Tayeb Salih Duo

“…and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

“Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

– – –

Could dictatorships in developing countries be a side-effect of colonialism?

The effects of colonialism do not end after a nation’s independence, the same way the effects of a dictatorship do not end after a people’s revolution.

Colonialism has defenders who maintain that they served whom they oppressed, dictatorships have the same apologists; but do not both warrant that succeeding leaders would grapple with a democratic exercise of authority — among many other ills they leave in their wake?

Perhaps I am late to these reflections, but there are many people still who do not understand that colonialism and dictatorships have a profound impact on political structures that one simply cannot move on from.

– – –

Season of Migration to the North was the catalyst for these thoughts; a dark and rather absurdist but lyrical depiction of the post-colonial struggle; not an angry tirade but one that challenges opposing views.

It overshadows The Wedding of Zein in many ways, tempting me to say that if there’s one Salih work you must read it should be Season of Migration to the North. On the other hand, The Wedding of Zein comes with two of his finest short stories: One of them is The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid that wistfully contemplates on the clash of social modernity and traditions.

“There will not be the least necessity for cutting down the doum tree… What all these people have overlooked is that there’s plenty of room for all these things.”

So, perhaps it’s wise to read these books together.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa that shares a border with nine other countries including Egypt. And yet we read so little of/from them. It’s time we do. We (I speak as a Filipina reader) share so much more in common than we think.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches and Our Lady of the Nile

It is and it isn’t Kafkaesque. 

It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.

It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction. 

“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”

Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”

In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”

This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.

_ _ _

In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.

The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.

I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.

These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Desertion

If you intend to read this, do not allow the abrupt and tidy ending of the love story in the first part to dissuade you from continuing. That’s not exactly how it ends. Make sure you persevere until the second to the last chapter to find the poetic piece of the puzzle that renders the last chapter almost unnecessary and makes the whole book worth reading.

And do not read this if you are in a hurry. It is writing that begs you to slow down, to savor elegant lines such as “…he was an upright shadow moving so slowly that in that peculiar underwater light his approach was almost imperceptible, inching forward like destiny”; it is writing that urges you to be there in an East African town of a British protectorate with Hassanali when he finds the half-conscious sunstricken Englishman, Martin Pearce, in 1899. 

1899, only a year after our independence from another entitled European power who thought the world was intended for European colonization. “So I had to learn about that,” our narrator remarks, “and about imperialism and how deeply the narratives of our inferiority and the aptness of European overlordship had bedded down in what passed for knowledge in the world.” 

As a Filipina, this book made me understand and applaud the Nobel Prize motivation — for Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

As a woman, I felt the bitter aftertaste of the intergenerational injuries colonialists cause, not just to a place but to their women. 

As a daughter and a lover, I recognized that honorable layer of filial duty and the sacrifices we make for love.

As a reader, I relished the passages that put weight on the value of stories: “She missed his noises, his voice, his bulk, his presence, but after that she realized how much more she missed his stories.”

“It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time.” 

“It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that these people have got by for centuries without writing anything down… everything is memorized and passed on… It’s a staggering thought, that no African language had writing until the missionaries arrived,” says one English character in the book.

It is remarkable, and even more remarkable that Tanzania now has a Nobel Prize laureate in literature.

Desertion is a sorrowful title. But as it is written in my favorite chapter, “Sorrow has its gifts.”