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Returning to My People: Reading Tayeb Salih in the Suburbs

1.
It was in 2002, while an undergraduate at James Madison University, one of many colleges nestled among the villes and burgs of southern Virginia, that I first discovered the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. I still have the same copy of his novel, Season of Migration to the North, I purchased from the university bookstore for a world literature course: a burnt-orange Heinemann paperback edition, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. On the front cover: the visage of a woman, carved as if from stone, a sun beating like a heart below her throat. On the back, a giant bookstore barcode, above which are the words SALIH USED.

What struck me most then, and still does, was the author photograph. It’s a face that reminds me of my father. Both men have the same tight curls of black hair, the same broad noses, the same drooping earlobes. They both wear the same ill-fitting shirt collars, they both wince when they smile, as if hesitant to display happiness. The first time I saw that face, I remember feeling rent by coincidence, by history. There’s me: the first-generation Sudanese immigrant, my genes muddled with those of an American-born mother, barely cognizant of the details of his cultural history. Then there’s my father: now 74, a journalist born in a small Nile village two hours outside of Khartoum. And, between us, there was now Tayeb Salih: the Sudanese novelist whose only relation to us was that same five-letter surname, with the same vowel sandwiched like a tiny person between the “l” and the “h.”

I’ve picked up Season of Migration to the North four times in the 15 years since I discovered it; or, rather, since it was thrust upon me by a professor. The first reading was an academic one, in conjunction with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to which Salih’s novel reads like a direct response, a way for the colonized to seize the narrative from the colonizer and hand it back, pretzel-twisted into something strange and unique. The second reading, in 2007, was prompted by a piece I wrote on overlooked books for the Baltimore City Paper titled “Sexing Up Colonialism: Tayeb Salih’s Novel Plows a Different Organ into Darkness’ Heart.” The third reading, seven years after that, was for no reason other than curiosity at seeing the book’s yellowing spine while rearranging my bookshelves.

Finally, last month, I opened Season of Migration to the North once again, this time in the company of my father and several other Sudanese immigrants. It was this reading, and the discussion that followed, which gave new meaning, new weight, to the novel’s magnificent opening line, one that captured me from the first time I read it: “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.”

2.
In the same finished basement in the northern Virginia home where I spent so much of my childhood—playing eight-bit video games at sleepovers, sneaking down to watch soft-core cable porn, sitting at an electric typewriter and writing absurdist stories about my classmates—my father now hosts monthly book club meetings with his Sudanese friends. For several hours, the group of four or five men—journalists, professors—drink tea and coffee, eat cookies and crudité, and talk. The books they discuss are usually political, usually esoteric, always about Sudan, and always read (and discussed) in Arabic.

One day, I asked my father why he and his friends never read and discussed novels. He didn’t have an answer for me, so instead he posed a challenge: Find a novel, in English, about Sudan, and we’ll read it. And you can join us for the discussion.

Even after decades of voracious reading, my knowledge of Arab literature, like my ability to read and speak the language, is pathetic at best. Everything I know about Arab literature I learned (in translation) from comparative lit classes, where I was first introduced to works like Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habiby’s surreal The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, and Edward Said and Jean Mohr’s photo essays, After the Last Sky. But of all these books, it was Season of Migration to the North to which I felt most compelled to return, yet again, like the novel’s nameless narrator who keeps returning, from his adult life in Khartoum, to the village of his childhood. The chance to read this novel outside academia, among the men who actually lived it, who were very much Salih’s contemporaries and who shared the same lives and experiences as the fictional Sudanese villagers who imbue this short novel with so much human force and vitality, was too potent to pass up.

It was also, I confess, a blatant effort to come even closer to my own heritage—or as close as I could manage after so many years as a young kid outright rejecting it. Like most mixed-raced children, I was raised in a manner that, for all its inclusiveness, was nevertheless confusing. I never knew to which camp, which tribe, I belonged. Yet I drew my battle lines right from the start, opting to shrug aside as much of my Sudanese self as I could: the Arabic lessons I never took to heart; the Ramadan fasts I always broke during lunch at school; the Sunday visits to the community mosque through which I’d sit and suffer and wait for snack time; the circumcision of my birth name, Zaki, for the more pronounceable, more Americanized “Zak.” Only in college and graduate school, when I came out of the closet and joined another tribe, did I begin to appreciate, to respect, the personal history I’d ignored for so long.

