Authors: Tayeb Salih
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
TAYEB SALIH (1929â2009) was born in northern Sudan and educated at the University of Khartoum. After a brief period working as a teacher, he moved to London to work with the BBC Arabic Service. Salih later worked as director general of information in Qatar in the Arabian Gulf, and then with
in Paris and the Arab Gulf States. Along with
The Wedding of Zein
, his books in English include
Season of Migration to the North
(also published as an NYRB Classic) and
DENYS JOHNSON-DAVIES has translated more than thirty-five books by modern Arab authors, including Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Darwish. He has also produced more than fifty books for children, mostly taken from traditional Arabic sources. He was recently awarded the Sheikh Zayed Prize for his services to Arabic literature. He lives in Cairo.
HISHAM MATAR was born in 1970 in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. His first novel,
In the Country of Men
(2006), was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in London.
THE WEDDING OF ZEIN
And Other Stories
Translated from the Arabic by
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
In the opening chapters of the nineteenth century the Ottoman sultan's viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, ordered his troops south. They rode behind the pasha's son into Nubia and farther down into the heartland of the Sudan, where they seized the province of Kordofan. They then turned east into the state of Sennar. Such was the painful birth of modern Sudan.
Paradoxically, the invaders' actions had the effect of uniting the native farmers, merchants, and tribesmen in resistance to them, thus planting the seed of the Mahdist Revolution that, sixty years later, in 1881, erupted in that same central Kordofan province. The Mahdists snatched the country out of the mighty claws of the British Empire, which by then controlled Egypt and with it the Sudan. That a collection of untrained people armed with swords, sticks, and spears had defeated the large modern army deployed by Britain shocked the Western world. It heralded the turning of the colonial tide and inspired subsequent indigenous armed liberation movements. In 1883 the Sudan had become the first and, as it turned out, the only African country to have expelled a colonial power by force of arms. But after a brief interlude, the troops of a humiliated Britain, based at Wadi Halfa, a town not far from the village where Tayeb Salih was born, struck back, and in 1899 colonial rule was reinstated in the form of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.
The glories and disasters of the Mahdist State and the various forms of foreign rule the country endured helped cement national identity and stimulated Sudanese nationalism. On New Year's Day 1956 the largest country in Africa gained its independence, a country that is Arab in the flat plains of the north and African in the verdant south.
Arab and African, Muslim, animist and Christian currents have run through the Sudan for more than a thousand years. Their incomplete fusion explains the existential isolation that the Sudanese endure in relation to the Arab world: in almost every interview he ever gave, Salih found need to assert his Arabness. The geography of the Sudan adds to the complexity of the nation. It shares a border with no less than nine countries: Eritrea and Ethiopia to the East; Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south; the Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya to the West; and to the north the country's closest cultural neighbor, Egypt, where, after the Blue and White Niles merge in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the one river continues.
In the winter of 1953, three years before the Sudan gained its independence, Tayeb Salih came to London. Behind him was a “story of spectacular success at school” in his provincial northern farming village by the Nile, then university in Khartoum, where he later worked as a schoolteacher. A quiet and naturally self-deprecating manner did not foretell the luminuous talent he sheltered. The only thing that might have suggested his gifts was a vague yet persistent aloofness, as if he had decided long ago to give very little away, to live primarily within solitude's faithful chamber.
I wonder how that first journey to the English capital was for the twenty-four-year-old. I suspect that like the enigmatic Mustafa Saâeed in Salih's masterful novel
Season of Migration to the North
, the young author had also traveled up from Khartoum to Egypt and then boarded a ship for Dover. He may have found the waterscape oddly familiar â just as Mustafa Saâeed does. To his ears the new country must have sounded crisp, dustless. And as the pitched roofs of the first houses appeared they would have reminded him of the bony backs of the Nile buffalo. England would have seemed a precise universe in which every structure, field, and tree had been allocated a specific place. Water here did not run in crooked streams but was trapped to flow politely within man-made banks. Trains sliced the landscape and when they stopped, they stopped for a measured interval, just long enough to allow passengers to hurry off and on. “No fuss,” as Saâeed puts it.
