostrils. When he raised his face during the conversation and I looked at his mouth and eyes, I was aware of a strange combination of strength and weakness. His mouth was loose and his sleepy eyes gave his face a look more of beauty than of handsomeness. Though he spoke quietly his voice was clear and incisive. When his face was at rest it gained in strength; when he laughed weakness predominated. On looking at his arms I saw that they were strong, with prominent veins; his fingers none the less were long and elegant, and when one's glance reached them, after taking in his arms and hands, there was the sensation of having all of a sudden descended from a mountain into a valley.

I decided to let him speak, for he had not come at such a time of intense heat unless he had something important to say to me. Perhaps, on the other hand, he had been prompted to come out of pure goodwill. However, he cut across my conjectures by saying, "You're most likely the only person in the village I haven't already had the good fortune of getting to know." Why doesn't he discard this formal politeness, being as we are in a village where the men when roused to anger address one another as "You son of a bitch"?

"I have heard a lot about you from your family and friends."

No wonder, for I used to regard myself as the outstanding young man in the village.

"They said you gained a high certificate-what do you call it? A doctorate?" What do you call it? he says to me. This did not please me for I had reckoned that the ten million inhabitants of the country had all heard of my achievement. "They say you were remarkable from childhood."

"Not at all." Though I spoke thus, I had in those days, if the truth be told, a rather high opinion of myself.

"A doctorate — that's really something."

Putting on an act of humility, I told him that the matter entailed no more than spending three years delving into the life of an obscure English poet.

I was furious — I won't disguise the fact from you — when the man laughed unashamedly and said: "We have no need of poetry here. It would have been better if you'd studied agriculture, engineering or medicine." Look at the way he says "we" and does not include me, though he knows that this is my village and that it is he — not I — who is the stranger.

However, he smiled gently at me and I noticed how the weakness in his face prevailed over the strength and how his eyes really contained a feminine beauty.

"But we're farmers and think only of what concerns us," he said with a smile. "Knowledge, though, of whatsoever kind is necessary for the advancement of our country."

I was silent for a while as numerous questions crowded into my head: Where was he from? Why had he settled in this village? What was he about? However, I preferred to bide my time.

He came to my aid and said: "Life in this village is simple and gracious. The people are good and easy to get along with."

"They speak highly of you," I said to him. "My grandfather says you're a most excellent person."

At this he laughed, perhaps because he remembered some encounter he had had with my grandfather, and he appeared pleased at what I had said. "Your grandfather-there's a man for you," he said. "There's a man — ninety years of age, erect, keen of eye and without a tooth missing in his head. He jumps nimbly on to his donkey, walks from his house to the mosque at dawn. Ah, there's a man for you." He was sincere in what he said-and why not, seeing that my grandfather is a veritable miracle?

I feared that the man would slip away before I had found out anything about him — my curiosity reached such a pitch — and, without thinking, the question came to my tongue: "Is it true you're from Khartoum?"

The man was slightly taken aback and I had the impression that a shadow of displeasure showed between his eyes. Nevertheless he quickly and skilfully regained his composure. "From the outskirts of Khartoum in actual fact," he said to me with a forced smile. "Call it Khartoum."

He was silent for a brief instant as though debating with himself whether he should keep quiet or say any more to me. Then I saw the mocking phantom of a smile hovering round his eyes exactly as I had seen it the first day.

"I was in business in Khartoum," he said, looking me straight in the face. "Then for a number of reasons, I decided to change over to agriculture. All my life I've longed to settle down in this part of the country, for some unknown reason. I took the boat not knowing where I was bound for. When it put in at this village, I liked the look of it. Something inside me told me that this was the place. And so, as you see, that's how it was. I was not disappointed either in the village or its people." After a silence he got up, saying that he was off to the fields, and invited me to dinner at his house two days later.

"Your grandfather knows the secret," he said to me with that mocking phantom still more in evidence round his eyes, as I escorted him to the door and he took his leave of me.

He did not, though, give me the chance of asking: "What secret does my grandfather know? My grandfather has no secrets." He went off with brisk, energetic step, his head inclined slightly to the left.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tayeb Salih