Suggesting Tayeb Salih’s novel, joining the late-May book club meeting, sharing my thoughts on the novel not with lit majors and newsweekly readers but with my Sudanese elders—all of this, I suspect, was an attempt to redeem myself, in some small way, from decades of personal neglect and ignorance.

3.
Published in 1966 and translated into English three years later, Season of Migration to the North begins with a return: that of the nameless narrator to Wad Hamid, the Sudanese village of his birth, after years of study in Europe. There, he encounters the mysterious, Kurtz-like character of Mustafa Sa’eed—himself returned from years abroad in Europe, albeit under more sinister circumstances. Sa’eed shares the story of his life in 1920s London as a scholar of English literature and a rampant womanizer who feeds off the cultural fetishes of London women. These lovers, invariably, end up destroying themselves. Two of the women commit suicide; the third, Jean Morris, is murdered by Sa’eed in a scene that recalls William Shakespeare’s Othello (or, just as well, the icepick murders in Basic Instinct).

A testament to one’s maturity is being able to discuss such frank sexual matters in the company of one’s father and his friends. But there’s no way to sidestep the issue; Season of Migration to the North is suffused with psychosexual themes. As Sa’eed suggests, his reckless relationships are revenge for the infractions of European colonialism, and throughout the novel you find the common colonial trope of land as a fertile woman waiting to be seeded. In many ways, Sa’eed’s adventures in London fulfill the anxieties one finds in late 18th-century works inspired by the fear of reverse colonialism: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to name but two. Consider one of the novel’s most chilling lines, spoken by Sa’eed: “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis.”

After serving a prison sentence in England, Sa’eed returns to Wad Hamid, remarries, and lives a traditional life. Soon after sharing his story with the narrator, however, Sa’eed disappears (it’s implied he drowns himself in the Nile). The narrator is left with the terrible knowledge of the poisonous relationships between men and women, between East and West (or, in this case, south and north), between colonizer and colonized, between tradition and modernity. The narrator—like my father, like his friends, like myself—is torn between a life in the West and the traditions of his village.

Then there’s the troubling legacy of colonialism. As a college student dabbling in cultural relativism, I would shudder to hear my father speak about how grateful he felt toward British colonialism: to the river steamers, to the railways, to the British educational system. I thought he was insane. And yet, it was this very system that allowed my father to go to college, to study abroad in America, to create for himself his own destiny outside the doum trees and mud-and-brick huts of his village.

A reading of Season of Migration to the North disrupts this idea, however much truth there is to it. Addressing the court during his trial for the murder of Jean Morris, Sa’eed says:
The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history.
4.
There were four of us in the basement that Saturday afternoon, sitting at polite distances from one another on the curving sofa, sipping pitch-black coffee from tiny cups and saucers, holding our respective copies of the novel (a handsome reprint by NYRB Classics, a floppy paperback in Arabic, my own well-worn Heinemann edition). The conversation was decorous, respectful. In the presence of my elders I felt quieter than usual; I felt like the narrator does when listening to the conversations between his grandfather and other villagers, among them the hyper-sexed Wad Rayyes and the uninhibited Bint Majzoub. I felt like an eavesdropper or worse, a tourist, obliging these men to speak in English instead of Arabic.

At one point, a small argument sprang up between two of my father’s friends over the politics not of Salih’s novel but of his life. Mr. Shuaib, born in Darfur, toothpick-slim and militant in a snug green jacket, insisted at great length that we not forget the author’s faint praise of Sudan’s military regime and that this colored one’s reading of the novel. Mr. Babiker, born in a Khartoum suburb, relaxed in cargo shorts and t-shirt, decried such a political reading, insisting we should enjoy Season of Migration to the North on the merits of its language as opposed to its politics. I debated lobbing some hefty rock of literary theory into the conversation, the “death of the author,” perhaps. Instead, I just listened as the two men argued over whether or not Salih’s work for Gulf-state rulers somehow discredited his literary ideas about the world being big enough for everyone.

