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Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

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Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    

Worth rereading

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tayeb_salih.jpgI have read Tayeb Salih's novel, Season of Migration to the North, more times than any other non-children's book - four or five times by my last count.  I first read it in college (it may constitute my only academic take-away from those years), and my ardor was instantaneous.  

In a sense, my devotion to Season of Migration to the North is odd because, even now, my understanding of the story is limited.  But from the beginning, I grasped that Season of Migration to the North was a book to be read when resiliency was needed, and that its author, Tayeb Salih, was a person of immense wisdom and deep understanding of human behavior and society.  That I never met him (he died last year) is one of the few regrets of my life.

Season of Migration to the North recounts the story of a young man (unnamed) who returns from studying in London to his native Sudan, where he takes a job as a civil servant in the newly-independent country's Ministry of Education.  On a trip to the remote village in which he was raised, he meets a newcomer to the village - Mustafa Sa'eed - who has a mysterious past.

Like the young narrator, Mustafa Sa'eed also studied in London and lived there for 30 years, a sojourn that culminated in tragedy and imprisonment.  After his release from prison, Mustafa Sa'eed returns to Sudan, where he settles down to the life of a farmer and marries a local woman, Hosna.  Confiding part of his backstory to the young narrator when they first meet, Mustafa Sa'eed soon dies and entrusts guardianship of his wife and sons to the young narrator.

Some years later an elderly man, Wad Rayyes, in the village decides that he wants to marry Hosna.  The young narrator is called upon to act - by Wad Rayyes, who wants the narrator to convince Hosna to marry him; by Hosna, who wants the narrator to marry her so that she can be protected from suitors; by the narrator himself, who is in love with Hosna.

Only after unearthing a more comprehensive version of Mustafa Sa'eed backstory than had been originally disclosed is the young narrator able to act.  The choice he makes is simultaneously inadequate to the demands of the situation and momentous, a polarity that Salih urges us to accept and embrace as implicit in the human condition.

Season of Migration to the North unfolds non-chronologically and impressionistically, allowing its story to emerge through juxtaposition of memories, conversations and scribbles.  From Salih's expert (and concise - the novel is a mere 169 pages) use of this technique, a kind of magic results.  The book is a page-turner and a prose poem, an analysis of all the major power dynamics of modern times (East/West, male/female, black/white, Christian/Muslim), as well as an affirmation of the human capacity to reduce such dynamics to irrelevancies.  Symbolically reenacting the confrontation of cultures wrought by colonialism, Season also contains stunning depictions of the destructive potential in sexual passion between individuals.  The novel additionally features some of the most haunting descriptions and quotable phrases I have read (in Denys Johnson-Davies' superb translation).

To this list of achievements, add another: Season's power is so visceral that it compels action.  "[H]alfway between north and south . . . . unable to continue, unable to return," the novel's narrator rejects paralysis and embraces volition.  (p. 167.)  This reader has never been able to read the book without doing the same.  

For this reason, Season of Migration to the North is indispensable.  I have  a copy with me anywhere I live, and I am confident that - given the life span - I will yet read it many more times.

(Image of Tayeb Salih from NPR)

Reflections prompted by the death of Tayeb Salih

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tayeb_salih.jpgI was greatly saddened to learn today that, earlier this week, Tayeb Salih died.  Salih wrote Season of Migration to the North, a book that is, in my estimation, the 20th century's most perceptive work about power dynamics (West and East, white and black, male and female, Christian and Muslim).  It is also gorgeously written (as rendered in translation by Denys Johnson-Davies).

Born in Sudan, Salih's views were nuanced and complex, suggesting that he had personal experience striking a balance between traditional, even pre-modern, roots and a contemporary urban existence.  In his writing, he was neither ideological nor romantic; in Season, he didn't glorify the simple peasant life or uniformly condemn colonization.  Sex, like birth and death, humiliation and anger, is an aspect of human behavior without which you cannot understand the whole; and as such, he wrote openly about it.

Contrast Salih's writing, and his legacy, with the unfortunate situation of surrounding the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai.  After the Festival declined Geraldine Bedell's new book, The Gulf Between Us, because it contains a gay character, Margaret Atwood announced that she'd be boycotting the Festival, consistent with her obligations as vice-president of International PEN

Conference organizers objected that the topic of homosexuality would offend readers in the region, but this reason seems inadequate.  People who might be offended, after all, are free not to read the book.  In any event, ideas that offend may nonetheless have value. 

Homosexuality, like the forced marriage, subsequent rape, and murders that occur in Season, is a part of human experience.  Whether we acknowledge it or ignore it, whether it offends us or attracts us, homosexuality exists.  Without examining it openly, we impoverish our understanding of the whole.

Season, which was originally written in Arabic, is widely-acknowledged as one of the foundational works of modern Arab literature.  A literary festival in Dubai has options as to the traditions on which it wants to build, and Salih's legacy is one of them.  I am profoundly grieved that, in the wake of Salih's death, it is not doing so.  An Arab literature grounded in, and expanding upon, the richness of Salih's understanding of humanity would be a resource for the whole world.

(Photo from Canadian Broadcasting Company.)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Salih, Tayeb category.

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