No fuss is one of the advantages of being away from home. If writing is the discovery of the self, it is also its reinvention. A process aided by exile's anonymity. In Salih's case the life of an exile was to stretch until February 2009, when he died in the London home he shared with his English wife and their three daughters. Apart from a few years spent in Doha as director general of the Qatari Ministry of Information and ten years in Paris working for UNESCO, Salih spent the majority of the fifty-six years that followed his departure from the Sudan in London, from where he contributed weekly reviews, literary journalism, and political commentary to
magazine. All these “proper” jobs caused some Arab artists and intellectuals to accuse him of not being committed to his art. On the day of his death that ended. Obituaries flowed in from every corner, confirming his place in the canon. The business of how the writer got his living was no longer there to distract his readers from the greatness of his work.
The novella “The Wedding of Zein,” published here along with two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” first appeared in 1962, nine years into the author's new life in London. I cannot find fault with the exquisite English translation. The Canadian Denys Johnson-Davies lived in the Sudan as a child, which gives him an insider's ear for the colloquial turns of phrase that are sometimes employed by Salih in dialogue.
Unlike Salih's better-known work,
Season of Migration to the North
, which was published four years later in 1966 and tells the story of an Arab African negotiating existence in the West, these three narratives show characters in their native setting. Here local life is yet to be punctured by the new postindependence central government and yet to be challenged by Westernized compatriots returning from abroad. Khartoum is as far away as London. Instead, these perfectly shaped vernacular narratives take place within the confines of a Sudanese village that is not dissimilar from Salih's birthplace. Though the villagers know nothing of the world outside the village, and though that world has not yet sought to place its mark on village life, they know it is there, and they know that it has designs upon them. This subtle yet persistent tension between village life and the outer world that Salih evokes gives his stories, and “The Wedding of Zein” in particular, an anxious, nocturnal quality. It is as if every character is secretly nursing the conviction that their way of life is under threat. For example, when “the gang,” those influential men of the village, gathers late at night, an uncanny image is created:
â¦light from the lamp touched them with the tip of its tongue. Sometimes, when they were plunged in laughter, the light and shadow danced above their heads as though they were immersed in a sea in which they floated and dipped.
We wonder what it signifies. Modernity, perhaps, with its foreign illuminations? Or something else? But before our questions can be resolved, Salih moves on: “where does the lamplight end? how does the darkness begin?”
Salih believed symbolism in fiction ought to be like “something buried, reflecting dark rays that are at times contradictory.” His ability to do this, to create a work that is both realist and magical, allegorical and endlessly elusive, is one of his achievements and why perhaps Salih has had more than his fair share of critics bent on subjecting his work to reductive readings. Though his work has inspired some nuanced and illuminating studies, it has also, perhaps more than the work of any other Arab novelist, suffered at the hands of readers less interested in the author's art than in finding support for their opinions.
Although these stories are a happy reflection on what the author once described as “a world [that] was fast disappearing,” they are also a lament. They mark the point just before the author surrendered altogether to loss, before he dropped the flint and took only to pondering “how does the darkness begin.” These early stories, with their undertones of satire and hints of Beckettian absurdity, are in no sense sentimental or satisfied. “The Wedding of Zein” is narrated with a nearly cruel detachment. But even that is a kind of trick, Salih's way of leaving us to our own conclusions. This is an author who always knows how and when to get out of the way. Salih's nostalgia is most powerful when he writes about nature, which inspires passages of raw pastoral beauty. Guided in the dark by distant sounds of merriment, Zein comes to the river:
The Nile's breast, like that of a man in anger, swells up, and the water flows over its banks.
The land is motionless and moist, yet you feel that its belly encases a great secret, as though it were a woman of boundless passion preparing to meet her mate.
In “The Wedding of Zein,” nature is both matter-of-fact and full of amoral determination. The earth throbs with sexual desire and mystery. It exists primarily for itself, continuously working toward its own ends. It is by no means a pretty backdrop but a psychological force. And if we see Zein, what with his wild abandon and wily ability to elude many of society's rules, as an expression of nature's will, then “The Wedding of Zein” can be read as a chronicle of nature's quiet victory: how the village fool triumphs, without seeming to try, in winning the heart of “the most beautiful of them all,” the lovely, independent-minded, intelligent Niâma, the cousin who, in her Koranic studies, pictured mercy as a woman, and wished she had been named Mercy instead. In marrying Zein she is sacrificing herself to nature, as perhaps everything of worth in the young Sudan must lie at the mercy of the unknowable future.