Ideas lose their sting by the time they come to us
Interview with Tayeb Salih by Hans Ulrich Obrist
The hypnotic, episodic Season of Migration to the North is one of the finest Arabic novels of the 20th century. After years of study in England, the nameless young narrator returns to his village on the Nile, eager to contribute to Sudan’s nascent postcolonial era. Hans Ulrich Obrist discussed with the late, great novelist Tayeb Salih
Tayeb Salih, London 1969
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I read about the Meryoud.1 I didn’t read the first volume, the Dau al-Beit, which is 1971; I read the ’76 volume. What is interesting is that it has been said a lot in the literature on your work that the whole cycle of Bandarshah had actually followed the Six Day War of 1967 and it was maybe a less optimistic spirit than in the earlier of your books, so I wanted to ask you about politics. It has often been suggested that your move from literature to journalism over the last decades has had to do the urgency of the political situation. You worked on a more direct form of journalism rather than on literature. I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about this and about the way to be political with literature and the way to be political as a journalist.
Tayeb Salih: You know, for a long time I resisted the temptation to write for newspapers and magazines and so on and to get directly involved in political argument. But over the years I was persuaded to contribute to certain magazines mainly, not newspapers, magazines, and I also probably needed the extra income.
HUO: In a Bertolt Brecht kind of way one can also see literature to be political as much as journalism. How do you see your literature to be political?
TS: I think it is interesting you mention Brecht because he is a playwright I admire very much and in a general sort of way literature, as many people have said, is political in the wider sense of politics. It is engaged in the lives of human beings, a sort of comprehensive activity of a community and not just parties and elections and coups and so on; so in that sense, yes, I think literature is political. But I would not claim that I directly wanted to make my work political. In Bandarshah, in particular, I became interested in writing about the Sudan as a kind of literary historian because I refer to history a great deal, trying to make sense, you know, of this community, this environment, which is very old and it has undergone many changes. So the idea of what is happening.
HUO: That also leads to the question of memory. Some weeks ago I interviewed the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm and he told me he feels we live in an environment of increasing amnesia and that we should somehow protest against forgetting.
HUO: So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about memory.
TS: That’s a very, very important point, of course. Yes, I also claim that I am trying to do that because in the things which happen to a country like the Sudan and the changes and the coups and God knows what and the various ideologies, often people think they are doing something new but they are not. If only they could go back 100 years, 200 years, 500 years, they would realise that they
are not doing anything new, they are merely repeating in a slightly different way. A great deal of time is wasted because people imagine they are innovating, they are pioneers, they are doing something new. They are not. So awakening memory is very, very important, yes.
HUO: If we talk about memory it is maybe also interesting to talk about the future. I was wondering how you see the future.
TS: That is, of course, a difficult question to address to a novelist. I don’t think even an historian could answer you that. But, some people claim that understanding the past and having a good idea of the present points to the future. Some people say it doesn’t; the past is the past, the present is the present. If there is any enlightenment of the future in what I write, I would not claim to be a kind of a seer or to have any power of prophecy.
HUO: We have the obsession for the future and the necessity for memory. We spoke a lot with Edward Glissant about this and sometimes in this obsession for the future and the past, the present gets forgotten. I thought it would be interesting to talk about the current moment in 2006. When you started to work in the fifties and sixties the Pan-Arabic idea was like a utopia. I was wondering to what extent you see the current moment.
TS: Pan-Arab ideas as voiced by people like President [Gamal Abdel] Nasser in the sixties and the Baath party in Syria and Iraq of course had an influence, but we in the Sudan have a geographical gap between us; there is a desert between the Sudan and Egypt.
HUO: A big desert?
TS: It is true that ideas filter through but they always come to us, throughout history—and I think this is very important in thinking about the Sudan— ideas lose their sting by the time they come to us; they become mild.
HUO: I never thought of that. That is fascinating. The desert as a filter. So it is a symbiosis between what comes from outside and what is within.
