Tayeb Salih’s Sudan

How the Writer Portrayed Postcolonial Village Life

If there’s one thing that fascinated Tayeb Salih, it’s the impact of colonialism has had on Sudan and Sudanese society. Unlike many of his contemporaries who focused on postcolonial struggles of educating the populace, establishing an assimilated civil society united under statehood or even forming an effective government, Salih brilliantly placed his lens on the identity crisis that emerged after various European powers left their colonies and mandates to govern for themselves. It was during that time that new ideas such as Arab Nationalism started taking place and governments sought new “third” ways of conducting affairs. More critically, this postcolonial transition had an even greater impression on the general populace of these states, as they too were faced with their own identity struggles. For one, many still struggled with the idea of statehood and a hegemonic state power; this was especially true for countries that had a history of tribal affiliations. Additionally, pastoral societies would soon face pressures to modernize, but while central Sudanese government policies did bring the needed development to rural areas, much of the regions outside the north have been largely neglected (a fact that remains to this day). Both of Salih’s works, The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid and The Wedding of Zein, are set in the fictional Sudanese village of Wad Hamid, which finds itself amidst a number of major changes and developments. Interestingly the village is resistant to these developments in the former while it is much more accepting of them in the latter. While most of this analytical piece will concentrate on the longer The Wedding of Zein, The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid will still be used sparingly throughout in order to further delve into Salih’s portrayal of postcolonial modernism vs traditionalism. The piece will further focus on ways in which his characters both try to resist and conform to Wad Hamid’s ideals.

WAD HAMID: THE PASTORAL PARADISE

Throughout The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid, Salih makes it clear that the village is primitive and lacks many resources necessary for survival; as a matter of fact right on the second page of the short story, the narrator expresses his yearning for basic modern infrastructure:

“Oh, I wish, my son, I wish-the asphalted roads of the towns-the modern means of transport-the fine comfortable buses. We have none of all this-we are people who live on what God sees fit to give us.”

Despite this lack of luxuries, the narrator soon changes his tone and states that the people of the village actually like their lifestyle filled with struggles and hardships, as it is what made them thick-skinned. Furthermore, while the village (like many rural areas in the Middle East) isn’t the most developed, it has still witnessed inexplicable fortunes that its residents attribute to blessings coming from certain objects and individuals. In the shorter of the two pieces, the narrator speaks to a visitor to Wad Hamid and recounts stories of miracles that the doum tree bestowed upon the villagers. Because the villagers live too far from the nearest hospital, which is stated to be in the next town over, most of them rely on bed rest to cure their ailments, but if their illnesses become too severe they opt to pray to and bring offerings to the tree. Miraculously, they find themselves up and running again afterward and many villagers recount seeing an old man with a white beard and prayer beads comforting them during their time at the tree. The tree eventually becomes a point of contention, as government officials start coming to village with modernization plans that would require the tree to be torn down. The villagers resist the government’s plans and some even land into jail time for their civil disobedience.  Wad Hamid’s residents eventually get their way after the government almost miraculously gets replaced with another one, which in turn starts the development projects while respecting the sanctity of the tree.

The reverence the villagers have for the tree almost goes as far as deification: “Do you not see that it is stony and appreciably higher than the river bank, like the pedestal of a statue, while the river twists and turns below it like a sacred snake, one of the ancient gods of the Egyptians?” The narrator then proceeds to state that no one planted the tree, almost verging on comparison to a deity that has no creator. While Wad Hamid is displayed as sort of a paradise, there is a dark element to the village namely the fate of strangers who do not embrace the traditions and customs of its inhabitants. One day the government sent a religious preacher to the village who was subsequently stung by horseflies and eventually contracted malaria and dysentery. The narrator recounts begging him to come to see the tree, but the bedridden preacher angrily refused and went on his way back to where he came from. Salih’s relationship with religion is a complex one, and many of his fictional writings seem to imply that he might have been critical of organized religion, but not necessarily the spiritual aspect of religious practices. In any way, professional preachers and imams were never portrayed in a positive light and this can be clearly seen in the characterization of the Imam in The Wedding of Zein, a symbol of organized religion who is forced to compete with the spiritual Sufi Haneen and the non-religious influence of Mahjoub’s gang.