Then there was my father, who reminded me of Tayeb Salih in looks and, more importantly, in the trajectory of his life from Sudanese village to Western metropolis. This is where I learned my father had met the author twice. The first meeting was in the late 1960s, while my father was a journalist in Khartoum working for the newspaper al-Sahafa. He managed to squeeze in a few minutes of conversation with Salih, who was there being interviewed by the paper’s books editor. My father’s questions, he told us, were anything but literary. Was it true the London buses ran on time, and that Londoners could set their watch according to the bus schedule? Was it true the British had stiff upper lips? (Of course, as he put it, my father shied away from the real questions he wanted to ask: What were white Western women like? Did Mr. Salih really know women like Mrs. Robinson? Did he sleep with women like Isabella Seymour, like Ann Hammond, like Jean Morris?)

In the early 2000s, my father met Tayeb Salih for the second and last time. Over the intervening decades, my father had followed in the author’s footsteps somewhat, traveling to America on a loan from the government to study political science and journalism at Indiana University (where he finally met, and married, a white Western woman, my mother), opting to stay in the U.S. instead of going back to Sudan, working as a Washington correspondent for Arab newspapers and newsmagazines. During this second meeting, my father was less concerned about the West and more concerned with the East, with questions about what it meant to be a Muslim, about the anxiety of return.

Midway through the conversation, a fourth person came down into the basement: a young professional, American-born, in his early 30s, named Mr. Elrayah. When prompted to share his thoughts, Mr. Elrayah spoke of how the novel evoked the experiences he’d had every summer as a young boy during his visits to Sudan, how Salih’s novel suggested the courtyards, the palm trees, the raucous and ribald conversations in his village of El-Kadarou. I sat there, watching him speak, thinking how far removed even this experience was from my own. I’d only been to Sudan twice in my life. The first time was in 1989, when I was seven years old and too young to remember anything but the vaguest sensations of interminable air travel. The second was a decade later; I was 17 and in a state of contemptuous despair at being forced to come to Khartoum, this strange land that was so far removed from the comforts of my unassuming suburban life. (I remember with shame how I bawled when we’d missed our first return flight back to the U.S., terrified I’d be trapped in my father’s village for the rest of my life.)

Everyone else in this room had palpable connections with their Sudanese histories. And what did I have? After all the years of neglect and disinterest in my Sudanese heritage, all I had was this slim paperback novel I kept rolling and unrolling in my hands. I put on a good face and, when it was my turn to speak, gave my usual undergraduate talking points on post-colonial literature, on the anxieties of reverse colonization. Underneath, however, I felt like more of an outcast than I ever had. I felt distraught, displaced. I felt, appropriately enough, like the novel’s narrator, who finds himself caught in the middle of the Nile:
half-way between north and south. I was unable to continue, unable to return. I turned over onto my back and stayed there motionless, with difficulty moving my arms and legs as much as was needed to keep me afloat.
5.
Season of Migration to the North ends with the narrator’s weak suicide attempt in the Nile, a cri de couer that’s also a cry for help. In all my years of reading, it remains one of the most palpable, affecting endings to a novel I’ve yet encountered.
Then my mind cleared and my relationship to the river was determined. Though floating on the water, I was not part of it. I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born—without any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning. I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water. Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!”
The tenuousness, the tension of the narrator trapped in the middle of the Nile—Will there be anyone to help save him from drowning? How much longer can he stay afloat, stay alive, on his own?—is what makes it so arresting, so haunting.