TS: Absolutely. Always. I tell you something: the Sudanese did something remarkable to the whole ideology of colonisation. Sudan was colonised by Britain in the late 19th century and over the years the colonisers, that is, the British, forgot about Britain, forgot that they were representing an external power. They started thinking and behaving as though the Sudan was an independent country ruled, it so happened, by a governor general and a civil secretary who were British. It is crazy but it is marvellous; it is what happened and a marvellous idea. I suppose if these people had just stayed on we could have had a new kind of synthesis.
HUO: Do you think that we can learn from that for the current moment? Because it seems to me that right now we have a very strange moment. On the one hand there is a relentless globalisation, which obviously entails also homogenising forces and dangers of homogenisation and westernisation, but at the same time we also have a lot of resistance to that globalisation. But the resistance is often like returning to the purely local and refusing a more global dialogue. One of the things I am very interested in is a negotiation between the global and the local where one would not lose that incredible potential of a global dialogue, but yet not annihilate difference.
TS: I think what’s happening now is a violent reaction to a violent impetus. What I described to you in the Sudan, how British colonisers just accepted that they belonged to a different environment and forgot about the colonial power they represented was probably a fluke. I don’t know. Now the reaction is violent because you’ve got a power like the United States, who is very far away from everything. I don’t think the United States, with all due respect, understands the complexities of the third world. They don’t even understand the complexities of their next-door neighbours in Latin America, so when they come with a big idea like wanting to make the Middle East democratic, I don’t know whether they realise that this implies an insult to start with. It implies an insult because it assumes the people of this area, all belong to very old civilisations, like Iraq and Syria and Egypt and the Sudan and Yemen—very old civilisations—and there is a residue of human ideas and feeling. The United States is barely two hundred years old, or something like that, and they come and say we are going to make you democratic and free.
People naturally react against that, even if the idea contains something good—maybe. But the people reject it outright because it is such a bombastic claim.
I think what happened in the Sudan under the British—I don’t know, it may have happened somewhere else, but I doubt that— can be useful if the whole climate is different, you know. First of all the tension has to go, the wish to dominate; the United States want to dominate in the guise of democracy and God knows what. If there is a genuine human give and take I think it can be useful to understand an experience like that.
HUO: That secret of also revealing residues is something I think your writing has done and does so marvellously. In Bandarshah, you said before, it is almost like layers. You have also, in previous interviews, compared that methodology of writing to an archaeologist activity.
HUO: I am very interested in this idea of you as an archaeologist finding these layers of sedimentation, these residues, as you call them.
TS: [Laughs] Yes. Well the idea has become common now of the novelist as an archaeologist; probably when I said it intuitively I was one of the earliest. But I felt like that. An archaeologist would go to a digging site; of course he or she would have a general idea what was there and then start digging. They find layer upon layer of things which tell them about the communities who lived on that site. I thought I was doing the same thing; the deeper I dug, the more I discovered.
Nile Delta, Egypt, 1999 c-print photography, 100 cm x 140 cm Courtesy and copyright of Susan Hefuna
HUO: Is it a slow process? We are living in a very accelerated environment. I think that idea of an archaeological couchein French, a layering, in writing seems also to be rather slow. Is slowness a form of resistance?
TS: I don’t mind the slowness. I am not in a hurry because I am not trying like a capitalist to make so many millions in so many years or build up a company. If I can do it in my lifetime, well and good; if not, somebody else, probably, will come and continue the work. So I am not particularly worried about the pace, about the time.
HUO: One other thing I wanted to ask you, because we talked about memory and we talked about archaeology, is about heritage and also about preservation.
TS: I think I had a marvellous childhood. I lived in an environment in northern Sudan which was almost ideal. Everybody is everybody’s relative and if not a relative, a friend. Everybody knows everybody and although economically there wasn’t much to go round, the people felt rich. They felt rich because there was a degree of harmony and similarity; the houses were the same, a little bigger, a little smaller, but the same material, the same design, everything. The food was the same, anywhere you went. In fact the whole of northern Sudan was like that. You could go into a house with your eyes shut at a certain time and you know exactly what was happening, if it was dinner or lunch. And there was also a great richness in the fact that there was peace and no tension.
HUO: So it was a happy time.
TS: It was very happy. And, of course, it was destined not to last. Immediately we got independence and the question of rising expectations and politicians giving people hopes of a better life, the whole thing was disrupted.
