The 20th century witnessed the lives of great novelists who left imprints on international literature; such as heavyweights Paulo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz and even Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway.
There’s no doubt that Chinua Achebe and AlTayeb Salih are of no less importance or significance than those mentioned above. They’re two of the most prominent writers who did not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite their popularity and the placement of AlTayeb Salih’s novel into the 100 best Arabic novels of the 20th century list. The same applies to Achebe; whose novel was placed among the best 100 English novels written in the 20th century.
If we tried to deal with each separately, we’ll find that Achebe (Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) is the first African novelist to write in English. Not only that, but his writings are of the most fascinating that were written in the language. Achebe gained popularity through his novel “Things Fall Apart” which has been translated to over 50 languages. AlTayeb Salih, however, known as “the Arabic novel’s genius” gained recognition through his masterpiece “Season of Migration to The North” which was also, naturally, translated into many languages. Salih’s writings characteristically discuss socio-political issues at different time periods and the relationship between civilisations.
My journey with the writers
When I first read AlTayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North”, I was fascinated. The first impression I had was of the linkage of the entire Sudan, which was missing in a lot of books – especially those penned by North Sudanese writers. Mustafa Saeed was from the North and the South; his mother a southerner while his father was from the north. That and how some of the characters were from different regions of Sudan is what made me exclaim “My God, this author knows about the South!” To be honest, at that time I had not read anything by Salih but since then I looked for the rest of his works. I read “The Wedding of Zein”, “Maryoud” and “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid”; a collection of his short stories amongst which were “The Cypriot Man” and “A Letter to Eileen” which I’ve read more than 30 times. By then I’d Known that AlTayeb Salih was an avid writer who’d known exactly what to do.
As for Achebe, a friend of mine had told me about his novel “Things Fall Apart” and got me really excited to read it sometime in 2013. I went to Juba market two days after, bought the book and started to read insatiably. By the time I finished it, I was determined to search for more of his books, despite how Okonkwo’s death saddened me. Then I read his short story “Dead Men’s Path” and all the other works and came up with the conclusion that this writer had begun to establish something new in the African – and Nigerian particularly – novel, just like AlTayeb Salih.
The writings of Post-Colonialism
What prompted me write about these two literary icons is what they represented in the global, African & Arab post-colonial literature.
Of the first authors to look into the concepts of post-colonialism are Edward Said, Gayatri C. Spivak and Homi K.Bhabha, and all three of them are not Westerners. They have lived in the United States and worked on analyzing the effects left by colonialism on the colonized nations. The book “Orientalism” – by Said – is considered the beginning of the history of post-colonialism, where he analyzed the ways by which the West (colonizer) had entered the east and its one-sided vision for the conquered land. He also used the West’s methods to expose them; especially what the Orientalists had been doing by claiming to study and attempt to comprehend the east, all the while controlling it, or “cocooning the East.” Said’s writings took into account the glossary of Orientalism, the Orientalist and his work, but also the concept behind the presence of a field of study based on a geographical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic unit named the East. There is no doubt that such fields of study don’t independently exist but are created, then integrated with the passage of time because the researchers assert themselves in various ways 1. From then on, the West has envisioned the east according to the plans, drawn with the help of the Orientalists who put the East in the final and ready-made templates.
I will not pick all the works of AlTayeb Salih or Chinua Achebe but only “Things Fall Apart” and “Dead Men’s Trail” by Achebe, and “Season of Migration to the North” and “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” by Salih.
Perhaps the stories “Dead Men’s Path” and “The Doum Treeof Wad Hamid” are considered masterpieces of African literature, whether written in English or Arabic. The distinction between what is an Arab and African becomes too troublesome, however, when dealing with the writings of AlTayeb Salih.
Dead Men’s Path
Achebe’s short story was first published in 1953 and is considered one of the masterpieces of African literature.
The plot of the story is that a young, open-minded teacher, saturated with the values of Western education came to the village to fix education there with his wife Nancy. Michael Obi wanted to apply what he has learned in school and to fight against habits that he deemed harmful and backward. One day Obi saw an old woman cross the school yard to the other side of the village because the road linked the two sides of the village and the school. The principle was agitated and decided to close the pathway.
Two days after closing the pathway, the priest of the village came to him and said “look, son, this pathway has existed before you were born, and before your father was born. The village life depends entirely on this road. Our deceased relatives leave through it, and our ancestors visit us through it, but more importantly, it is the road through which the newly born children arrive.” But Obi had a different opinion so he replied, “the main objective of the presence of our school is to uproot these beliefs from our minds. The dead do not need a walkway on the ground; the whole idea is a myth. Our mission here is to teach children to laugh at such ideas.”2
One day, Michael Obi woke up and found the whole wall destroyed because the villagers were mad at him, especially after the death of a woman in childbirth. The soothsayer also explained that the ancestors were offended by the closure of their path. Then came the white inspector whom Obi was intending to impress, but unfortunately when he came he found chaos at the school, and his report on Obi was a bad description of what happened between the school and the village. Thus the young man’s career as a principle ended.
