My first job out of college was working at the television station in Qatar, and one of the first things my co-worders told me was “Tayeb Salih used to run this place.” There was a reverence in their voices that I didn’t get because I will admit I had never heard of him. But I learned quickly that Salih is considered to have written the great Arab novel, “Season of Migration to the North,” and it took having my friend Laila Lalami write the introduction for the recent reprint for me to sit down and read it. I now wish I been paying more attention to the stories about him my co-workers in Qatar used to spin.
Very few Arabic books come out in English. Perhaps that is one of the reasons “A Season of Migration to the North” has been so celebrated as the great modern Arabic novel. The Sudanese born Salih studied in the UK for many years, and as such played a role in the translation of his book in 1969, although he was not the official translator. If you want more information on this, I’m going to suggest reading Laila Lalami’s introduction in the reprint of the book that just came out this year—but wait until you finish the novel, then go back to her analysis of its status as the great literary work on the sad results of post colonialism in the in Africa and the Middle East. My friend Jackie insisted I read Salih’s novella, “The Wedding of Zain” first, as she preferred it. I did, and it’s almost hard to imagine the same author could write both, the novella being a quirky and deceptively simple look at Sudan, whereas “Season of Migration to the North” is dark, overtly sexual, wide in its political and social scope and a masterfully constructed page turner—all in only 139 pages. More modern Arabic novels that turn a critical and uninhibited eye on their worlds, like “The Yacubian Building,” while also great reads, do it without the precision Salih has, “This is the land of despair and poetry but there is no one to sing.”