In July of 2013, The Economist magazine compiled multi-faceted profiles of “The Arab Spring” amidst a government coup in Egypt and ongoing civil war in Syria. This analysis by top Western journalists shed some light on the conflict’s source, yet lacked overall comprehension of the Middle East’s post-colonial social dynamic. In contrast, Seasons of Migration to the North (1966) by Arab literary icon Tayeb Salih deftly elucidates the underlying social forces propelling the Arab Spring conflict.
Salih’s eloquent and symbolic novella is set in a Northern Sudan village, very similar to Karmakol where the author was born in 1929. This symbolic village is like all “Arab Spring” countries where conflict bubbles: post-colonial entities in a state of exile between progressive/modern desires and traditional/fundamentalist mores. To cut his cloth, Salih tells a story that is a satirical inversion of Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness. Instead of a European explorer heading upriver into the pure evil of a tribal society (“the horror” of Conrad), a villager named Mustafa Sa’eed is lured out of Northern Sudan to the “civilized” white-European world (an equal horror). Mustafa experiences a strange and powerful force after his Western exposure, a “progressive” disease that infects the story’s narrator, Wad Hamid, along with others in his village.
As a young man, Mustafa Sa’eed, benefits from the interest of a British expat couple living in Cairo, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, who adopt Mustafa so that he can extend his schooling beyond the primary level. Even though Mustafa is a stellar student, he can only develop and advance in a European dominated hierarchy with the aid of the Robinson’s money (guilt-charity of his colonial exploiters). This strongly parallels Western intervention in the Middle East where only through significant military and developmental aid can Arabs grow within flawed nation-state structures carved by Western powers (Sikes-Picot Agreement post-WWI).
On a train to Cairo, Mustafa’s first exposure outside of village life, a Westernized priest advises Sa’eed, “All of us, my son, are in the last resort traveling alone.” This pure individualism is exactly opposite of village communalism, the only mindset Mustafa has ever known. He comes from one of the smaller groups held together by ethnicity, religion, economics and/or tradition, a decentralized structure where individual “progress” through a democratized hierarchy is an oddity.
Western norms like familiarity with women, emphasis on “having fun,” and social striving through education all overwhelm Mustafa. He adopts to survive and soon becomes “infected” by the West. He is now cognizant of his inbred village morality where the tribal elders rule and women’s sexuality and growth are severely limited by economics and orthodox religion.
Mrs. Robinson represents the first liberal, politically correct, woman who exerts a guilt-lust upon Mustafa. She pulls Mustafa to her breast in a hug during their first meeting, a shocking gesture to a village adolescent. This guilt-lust continues in London, as Mustafa transforms to sexually exploit Sheila Greenwood, Isabella Seymour, and Jean Morris, while simultaneously building fame as an academic and wordsmith. His economic theories “based on love, not figures” (the village glue) inspire his guilt-ridden Western audience. Subconsciously, Mustafa’s lovers seek death/escape from the hypocrisy of their own culture: they all end up being killed by Sa’eed in one form or another, like the bodies of savages strewn across the riverbanks in Heart of Darkness. This trail of dead lovers symbolizes delusional Western powers (particularly the United States) who constantly try to be on the “right” side of command conflicts in post-colonial societies (Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Egypt) where no right side exists, where dictators, pseudo-democracies, or royal families fight to maintain flawed nation state structures from decentralizing forces like Al-Qaeda.
The simple tale of Mustafa Sa’eed’s “infection” all adds up to a fabulous perspective of Western cultural underpinnings. Eventually, Sa’eed cannot fully engage the European system. A natural progression of his Western education would be appointment as a government bureaucrat, where he could feast materially (money and wives) upon other villagers, yet Mustafa rejects this and returns to his home. He marries traditionally and tries to plug back into village life, but it does not work. He is tainted by Western culture and, like the geopolitically manufactured countries of the Middle East, cannot reconcile the conflicting forces within one body.
Mustafa, his village, and the Middle East are left in exile between systems—part traditional, part “progressive”—no longer sustained by the past, and not yet incorporated into a viable future.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst 20th Century India’s cultural revolution.