Sudan and Egypt are host to Naguib Mahfouz’s and Tayeb Salih’s popular Arab novels that not only share insight into the Arab world, but are also applicable to all cultures across the world. Season of Migration to the North takes the reader through village life in Sudan to the Western world in Britain while Midaq Alley shows the lives of timeless characters in a poor Cairo community. In both novels, the themes of marriage, lust, and gender are portrayed in contrasting ways. Midaq Alley delves into marriage as a necessity for women to succeed in life through the colored narrative of Hamida. Season of Migration to the North showcases a different type of relationship between men and women, through plain narrative, that is more lustful and where women are often sexually objectified. Colored narrative is when the reader is told something that a character thinks but it is usually from the third person point of view. Plain narrative is simply telling the facts of something that happens in the text often from the third person point of view and no inner thoughts are revealed. By using these literary devices, the authors use their characters to demonstrate unique aspects of life in the Arab world.
In Midaq Alley, Hamida’s envious attitude, obsession with wealth, and manipulation of men showcases her rebelling against her culture that forces women to depend upon a husband as an anchor to be successful in their own lives. Hamida would see the factory girls and would “envy their freedom and obvious prosperity” (Mahfouz 40) because they were born into wealth when she was born into poverty and had to fight harder for the same thing that they were given. She also had a strong longing for power and control over men, particularly Ibrahim Faraj and Abbas. With Abbas, when they kissed on the staircase “she knew his financial state was not impressive,” (Mahfouz 43) but he promised to work his entire life to provide for her, and that is what satisfied her in the end. Ibrahim really drove her insane as the only man to not entirely be under her seductive control. When it came to him, “[her] dreams of clothes, jewelry, money, and men were now fulfilled and she enjoyed all the power and authority they gave her.” However, “she longed for emotional power” (Mahfouz 255) over him.
Some feminist scholars suggest that Mahfouz was a patriarchal novelist who attempted to tarnish Hamida’s identity. One article suggests that he attempted to “transform her into a rebellious whore dismantling foundations of a patriarchal society” and that the novel “promotes the masculine narrative advocated by the domineering patriarchal community” (Saddik Gohar). The novel does make the reader dislike Hamida in many situations and she is extremely rebellious in her community, but her rebellion can be interpreted as the complete opposite. Marriage is an easy solution to poverty for her and she had many options for a husband, but she purposefully avoided it, “I am not the one who is chasing marriage, but marriage is chasing me. I will give it a good run, too!” (Mahfouz 26). She instead chooses to go against what is expected of her in order to sabotage the tradition and challenge her own community’s views on the role of women in relationships. Although she is oppressed in her society, Hamida still has a very strong voice in Midaq Alley, she is the protagonist and therefore has a lot of influence over other characters in the novel, particularly other men. Season of Migration to the North does not have this same women’s voice for the main character.
The narrator uses plain narrative to describe all the female characters in the book and when these characters are described it is always without their thoughts, they are the object of sex or marriage, and it is normally from a man’s perspective. Most of the women are mentioned in passing or do not have much development to their roles, but two of the strongest female characters are Bint Majzoub and Hosna. Bint Majzoub is often heard through dialogue, but she is know for being “uninhibited in her conversation” (Salih 64) and she speaks degradingly about other women. When surrounded by a group of men, she speaks very crassly about female circumcision arguing that sex is better if the woman is only doing it to please the man, “The infidel women aren’t so knowledgeable about this business as our village girls … They’re uncircumcised and treat the whole business like having a drink of water. The village girl gets herself rubbed all over with oil and perfumed and puts on a silky night-wrap, and when she lies down on the red mat after the evening prayer and opens her thighs, a man feels like he’s Abu Zeid El-Hilali” (Salih, 67). Then Hosna, who is one of the only females in the novel to receive respect and admiration from a man, meets a tragic fate after she promised “If they force me to marry [Wad Rayyes], I’ll kill him and kill myself” (Salih 80), and that is exactly what she did. Wad Rayyed was a man that was extremely physically infatuated with her and insisted he have her hand in marriage and all of the men in her life also supported this declaration. The narrator was the only one who detested, however, he did not heed Hosna’s threat when she said she would commit murder and suicide. It is arguable that he failed her just as much as the rest of the men in her life did. There is irony in the fact that the loudest woman degrades other women and that the most treasured one met death when she refused to conform to a forced marriage.
All portrayals of the wives of Mustafa are surrounded by what they offered him sexually. An example of this would be, Isabella Seymour, who worshiped Mustafa as an “African demon… you black god” (Salih 106). Then there is another strong female character in the book, Jean Morris, but she is murdered by Mustafa while they were having sex. The less developed or mentioned characters, such as Mrs. Robinson or Mabrouka, are only referred to as wives or known because they arouse other male characters in the book. Eliminating these characters from the text represents their forced silence in this portrayed culture.
These two novels are applicable to many different cultures and do not represent all Arab men or women, but they do act as a glance into certain scenes of misogyny and submission of women in some Arab communities. The representations in the novel are also representative of how traditions and attitudes have changed over time. Just as parallels of sexism were drawn from Darraj’s text, parallels can be drawn from these novels in comparison to American culture. Just as Hamida valued wealth in a husband, there are American mothers who encourage their daughters to marry into rich families and there are daughters who aspire to do that on their own. An example from Darraj is how Arab parents are often referred to as the name of their eldest son, imposing that daughters are not as valuable and should not carry the family name. However, this is “no different than American boys being named David, Jr. or Jonathan So-and-So” (Darraj 302). Darraj’s text reveals how similar many American traditions are to Arab traditions, and somehow the Arab traditions are labeled as oppressive to women or inferior in some other way. Although very different, the people of the East and the West, and those from different religions have more in common than they do not, as is evident in the relatable stories told by Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz.
Darraj, Susan Muaddi. “It’s Not an Oxymoron: The Search for an Arab Feminism.”
Gohar, Saddik. “Orientalizing the female protagonist in Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley.” Forum for World Literature Studies, vol. 7, no. 4, 2015, p. 568+. Academic OneFile, ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA445750315&sid=summon&asid=095a3a15e5178b62400905038233d094. Accessed 17 Oct. 2017.
Maḥfouẓ, Najib, and Humphrey T. Davies. Midaq Alley. The American University in Cairo Press, 2011.
Salih, Al-Tayyib, et al. Season of migration to the north. New York Review of Books, 2009.