What Achebe discussed in this interesting story is the relationship between African beliefs and modern education. There is a widespread belief so far in various parts of the continent that the ancestors communicate with the living, and that the spirits of the new born come from the ancestors, so they must maintain this association. In contrast, supporters of education believe that these are just myths that must be fought and refuted.
The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid
In the story of “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid”, AlTayeb Salih discussed the injustice which has fallen upon the ordinary citizens by the system. Mystical Sufi tendencies also appeared in the story especially the ability of the Doum palm to heal and its appearance in different dreams.
No one knows when the Douma palm came into existence, nor Wad Hamid. Wad Hamid was a pious slave, but his master was cruel and immoral, and when he was fed up with him Wad Hamid asked God to save him. A voice told him to put his prayer mat on the water. Indeed the mat took him to the palm, and so it became The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid 3. Thus continues the story of the Douma palm that heals every patient. The government announced one day the plans to remove it with the excuse of creating a steamboat station sometime, and to develop a water pump beneath it at other times. The people repeatedly refused the government’s attempt, which led to the arrest of detainment of twenty men. The brutality of the government led to the revolution that brought it down at the end of the day, and supporters of the palm were released as heroes.
It is notable in the story that the idea of the Douma palm is an abstract idea in an almost imaginary flow. No one knows when it has grown and whether it would remain from generation to generation. You’ll also notice the people’s tenacious hold on their palm, and their utter belief that it cures diseases, so they head over to it instead of hospitals in spite of their poverty, and the long distance and lack of transportation. Despite all that, the people refused to cut the palm, and were willing to die for it. There is symbolism in how the power relentlessly strives to violate the citizens’ sanctities and remove them for the supposed purpose of development and provision of services.
The relationship between “Dead Men’s Path” and “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid”
The idea of “Dead Men’s Path” was inspired by the beliefs of Achebe, who wanted to show the incompatibility that exists between education and beliefs. As if to say that these beliefs should not be scorned for they carry some truth. Wad Hamid’s palm is no different from the Dead Men’s Path; the former is a pathway across which newborns come to life and ancestors visit their children and grandchildren. The stories hint at the subjective and objective worlds criss-crossing. Not only that but that the objective world is an extension of the subjective world.
The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid also represented an abstract thought that’s closer to Sufism in dealing with miracles of the palm and the government’s repeated attempts to destroy it.
The palm is holy for the people of the town and they fought and gone to jail for it, and refused to remove it in exchange for services. That was what happened with the Ndaumi village school when the wall was destroyed by the villagers.
We find that the people refused the proposal to change the time of visiting the Douma palm – which was Wednesdays, when their sacrifices and vows were given to the Douma. Again, that’s mirrors the villagers refusal of Obi’s proposal to change the path, as he claimed ancestors would find no difficulty in taking a few turns. There are symbolic similarities in the steamboat station being useful for residents just like the school is for the villagers, but they rejected both because they would’ve ended their generations old sanctities. In The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid, the villagers could’ve agreed to the construction of the station or the water pump under the condition that the palm remains standing, and in the same sense, the villagers did not try to tolerate nor forgive the school principal despite how the school was ultimately beneficial for their children. The morale here is addressing the injustice that cannot be justified, as well as the fact that you cannot disrespect the beliefs of others under the pretext of progress.
Season of Migration to the North
AlTayeb Salih found his way to popularity through his masterpiece “Season of Migration to the North” in which he discussed the relationship between East and West in the persona of Mustafa Saeed. The novel left a good impression on me after I read it for the first time in 2010; from that point I knew AlTayeb Salih was undoubtedly a brilliant writer. I was impressed by his merging of the various parts of the country, as it was desperately missing in the writings of most of the Northerners, where the South appears marginally, if ever and it is often a matter of the war history. But Salih’s was a different way, with the narrator being from the far north and Mustafa Saeed’s mother from the south. After I finished reading the novel, I researched more about the writer and discovered a lot about him. I knew that the Season of Migration to the North was not just a novel, rather it dealt with the relationship between the East “colonized” and the West “colonizers” as well as the concept of post-colonialism but in a different (Sudanised) view than the view of Baba or Saeed. You can notice the violent clash between the Arab environment (Eastern) and the Western environment, which can be detected in two factors, through which we see how the Arab character evolved in identifying with the West as follows:
- superiority complex
- clash with the West 4
Mustafa Saeed’s character in this novel is the best representation of what’s going on in the minds of easterners while coping with the different West, and even if the easterner accommodated with the West, he would still feel inferior despite having the African and Arab identity combined within him. Besides the writer’s attempt to blend between Arabism and Africanism in Saeed’s persona, we also find that Mustafa Saeed is a hard-worker who wants to reach the top with the aid of his intelligence, but in return he is on a continuous collision course with this Western civilization, despite how he’d imbibed the culture and how fluently he spoke the language. Mustafa came to the West with Arab (and African) blood deep under his skin that he could not rid himself of. He has sought to get rid of the Arab-African air about him but could not, and then tried to play the role of the supreme and the finest, and invade the West as the West had invaded us before. He unconsciously tried to rid himself of the inferiority feeling through sex.