In the weeks since my father’s book club meeting, I’ve reread, once again, Season of Migration to the North—as well as Salih’s collection of short stories on village life, The Wedding of Zein. Taken together, they’re a portrait of a world and a time that I’ll only ever know through literature and through the shared experiences and stories of my father and his contemporaries. I suppose it was enough for me to connect with others, for a few brief hours, over what these pages mean, why I keep returning to them after all these years.

This is what we mean when we talk about the consolation, the community, literature provides. Season of Migration to the North is a 169-page umbilical cord connecting me not just to my Sudanese side but, in a more direct manner, to my 74-year-old father who has managed to survive—and thrive—suspended between two worlds. It’s his suspension, this thrilling existential high-wire act, which inspires my own.

It’s also a suspension that, as it does for the novel’s narrator, requires outside assistance. Just a few days ago, working on this piece, I had a few questions. So I called the only person I could think of. The phone rang twice, then the familiar voice, rich with age and experience, said hello.

“Dad,” I said, “I need your help.”

On Reading Aloud

1.
Like many of you reading this magazine, I view work primarily as a distraction from reading.

In this, I consider myself relatively lucky; as a teacher, much of my work consists of reading, and although this reading – papers mostly, with some student fiction mixed in – isn’t always what I’d choose to read in my spare time, it’s a whole lot better than being asked to evaluate something dry and bureaucratic: manuals for outdated AV equipment, maybe, or a prospectus on public health.

In fact, I’m doubly lucky, because once a week my job shifts from the classroom to the nearby library archives, where I work in data entry, processing very old books. I’m not lucky because of the work itself, per se, which is rote; after nine hours (minus lunch) of scanning bar codes and typing in author, title, and publication history my brain feels both mechanical and somewhat foggy: a kind of drunken robot. I’m lucky because the rote nature of the work allows me to listen to books on tape.

I say allows, but I could just as easily say requires, since without the distraction these books provide I might be unable to finish my tasks at all.

(Here is where I will refrain from speaking at length of the distant sadness contained in a stack of micro-run poetry chapbooks from the 1970s: the men with mutton chops in quilted jackets, seated on the hood of a rusty car, and who thank said car in the acknowledgments; the practicing nuns with highly sexual poems regarding Jesus and the potency of wayward bulls.)

At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie. By shifting the locus of linguistic labor onto the reader’s voice, the listener receives the vision of the story directly. I can think of nothing closer to the model of what John Gardner called “a vivid and continuous dream.” Your mind can wander, while you work. You type in this world. You live in another.

2.
I know I shouldn’t use the term “book on tape.” It’s doubly anachronistic; tapes have long since been replaced by CDs, and CDs, in turn, by the seeming purity of a digital file, recorded in a studio somewhere and then uploaded to a central database where a listener can access it when needed: in the cold, dry basement of library storage, pressed up against a cinderblock wall, ears wrapped up in cushy, noise-canceling headphones.

But I can’t help holding on to the term. It reminds me of physical history, of which I was once a part. At twenty-nine, I’m just old enough to remember the time when, entering the public library in the small city of Bridgeton – a slowly dwindling farm-supply and lumber outpost in rural South Jersey – my mother and I would be confronted by a wide, tall shelf labelled “Books on Tape,” which, unlike the library’s books, were limited to one rental at a time. They were big, bulky plastic packages, much thicker than video boxes, sometimes containing up to eight tapes, and, if the book was especially long, composed of two packages, held together at the spine.

I don’t know who their target audience was, other than bookish ten-year-olds like myself, who enjoyed the experience of being read to, but I like to imagine it spanned all class and age brackets; a soybean farmer listening to Raymond Chandler while piloting his combine through an autumn field, or an aging tax attorney listening to Dickens while picking his kids up from some springtime soccer game.

I used the tapes primarily to fall asleep. As a small child I was terrified of the dark, and although for various reasons (divorce, other distractions) my parents had given up reading to me, a voice in the night remained a source of comfort. On a bad night – or if the book was especially riveting – I’d stay awake for the whole story, as I once did for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

(A giant howling dog, its snout outlined in phosphorus – not highly recommended as a nightmare cure.)

