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Farewell To Tayeb Salih: One Of Africa’s
Most Illustrious Literary Figures

By Mustapha Marrouchi

23 February, 2009

They are no longer stirring still. In fact, they are dying at an alarming rate. First, there was Edward Said, then Mahmoud Darwish, and now Tayeb Salih. And if Said sang about the pleasures of the “placeless place,” Darwish wrote like a jealous child unwilling to share the page with anyone, especially with a ruthless occupier. Salih, on the other hand, spent most of his life living 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 work of art, Season of Migration to the North, where the narrator intones: “They [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 insidiously 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 eye-brows. 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.” The remark is replete with political intrigue and chivalry. After all, Salih was an outsider, and an outsider must climb all the mountains, one by one, before he or she can be honored as one of “us.”

In all sorts of ways, Salih’s rich life and his death both reflected and clarified the turbulence and suffering that have been at the core of the Arab experience: this is why his life bears scrutiny. So much in it embodies the Arab trying situation in all its irresolution. The one thing that seemed to stand out to everyone at the time of his death was that Tayeb Salih had staged his own glorious entry into, and possibly exit from, history, something only a person of his extraordinary stature could have done. No one failed to comment on his grace, sensibility, and what a sense of being in the world that was both fair-minded and bon-vivant. For him, the Arab world was a constant interrogation that is never answered completely—or even articulated adequately. Everything in his personality confirmed that restlessness, from his gregariousness to his moody introspection, from his optimism of the will and energy of the soul to the immobilizing sense of powerlessness that has claimed so many of us. (The Darfur genocide and civil war that has been tearing his homeland apart for decades never left him at peace). As a result, his life simultaneously expresses defeat and triumph, abjection and attainment, resignation and resolve. In short, it was a version of the Arab world, lived in all its complexity by one of the finest Africans or our time.

The first time I met Tayeb Salih was in at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 2002. He was the keynote speaker for a conference on “Hate in the World.” He spoke eloquently and defiantly about Islamism, arguing that it was disfiguring a great religion and degrading a kind people. The same feeling is echoed in Season where he sets out to decipher the stew language back in Sudan, a life lived on the edge both sexually and emotionally in London where his narrator leads a life that is bent on leaving an imprint, a will to power of sorts, a bend in the river Thames. That he self-destructs at the end of the novel is no surprise.

In Paris, Salih was handsome, provocative, and there for us, the younger generation. He was also kind to me when I approached him about granting me permission for a possible new translation from Arabic to English of Season; a translation that would render the narrative in the light of the period that followed the events of 9/11. He was most generous and welcoming. I was struck by his unassuming manner, and the cordiality of his regard for potential friends and allies. Always serious, he was never solemn, and quite charmingly he rarely resisted the chance to say something witty or deflating in an Arabic that was music to the ears to those of us who surrounded him as a modern-day Moses. He never posed or took on airs. Directness and sincerity of approach were the hallmarks of his intellectual presence, even though he could be scathingly ironic in his attacks on imposture and fraud. Later, at a considerable distance from London, he seemed to be moved by a well-nigh compassion and self-reflective wisdom that kept well-attuned to sally after sally, cause after cause, struggle after struggle. Struck down as he was in the prime of his brilliance, he has nevertheless laid on every intellectual the obligation to remain at the very line that he, Tayeb Salih, drew against orthodoxy and fanaticism of any kind, a particular front which more than anyone in the last decade he discerned, explained, and creatively opposed.

His loss to us friends, students, and colleagues is as grievous as it is cruel, and were it not for the vast legacy of thought that he has left for us as sustenance and example, even if he wrote only a few novels and short stories, A Handful of Dates, The Wedding of Zein, to give two examples, we would be truly abandoned. Today, we honor his memory while we remind ourselves of his immense intellectual achievement which has resulted in an oeuvre of unique richness and unparalleled scope. His death is too poignant to experience alone in the US at such a distance, so keenly felt is it by all of us, including a brilliant and great reader of texts, a former student of mine, Kahled Ghazel, who makes his home in the UK, and informed me about his death in a message that I received yesterday, and, Noureddine Marrouchi, my brother in Tunisia, who spoke elegantly about him and how his loss is a misfortune not only to the Arab world at a time when we need more than ever the Salihs, the Saids, the Darwishs, but also to the rest of world. I reminded Noureddine that people like Tayeb Salih do not die, that they are what John Keats aptly called “bright stars,” for they forever live in our memory; they live in us, in our gestures, joys, and tears; in our hopes and impediments. True that Salih died at a time when humanity has a shortage of champions of justice while the orthodoxy of virtue and power seem so unchallenged (the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man blinded by his own insight, is a reminder to us all that we are in for a rough ride) and, alas, so ascendant. It is Salih’s magnificently critical spirit that we must hold on to and try, unceasingly, to perpetuate.

In the end, Tayeb Salih—a restless and relentlessly articulate man of letters—will be remembered less for his writing, which was sparse as I mentioned earlier, even though Season of Migration is up there with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, than for his ability to bring people together and create situations that allowed them to play a more effective role than they could have done on their own. No one knew better than him how to turn the shambles of defeat into some sort of achievement. But he was never satisfied by purely moral triumphs. He was too much the realist in his understanding of raw and calculated violence. He believed in genuine encounters between people. He was always elated when he found someone in whom he discerned promise or talent, because that gave give him an opportunity to bring out what was hidden and make it shine. He was an optimist at heart. Even when he was being fatherly, there was a tender quality to the monitoring, and you rarely got any sense that he was domineering. There was a kind spirit beneath the quiet and peaceful temper. He, like Said and Darwish before him, stood for energy, mobility, discovery, and risk.