ON TRADITIONAL ORGANIZED RELIGION

The Imam in The Wedding of Zein is a fascinating character; having spent ten years of his life studying in the prestigious Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Egypt you’d think that he would garner much respect from Wad Hamid’s residents. But as the Imam of the mosque, he finds it difficult to fit in with the villagers, who tend to associate him with negative emotions rather than reverence. For one thing, as Imam he is always involved with the funeral proceedings in the village, so his face always reminds the villagers of the loss of their loved ones. They also associate him with his harsh Friday prayer sermons that paint bleak pictures of sinners’ torturous fates in hellfire. Perhaps unfairly, he also reminds them of the times when they wake up for dawn prayers during the winters and they are forced to perform ablution with freezing water. The Imam is also seen as an outsider who is unconcerned with the day-to-day affairs of the village, such as crop cultivation and is more interested in other world affairs such as the Cold War between the US and Russia. He is also resented since the villagers don’t feel that he does any arduous work (with the exception of giving religious lessons to children for a fee that parents do not enjoy paying), but is still paid a salary for his services to the mosque. In any way, it seems that there is nothing the Imam can do to get on the villagers’ good side. Like the preacher in The Doum Tree, the Imam seems almost unwelcome in the village; however he is not cursed with dysentery or malaria, he is instead inflicted with isolation and friendlessness ailments that the doum tree cannot cure.

By contrast, Mahjoub and his gang are a group of men who are in their 30s and 40s and more importantly they run the daily affairs of the village. Because each one of them owns more land than anyone else, they by default have the most economic power in Wad Hamid. By the latter half of the novella, Salih gives us more details on all the work they do for the village, for instance during Nile flood seasons, they take the initiative to dig channels and voyage around the village checking for any damage that may have taken place. They also take care of the village’s security and policing as they are seen punishing women who openly flirt with men and kicking out intruders coming into Wad Hamid. They also have a great influence over the village’s mayor since they are shown to negotiate lower the tax rates he is charging on Wad Hamid’s inhabitants.  When the government starts sending delegations to start on development projects, it is the gang that meets up with them and negotiates the plans on behalf of the village and no project is ever started without the group’s consent. 

Another noteworthy aspect regarding Mahjoub’s gang is that they are irreligious in a village teeming with religious individuals. In one passage of the novella, the writer says that Mahjoub was actually known for his distaste for religious people, especially ascetics. Additionally, none of the gang members pray and only one of them goes to the mosque on a monthly basis, not for religious practices but rather to pay the Imam his salary and check on any repairs the mosque might need. Like the titular character, Zein, they do not like the Imam and only tolerate him because of his role in the village. Here Salih presents an interesting form of secularism versus religion and both elements in the village coexist in a pseudo-symbiotic relationship. The Imam relies on the gang to pay his salary, oversee the mosque’s conditions and even organize funerals and weddings; meanwhile, the gang needs the Imam to fulfill the religious needs of the village members. However, there is a reason why I dubbed this relationship a “pseudo-symbiotic” one mainly because the Imam is much more reliant on the gang than vice-versa. It should also be noted that Salih shows some form of separation of church and state as Mahjoub’s gang does not meddle into the Imam’s affairs and the Imam is not capable of getting involved with the gang’s operations.

Then there is the dervish Haneen, a man who is deemed mysterious by the village as he speaks to no one and his only companion is Zein, the village idiot. As a matter of fact, he has never dined at anyone’s home, except for that of Zein. He also disappears from the village for six months out of the year and comes back for the other six months. In spite of his aloofness, the village still has reverence for the dervish. The respect they have for Haneen only grows after he seemingly brought about many miracles for the Wad Hamid. After Haneen is able to stop an altercation between Zein and Saif ad-Din (who struck him in the head with an ax during an earlier passage), great fortunes start to befall the village. For instance, during Haneen’s year, as the villagers call it, cotton’s prices saw an unprecedented rise and the government even allowed its cultivation, thus cotton growers got to make a good profit for the year. The government also decided to build a new hospital, secondary school, and an agricultural school in the village. Haneen, like the doum tree, is a symbol of hope for the largely spiritual and superstitious villagers of Wad Hamid and the question of whether or not the miracles happened because of Haneen is irrelevant since the villagers perceive him as the source of their bounty. While both the more mystical form of religion (Haneen) and the secular power (Mahjoub’s gang) both contribute something tangible to the village, the more traditional religious element (the Imam) is left in the background as an afterthought. While it is difficult to interpret what Salih is trying to say on traditional organized religion, it could be said that he thought that it could not equally coexist with secular authority as one will surely overpower the other, and in this case, secular authority won. It seems, however, that secular authority has a much harder time of overpowering the more spiritual element of religion. At the same time, Salih seems to be telling the audience that spiritual religion can have an easier time coexisting with a secular government, but the same cannot be said for organized religion.