Things Fall Apart
This is one of the best books Chinua Achebe has ever written. In it another writer firmly established his way to recognition as a post-colonial author. Achebe once said that it satisfies him to no end that his novels teaches its readers that their past – with all the aspects in which it’s lacking – was not a long night of savagery 8.
The novel is set in a town in eastern Nigeria, and is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the lives of people in the village, and ways of life and beliefs. The second deals with the work of missionary societies in the village. The third deals with the role of the colonizer in Oomovia. The events revolve around the life of the protagonist Okonkwo, who chose for himself the life of hard work to wipe off the shame of his father’s legacy . But Okonkwo became one of the most important men in the town and a famous wrestler there, with the title of The Cat since he never falls on his back. Okonkwo lived an uneventful life in his village, wrestling farming and marrying. In the end he faced banishment from the village for killing his compatriot by mistake, and was forced into exile for seven years.
When he returns to find that the colonizers have arrived, as well as missionaries who have changed the face of the whole village. He was pained to see elders subjected to humiliation by whites and missionaries. Okonkwo invited the villagers to a meeting and encouraged them to revolt. But then the colonizer heard about the meeting, and sent emissaries to stop it, but Okonkwo – the brave and militant who does not know fear or defeat – killed one of the missionaries, which made him susceptible to judgment in the white court. He found himself in the midst without any support and was overwhelmed with a sense of alienation and frustration so he hung himself 9. The people of the village denounced this act since it violates the sanctity of traditional teachings against murder, even by means of suicide, and therefore they considered Okonkwo a coward despite being the only one who rebelled and adhered to the principles of Oomovia.
Achebe’s conceptualization strength in this novel lies in the linkage between the past and the present through the life and culture of a small community. He proved to the world here – especially the Western world – the strength and vitality of the African culture that they perceived as a barbaric culture with no humanitarian values.
Between Achebe and AlTayeb Salih
What brings these two novelists – in my opinion – is the post-colonialist direction in their writings. AlTayeb addressed the repulsive relationship between the East and the West, where the West looks at the East and all that is eastern as barbaric or uncivilized. That was the case with Joseph Ernest Renan and other Orientalists who cocooned the East into moulds that the Westerners perceived as the real image for over more than three centuries. So the cocoon is what contributed to the consolidation of some of the transcendentalist concepts on the East and its people. In the same direction, the west was also not spared the East’s judgment – if only morally – for what they did in the Eastern communities. It is what we found in the character of Mustafa Saeed, who tried to merge with the Western society despite looking at the West as an “other” – one that invaded our territory and plundered our resources.
What’s even more distinguishable by Salih in “Season of Migration to the North” is the way he placed Saeed between the western and eastern worlds, and between totally different cultures. And despite how he was imbibed two cultures, he could not live in any of their environments. He lived in the West, but was not satisfied with the life he experienced there, which was also how he felt when he returned home, where he has become more mysterious until the very end, which AlTayeb has not identified.
On the other hand, we find that Achebe has been able to prove to the world the strength and smoothness of the African culture that Westerners have envisioned as a barbaric as mentioned before. Chinua wove his stories to refute Western notions in “Things Fall Apart” where the village was peaceful until Western values began invading traditions.
Perhaps the common denominator between Achebe and Salih is the tragic end of their protagonists. We find that Mustafa had disappeared, probably drowned or committed suicide, and Okonkwo committed suicide. From here on it’s agreed that the protagonist gets a horrible and unexpected ending and the reason is their lack of acceptance or their inability to deal with the bitter reality saturated with contradiction between the intruding Western culture and the East – Africa in this case.
The writings of post-colonialism are rich with the idea of resistance and the return to the roots. They highlight the consolidation of humanitarian values within locals who lost their connection to it due to colonial policies which imposed hidden capitalist and imperialist values in their religious and cultural teachings. Through the authors we see that those who received their education at the hands of the colonizer do not appreciate “legendary” beliefs, which is the beginning of their path in life and it even controls their view of the universe in terms of handling, rules and behavior. This is why Achebe and AlTayeb Salih and other novelists and writers from the African lands who wrote about post-colonialism have the poignant ability to connect the same issues in different societies on the continent. Perhaps the aim behind those writings is to enrich the African reality with creative works that remind them of their identity before and during colonization. Did AlTayeb Salih and Achebe succeed in writing about post-colonialism in a way that urged self-reflection on a communal scale?!
- Edward Saeed Orientalism: knowledge, power, construction. Arab Research Foundation in 2010, translated to Arabic by Abu Kamal Deep-p 80
- See blog Deng Aling
- See: AlTayeb Salih, the complete works, Karim Mirghani Center, First Edition, 2010, p. 445
- Dr. Mutafa AbdelGhani, the national trend in the Arab novel, a series of world knowledge; 188 in August 1994, p. 97
- AlTayeb Salih: The Complete Works, p. 65
- Ibid. P. 60
- Mstefyagafna, p. 98
- Hleyh on African literature, knowledge of the world of the series 112, January 1978, p. 164
- ibid., P 165