Farewell to Tayeb Salih

Season-of-migration-to-the-north-190x300 In Arab Comment:

They are dying by the day. First, there was Edward Said, then Mahmoud Darwish, and now Tayeb Salih.

If Said sang about the pleasures of the “placeless place,” Darwish wrote like a jealous child unwilling to share the page with any one, a ruthless occupier in particular. Salih, on the other hand, spent most of his life on borderline between East, West, and the Rest. As a thinker, citizen, and writer, he towered quietly over our time with extraordinary luminosity. He also had a prodigious capacity for understanding people no matter where they came from.

A sign well defined in his chef-d’oeuvre, Season of Migration to the North, where the narrator intones: “The [the Sudanese people] were amazed to learn that Europeans with some differences were much like us, marrying and raising children in accordance with tradition and that generally they were a moral and honest people.” A humanist voice at its best! This is not the nonsense one finds in shabby screeds likes the “clash of cultures” or “what went wrong?”

Suffice it to add that Salih had an unbounded energy for waging struggles on behalf of the truth—the truth not only of usually unrecorded social suffering, but also the truth about the institutional obduracy that lurks beneath the surface of things, and a persistent endeavor of his last years the callous posturing of so-called realistic, or pragmatic writers.

Power never phased or impressed Si Tayeb, as he was often called: he took on its many contemporary forms with undaunted courage. When the 2005-Cairo Third Arab Novel Conference sought to salvage something of the reputation of its much coveted prize by awarding it to Salih, the decision raised eyebrows. The recipients of the same prize had been Saudi novelist Abdul-Rahman Munif, Sonallah Ibrahim who turned it down, and Gamal El-Ghitani, who belongs to Ibrahim’s defiant generation, declined to be named for the award. “With all due respect Tayeb Salih is an outstanding novelist,” he chimed in, “his winning of the prize does not whitewash the event.”