On a good night I was asleep before the warning came – end of side one – and the tape shuttled to a stop.

Thus I have an imperfect recollection of much of the most popular authors offered by my small-town public library: Dickens, Poe, Austen. Some chains, a raven, several weddings of dubious provenance.

I also came to the terrible misconception – misled, I think, by the subtitle Read by the Author, which I came to believe was common to every package – that the person reading was invariably the person who’d written the book: a mistake I blame for my wicked tendency to conflate author and narrator, Holden and Salinger, Wormwood and C.S. Lewis.

In those days I had very vivid dreams. I assume everyone’s dreams are more vivid in childhood – but I sometimes wonder, flattering myself shamelessly, if mine weren’t more vivid than most, falling asleep with someone else’s world playing into my ear.

3.
Nowadays I face a problem: how to get access to books-on-tape, down in the archives? The library basement has no tape or CD player, and the computer I use is old and slow. Moreover, I don’t want to spend any money; paying for distractions in order to accomplish paid labor seems a little outrageous to me, or maybe it’s the fault of Bridgeton Public Library, for hooking me on the concept of free media, years ahead of the curve.

It makes sense that books-on-tape would be expensive. There’s the matter of copyright, and then there’s the matter of finding an actor to read for long stretches at a time. As any listener knows, the reader matters; I’ll never forget the aesthetic experience of hearing Basil Rathbone read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s already purple prose brought to the maximum pitch of ridiculousness, or the nearly unpronouncable vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft, forced through the gravelly larynx of underappreciated voice actor Wayne June.

It’s hard work to talk for an entire day.

Such actors add a level of subtlety and clarity to the experience – but are they necessary? When I think of the books-on-tape from my childhood, it isn’t the professional sheen I remember, but the sense of intimacy, of one voice speaking directly to the listener. Listening to a book-on-tape is always, in some sense, nostalgic; one remembers the primal experience of being read to as a child – and most of us weren’t lucky enough to have trained actors as parents.

Which is why I’ve become so enamored with the website Librivox, which bills itself, tongue-twistingly, as the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” Essentially, it’s a database of books that are out of copyright, read by volunteers, and available for free.

Amateurism is part of the purpose here, but it has its drawbacks. Speaking charitably, one has to admit that the readers vary widely in their performance styles; as their website puts it, “[w]e’ll accept you no matter what you sound like.” The breadth of titles is fairly impressive, however, and not all that different from the stuff I once found in the library: classics, mostly, with a few odd treasures thrown in: Japanese ghost stories, sea-faring yarns, early pulp sci-fi.

Most impressive, however, is the amount of reading labor these people are willing to volunteer for free. Several weeks ago I spent my entire workday listening to a recording of Heart of Darkness made by Kristin LeMoine, a mother of two who has somehow found the time to record nearly a hundred full-length audiobooks, including works by H.G. Wells, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott, and whose pleasant, straightforward, and clear reading style helped cool down some of Conrad’s more overheated descriptions. I’d trust her with Ivanhoe, if I ever have the time to listen to the whole thing.

How can I adequately thank Kristin LeMoine for her work? I suppose a short note on the LibriVox forums might do, but it couldn’t do justice to the odd intimacy of living with a stranger’s voice for the entirety of a working day, hearing the pops of their home microphone and the sudden sharp edits that show when they got up to go to the bathroom, or to feed their children.

4.
So what makes a good reader? My youthful confusions aside, having written a book doesn’t always make you a good candidate for reading one, as evidenced by the poor performance of many of the authors featured in “X reads Y” podcasts. Perhaps this should be self-evidence from experience with fiction readings. Most writers overvalue the work of words on the page, and undervalue the excitement of rhythm and cadence. Or maybe they’re simply shy.

(Though this disillusionment doesn’t stop me from conjuring up writer/reader combinations made impossible by time and language: Woolf/Proust, Williams/Stein, and – my personal favorite – Beckett reading Flann O’Brien’s absurdist masterpiece The Third Policeman with the same lilting familiarity he brought to his own work.)