HUO: It was like the loss of a paradise?
TS: It was, but again your question is valid. I read quite a bit about the Aborigines of Australia and Tasmania and the abolition of their way of life. It was a paradise; it was a very happy life. To the materialists from the outside it looked very poor. An American coming from Chicago and looking at the Aborigines would think that these people were totally impoverished although they were very rich and completely in harmony with the environment, even with the earth itself. So, as you said, to what extent does one want to preserve that kind of life, which is by modern standards primitive? Or to preserve it because in its essentials it was very valuable. Our life in the Sudan was not as primitive as that in Australia but it was not materialistic to the extent of destroying all the spiritual elements which a human being needs. Of course this is our dilemma now, isn’t it? It is always the dilemma.
HUO: That is where we stand. That is the current dilemma. Is this something which also enters your journalism? I was curious as you have this column in Al Majalla, which is a magazine, and you started to write in it mainly when you protested against the new situation in Sudan.
HUO: That triggered it some time in the late eighties. But then you wrote about many other things, like the Aborigines. I was wondering where your journalism stands now and what you have been writing on in the last couple of months.
TS: Actually I mainly write in Al Majalla. I have come back to it now after I stopped twice. I started, not by attacking the government; they wanted me to write for them. I said to them, “Look, I will write the way I like. I am not a journalist.” So they let me. I could write about a poet I liked, I wrote a lot about Switzerland, incidentally.
HUO: So what is the most recent text you have written? Is it journalism or is it literature?
TS: I like to call it literary journalism. I wrote three articles. Of course, like every person from our area, I was completely incensed by the war against Gaza and Lebanon. The philosophy of the war was unbelievable.
HUO: So there is hope in those texts?
TS: There is always hope as far as I am concerned. There is always hope. I know that humanity is foolish, including myself, but there is hope, yes. Sometimes a kind of awakening suddenly happens and things change.
HUO: A lot of architects right now, from Zaha Hadid—I don’t know if you know Zaha Hadid.
TS: Yes, yes. I admire her work.
HUO: She is starting to work on amazing projects in the Gulf region and there are a lot of architecture and art activities in the Emirates. You wrote a short story in ’93, which is your first text set mainly in that region, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about this short story and how you see this region.
TS: Oh yes! “A blessed day on the coast of Monbab.” As it happened, you know, I don’t claim when I wrote it I had that in mind, but afterwards people pointed out to me that I was probably criticising the Americanisation of this area; you know, the camels. Did you read the story?
HUO: I found extracts translated in Wael S. Hassan’s book,Tayeb Salih: Ideology and the Craft of Fiction. It’s a very useful book for me, it’s very detailed and he translated some extracts from this short story.
TS: Ah ha!
HUO: The camels.
TS: The camels actually came and that was true. The story was a mixture of facts and fiction. They entered the sea and they came and sat as though they were saying their prayers. And then, in the same place, these women came later on, stopped and entered the sea and did their ablutions and said their prayers. There was this devilish thing; a young man was riding a kind of mechanical camel you could say.
HUO: Like a robot?
TS: Yes, it was something like that making a dreadful noise and he would sing sometimes and so. So it became a kind of allegory but when I wrote it I didn’t plan to do that. On the whole you could say, maybe, in my writing I hanker after something impossible: to keep the world I knew and loved the same. And of course I know very well that is impossible but there is no harm in trying. Of course, architects, many architects, are now trying to do the same, and poets and painters and so on.
HUO: So that is where there is a link.
TS: Yes, there is a link. We have got a city in the Sudan, a very old port called Suakin; you may have heard of it. This lovely city was left to rot. It had the most beautiful architecture. There is a Sudanese architect, he is an academician, very involved in trying to reconstruct this city but now it is becoming difficult because it will cost a great deal of money to do it.
HUO: It is interesting because in the translated extract from your short story of “Blessed day” there is also mention of Medina as a city. So the city plays a role. That is another link to you and urbanism, somehow, isn’t it?
TS: The word ‘medina’ is ‘city’ and ‘medinea’, ‘civilisation’, actually comes from city. But there is a difference between the medina, the city which grows indigenously over so many thousands of years and it acquires what you could call poetically “the dust of passing years”, and the completely artificial cities which are just named and destroy it, like American cities.