This marriage between spirituality and secularism is symbolized in Zein’s wedding, which happened after Haneen prophesized that Zein would soon “be marrying the best girl in the village” and at the same time the gang pressured the imam to marry him to Ni’ma, organized the wedding itself and gave Zein the clothing he wore during the ceremony.

NI’MA AND ZEIN: A MARRIAGE OF REBELS?

While Ni’ma ends up becoming Zein’s bride, not much is written about her in the novella. However, her few appearances are part of what makes her an interesting character study.  Ni’ma is shown to be a headstrong girl, who makes unconventional decisions. When she was younger, she forced her father to enroll her into elementary school to learn the Quran and she was the only girl in a class full of boys. She was shown to be gifted as she quickly learned to write and memorized parts of the Muslim holy book. Her escape from the norm seems to have an endpoint, however. When her older brother beseeched her to continue her education to become a doctor or a lawyer, she refused stating that:

“Education at school is a whole lot of nonsense. It’s quite enough to read and write and to know the Koran and the rituals of prayer.”

In a way, there is a strange juxtaposition that can be seen in Ni’ma’s rebellion, as she defied conventional norms (going to elementary school) just so she can attain traditional practices (prayer and proper Quran recitation).

Ni’ima is shown to be quite religious, and one of her favorite chapters (suras) from the Quran is the Chapter of the Merciful (Surat Ar-Rahman). She has a fascination with the religious concept of mercy and considered it to have a feminine characteristic. She herself personified “mercy” as a woman of great beauty who is dedicated to the service of her husband; she also wished her parents had named her “Rahma” (Arabic for mercy) instead of Ni’ima, which roughly translates to blessing. However, her notion of mercy shows that she still holds on to her society’s conventions that perceive a wife’s role of being subservient to her spouse, again showing us that there are some lines that she is not willing to cross.

Salih does eventually manage to describe the girl’s “tepid” rebellion. In one of the passages, a successful and well-respected teacher at an Intermediate School goes to Ni’ma’s parents and asks for her hand in marriage, which she immediately refuses. Her father gets angry and almost slaps his daughter, but suddenly stops before he strikes his blow not knowing exactly why he did so:

“Perhaps it was the expression of her eyes, perhaps the calm resolution on her face. It was as though the man sensed that this girl was neither disobedient nor refectory, but she was propelled by an inner counsel to embark upon something from which no one could deflect her.”  

She does have one critical moment of dissent, consisting of her decision to marry Zein, the village idiot. While her parents and brothers apparently rejected her decision at first, the youngest brother said: “Ni’ma was always headstrong and now she has chosen a husband for herself, let her have her way.”

 



Sudanese bride, a 23-year-old dentist, and a27-year-old IT engineer, both working in Saudi Arabia, hold their wedding ceremony in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 16, 2019. (Getty)

Zein, on the other hand, has rebelled against most forms of the village’s conventions. Right from the moment of his birth, he had displayed abnormal behavior as his mother noted that he came out her womb laughing rather than crying. He grew up to have quite an anomalous appearance with him becoming awkwardly tall and lanky, had prominent bones to his cheek and his jaws had small bloodshot eyes and had no hair on his head and face, not even eyebrows or eyelashes. To top it all off, his top and bottom front teeth were missing. During weddings, he wouldn’t sit with the male guests and would opt to joke around with the women in the kitchen, hoping they would give him scraps of food to fill his insatiable appetite. Zein is also shown to be irreligious, during weddings that lasted well into the night, he wouldn’t accompany people to pray the Fajr (dawn) prayer in the mosque and would instead go back home so that he could wake his mother to make him tea.

As Zein got older, he would grow into the habit of “falling-in-love” with a girl in the village and loudly declaring his love to everyone in town. While this behavior is initially seen as annoying and humiliating (especially to the families of the girls), mothers would eventually take advantage of his frequent infatuations, and use it to attract more eligible bachelors to their daughters:

“In a conservative society where girls are hidden away from young men, Zein became an emissary for Love, transporting its sweet fragrance from place to place. Love, first of all, would strike at his heart, then would he quickly transferred to the heart of another-just as though Zein were a broker, a salesman, or a postman.”

While the girls he fell in love with would eventually be married off to someone else, he never let that bother him as he would quickly move on to another one.

Now the writer never mentions why N’ima chose to marry someone like Zein, as a matter of fact, both characters hardly interacted with each other, but it is heavily implied that it might have something to do with her ideas on mercy and sacrifice. Salih would also mention that she saw Zein as an “orphan” in need of being cared for.

While we might never know the secret behind Ni’ma’s decision, one thing is for certain, Salih was a master at writing subtle societal and individual resistances against both traditionalism and contemporariness.

 


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