Sunday May 28, 2017

Tayeb Salih on culture and conflict in Sudan

Tayeb Salih was one of Sudan's most important writers. He died in 2009 at the age of 79.

Tayeb Salih was one of Sudan's most important writers. He died in 2009 at the age of 79. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 51:27

Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih has earned lasting international acclaim for his fiction, and is considered to be one of the most important Arab novelists of his time. Salih was born in 1929 in a village on the Nile in northern Sudan, which was a colony of Britain until 1956. He went to university in England before working at the BBC as head of drama in the Arabic service, and later as director-general of information in Qatar and with UNESCO in Paris and the Persian Gulf.

In his landmark 1967 novel Season of Migration to the North, Salih tells the intertwined stories of two men who leave Sudan to study abroad. The book, which was banned at universities in Sudan but received worldwide recognition, explores the confrontation between the Arab Muslim and Western European worlds. 

Salih spoke to Eleanor Wachtel at his home in London in 2002. He died in 2009 at the age of 79.

BOOK COVER: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih PMC

Season of Migration to the North is available from Penguin in the U.K. and U.S.A.

On the fascinating power of the Nile River

If one lives in a northern Sudanese village by the Nile, it's a very overpowering presence. The whole of life is tied up with the river. It rises and floods, and sometimes the floods are devastating. I was always fascinated with the river from my very early childhood. There is a great deal of mythology woven around the Nile. The ancient Sudanese civilization, like the Egyptian civilization, worshipped the Nile and sacrificed to it. In my work, one notices that the river throws up strangers to these villages, people who look different — sometimes too white, sometimes too black, sometimes mystics, sometimes weird characters. 

On conflict as literary inspiration

At the time I was writing Season of Migration to the North, there was what could be called a conflict between the Arab Muslim world and the West, because of the Algerian struggle for independence against France. At the time, it represented evil for us. Then there was the Egyptian revolution under Nasser and the British, French and Israeli interventions. Then there was, and still is, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these things exercised our imaginations. France is a country which I dearly love, with its lovely culture and poets and everything. Probably if I had been writing in Paris I would have toned down my anger. But I could not write other than the way I did.

History on repeat

I wanted to explore the vague notion that history repeats itself. I wanted also to go back to the history of the Sudan and see if there was anything that justifies the great mess we made of our independence after the British left. We didn't handle things very well — we have a war between the north and the south which has been going on since the very time that we gained our independence. That does not indicate that we are doing very well. Was there anything in our history which justifies that?

Tayeb Salih's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Umri Ma Bansa" composed and performed by Abdel Gadir Salim.