In the unfolding story of the Arab world, Salih, I believe, will remain a model of what it is to have been dedicated to an idea—not as something to bow down to, but to live, and to re-examine constantly. To understand him properly is to re-enact the drama of struggle and principle in which he was engrossed, not by copying it but by living it anew, and in doing so, leaving it open for future revision and critical reflection. It is a blessing to have met him in Paris in 2002 and kept in touch with him ever since. It was a victory, small though it might have been, but a victory nevertheless.

In the upshot, writers love to write about the human condition (Joyce, Sartre, Baldwin), but few can do it without falling into a self-conscious abyss. Tayeb Salih brilliantly pulled it off. He did it in an era in which circumstances much like those that inspired Season of Migration, which has topped those lists of novels that speak to our present predicament, force us, whether we like it or not, into an often passionate cultural engagement. Sure enough, he tells us to be aware, and wary, of the dangers and pitfalls of dogmatism, intolerance, the unshakable conviction of one’s own perfect righteousness and blamelessness. Moreover, what he will not let us forget, is that all of us, regardless of nationality or religion, creed or gender, are capable of acting from highly suspect, compromised, “primitive” motives and of behaving in ways we could never imagine, or so we prefer to think. True, insofar as the first sentence of Season, “It was after a long absence, gentlemen, that I returned to my family,” seems to promise (or to threaten) the sort of narrative we might expect from other writers who have written on the confrontation between the East and the West; from novelists as dissimilar as Conrad and Waugh, Naipaul and Forster, Kipling and Camus; from works in which a naive colonial carves his way into one “heart of darkness” or another–and lives to regret it. But as the opening paragraph progresses, we can watch Salih part company with his peers and enter territory that he has claimed as uniquely his own, a moral universe that few, if any, would willingly choose to inhabit, which is not to say that his lifelong residence in that bleak and harsh (though often grimly hilarious) landscape seems voluntary, exactly.

It would be hard to think of another writer who, in exploring the idea of sweet violence, raises the question: “Whose pain is this?” Salih concludes that there is no unswerving trajectory between intention and effect, which is to say that our actions are “textual.” The question “Am I responsible for my actions?” thus cannot be answered in the terms in which it is commonly proposed, since it betrays too thin a conception of what it is to act; which is not to say that we are thereby absolved from moral responsibility as the mere playthings of the Gods and Allahs, functions of genetic codes or products of social institutions. For him, our free actions are inherently alienable, lodging obstructively in the lives of others and ourselves, merging with the stray shards and fragments of others’ estranged actions to redound on our own heads in alien form. Indeed, they would not be free actions at all without this perpetual possibility of going astray.

It is perhaps not surprising that in an age that has fetishized the fragment that was so dear to Roland Barthes; an age that is bent on consigning the past to the garbage can of history, the future looks like a cornucopia of possibilities. In an age without constraint, finally freed from the force of gravity, anything seems doable: the '90s gave birth to the Third Way, technological utopianism, the biggest speculative bubble in history, neutral, interest-free globalization. Today, the US hegemony is exercised in an organic interregnum and this is in spite of the melt-down we are all witnessing, freed from the Soviet threat, unconstrained by any alliance, able to explore and define its own interests unfettered and uncluttered by other considerations. The classic entity of this new empire is the nation-state turned into a vassal, rather than the colony, structured in a complex relation of domination and subordination where overwhelming Western military dominance is designed to discourage and intimidate any challenge to American global supremacy. In the long run, it is Islam and–especially–the humiliated version of it, that will be the greatest danger to the West unless, of course, in our encounters with other cultures and religions, we proceed with caution and respect for the Other, not as Other (of the Other) but as part and parcel of the Self, and that we do not think like governments or armies or corporations, who lose the thread of themselves a great deal, but that we remember and act on the individual experiences that really shape our lives and those of others.

In the process, writers like Tayeb Salih become important not only because they were raised and flourished between continental shelves but because they revealed the nature of a world that constantly collides with itself. Chimeras, the old man in Season of Migration explains to his grandson, are mythological monsters composed of different kinds of creatures. “Like us,” he says, “different kinds of fathers and mothers.” Yet he is able to discern his family’s complexity, like that of the tributaries of the Nile, as part of a larger movement of peoples and ideas. Put differently, to travel the West is to uncover its link to the world: the pluralism of Moorish al-Andalus in lines from The Rubaiyat carved in stone; Goethe’s love of Sufi poets; Borges’s fascination with the East which culminated in a book under the title of El acerkamiento a Almotásim (a homage to the 12th-century Persian Sufi poet, Farid-ud-Din al-Attar). Or, is it inevitable that the steady convergence between Islam and the West should assume a jejune, flesh-and-blood form in the shape of reductionism on both sides of the cultural divide? Even so, the final note of my farewell to a giant being is far from pessimistic. In fact, it may be said to resemble Said’s intellectual in opposition, “. . . a kind of counter-memory, with its own counter-discourse that will not allow our conscience to look away or fall asleep.” That is at bottom an attitude worth the pain of positioning the poetics of discovery and reconciliation as Tayeb Salih lived it to the full until his untimely death on Wednesday in London, his adopted home, surrounded by his family and all those who loved him dearly. On a day like today, a rather gloomy day in Las Vegas, one feels tempted to echo Horatio, who, in bidding good-bye to his friend, Hamlet, says:

Good night, sweet prince,

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.—

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