HUO: That is fascinating, because some time ago I interviewed Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, in his house and we spoke about his lovely book, Istanbul. He told me a lot about a critical relation to Gerard de Nervol and this whole idea that cities are often imaginary cities invented by poets. You have invented that village which keeps popping up in your early stories again and again, called Waad Hamid. So can you talk about your imaginary village?
TS: [Laughs] Again, it’s a mixture of fiction and reality. It’s not an entirely fictitious place. The constitution of this village, its history, the relationship of people to each other and to nature, that’s very important. People know every little ridge, every tree, every bend of the road is completely in harmony with the place, like the Australian Aborigines who had this marvellous genesis, [creation myth of] the way the world was created. It’s unbelievable. The earth, which is the mother, split and then all men came out of this quagmire and they started to walk and then they would pronounce the name: they would say, “Tree” and the tree would appear, “Bird,” the bird appears. I find that beautiful really, lovely.
HUO: So what is the architecture in your fictional village, Waad Hamid?
TS: I describe, I think, at some length, the house of a grand
father, which is true, actually. That is almost a copy of reality. It is functional, it is from the same material, the earth around, the wood, the roof is from the leaves of palm trees; it is cool in summer and warm in winter and comfortable.
HUO: Beautiful. It adapts to the climate.
TS: Yes, yes.
HUO: This is obviously also related to a traditional layering of
memory but what has then, for you, become the project of Arabic modernity? How do you see, in the 21st century, a notion of Arabic modernity that played such a big role in the 1960s?
TS: I think that is too ambitious. I will not claim that I am concerned directly with Arabic modernity but like other people, many people are looking at this from different angles. What I am saying in what I write is always a reference to the Sudan, and to this village, even: to grow organically and not in an artificial way but not to stop growing. And for the human being to be happy in the environment and to give vent to his or her talents, interacting with other human beings, and then you see what happens.
HUO: That is a beautiful description and leads me to one of my last questions. I have always seen in your work about this fictive village and talking about something extremely local, which is close to where you grew up and to your grandfather’s house, that idea that one can only understand the world when one starts with something very local. From that notion of a place and having a place, from there the line then goes to migration, because your other book which has an influence on many architects and artists is Season of Migration to the North. The book has been mentioned to me by many different artists and architects. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about this transition from place to out of place and the Migration to the North.
TS: When you read Season of Migration to the North with reference to an earlier novel called The Wedding of Zein, where the community I grew up in is more or less intact, then you see the trauma which befell the community. It’s mainly the community, really, in the end. It so happened there is a stranger coming from the outside, as indeed in Dau al-Beit and Meryoud, the stranger. Then the place undergoes a very extreme trauma because there is a double murder in the village and things the like of which never happened before. It’s almost a Shakespearean idea or even a Greek idea. Shakespeare, I think, in Macbeth says the time is out of joint. The time has come out of joint in Season of Migration. I don’t think I can sum it up. There have been quite a few discussions of this novel.
HUO: One of the things I wanted to ask you about Season of Migration to the North was about Dostojevski’s notion of polyphony. Wael Hassan refers to Bakhtin and he talks a lot about you and Bakhtin and the notion of polyphony.
But I was rather more thinking of Dostoyevsky and the notion of polyphony. Do you think that notion of polyphony, of many voices co-existing, is important in Season and in your work in general?
TS: I try, yes. I try to create many voices because in re-awakening the past this is inevitable. One doesn’t hear just one voice and also if I am writing as an historian or even an archaeologist it’s inevitable that so-called reality would appear in various guises from different angles. Yes.
HUO: So you would agree with that polyphony in relation to memory also.
TS: I do, yes.
In the original Arabic, Tayeb Salih’s novel Bandar Shah appeared in two parts: the first, Dau al-Beit, was published in 1971, the second, Meryoud, in 1976. In 1996 they were published together in English with the title Bandarshah.
This is an excerpt from Susan Hefuna, Pars Pro Toto, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2008, pp. 89–105.
Drawing by Etel Adnan, 2013