I suppose I have high standards for reading aloud. My father, once an aspiring actor, was an eager reader when it came to children’s books: a parent who could “do the voices,” as the kids like to say. I still remember sitting in our living room, watching the sun setting over the marshland in the window behind his head, while he read to us from Brian Jacques’s Redwall:

“The high, warm sun shone down on Cluny the Scourge. Cluny was coming!”

He intoned the second sentence, which repeated later in the chapter, like an ominous refrain, in a voice I remember as a basso profondo.

(Actually, my father is a baritone. These things deepen over time.)

Not all the readers at Librivox live up to this lofty example. Some recordings are ruined by a reader’s mumbling, others have poor fidelity, and others are simply ill-suited to the material; after all, everyone has their own preference when it comes to accents. Kristin Lemoine aside (who is, as far as I can tell, an American), I prefer the English and Irish readers. Maybe it’s simple exoticism, but I prefer the rolling cadence of the UK to the flat affect of the U.S. readership, especially when the work itself is English or Irish in origin.

And yet – part of the beauty of a site like Librivox is the sense of personal attachment evident in all these volunteers, professionalism be damned, and sometimes a less traditional voice lends an extra dimension to a story. Certainly gender is not an obstacle to good interpretation; if anything, women reading men (and vice versa) can adds depth to an episode, as when the aforementioned Kristin LeMoine narrates Marlowe’s visit to Kurtz’s former fiancee at the end of Heart of Darkness – a man might have succumbed to the temptation to turn the fiancee into a fool, but LeMoine renders her sympathetically, which only makes the tragic irony more painful.

Some of my most satisfying Librivox experiences have been episodes of productive disjunction; I have heard no greater depth of feeling than in the voice of Southern woman reading Thomas Hardy, and this reminds me of the original potential of books to bring you other states of mind, and to make connections.

I myself am not a Victorian Englishman, yet I feel a deep attachment to Hardy’s Wessex and its language. Why should I be so hypocritical, then, as to expect his words in an English accent?

5.
Perhaps I’m too attached to reading aloud: to both being read to and reading to others. It’s an iron rule in my marriage, for instance, that I am not allowed to read passages in the book I’m currently devouring out loud to my wife, especially when she is in the middle of a book of her own. There is something mean-spirited and arrogant about the impulse to continually narrate. One can’t simply stand in the middle of a train platform, reciting Whitman in a basso profondo, without risking a police escort. There must be limits.

That being said, there are precious few opportunities in life to read and be read to, and there is something utopian to me about the creation of a site like Librivox, which – unlike Goodreads, which is slowly but surely evolving into yet another marketing arm of Amazon – operates solely on people’s inexhaustible appetite for reading and listening. It seems like a triumph of the old conception of the internet, which promised you access to thousands of other people who were willing to share their dreams and passions with total strangers: a conception which is increasingly being crowded out by more market-driven forces.

It is hard to explain, now that the internet has effectively annexed small towns such as the one in which I grew up, how important it was to me to go every week to the public library and pull those bulky plastic cases off of the shelves, one at a time, to take home. When I imagine the other people who walked through its Neoclassical facade and lingered a while at the same shelf, I can’t help but overlay my own experience onto them, and imagine they also used them a sort of portal into alternate lives: riding a steamboat down an African river as they ferried their children to basketball practice, or fretting over the foolish marriages of aristocratic Englishwomen as they double-checked the finances of their farm.

Time marches on, and there’s no use being nostalgic about old media. If I still lived near Bridgeton, I could get all the free audiobooks I wanted; the local library now provides free downloads to those who hold a library card.

But I am more interested in the way sites like Librivox have flipped the script on our conception of the audiobook; it has made us actors, once again. It used to be we went to library to hear stars of stage and screen intone the classics. It’s a delightfully democratic development that now, when we get a day off from work, we can settle down in front of our computers with a glass of water, turn on our microphones, and return the favor.

Image via Flickr/Jamie Pfister.

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