Tayeb Salih was a Sudanese author who shot to fame through his novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’. He was often described as the ‘genius of the modern Arab novel’ by literary critics. Coming from a humble background of religious educators and small farmers, Tayeb Salih set his storylines grounded to his hometown, outlining the communal rural life. In a period when social criticism, bitter realities of life and committed literature dominated Arabic literature, he broke the monotony with his distinct ideologies of his cultural background and religious upbringing. After a stint in teaching, journalism and broadcasting, he took to writing and authored some of the most acclaimed literary works. ‘Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal’ (or ‘Season of Migration to the North’) became his classic work of fiction of his literary career, which made him one of the greatest Arabic authors of the 20th century. Despite being the top novelist in the Arab world, his works were hardly recognized in the US. Nevertheless, such was his popularity that his novels have seen translations in more than 20 languages. Some of the novels authored by him include ‘Urs al-Zayn’, ‘Al-Rajul al Qubrosi’, ‘Doumat Wad Hamid’, and ‘A Handful of Dates’. He introduced a Yearly Award to encourage and appreciate young and budding writers
Childhood & Early Life
Tayeb Salih was born on July 12, 1929 in Karmakal, close to Al Dabbah village, northern Sudan, into a family of farmers and religious teachers.
He went to quranic school initially and later completed his schooling from Gordon College, Khartoum.
He attended the University of Khartoum and started working as a teacher, with the desire of making a career in agriculture.
Eventually, he left for the University of London, England, for higher studies.
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After graduating from the University of London, he started working with BBC’s Arabic Service as the Head of Drama. He was then hired by the Ministry of Information, Doha, Qatar, as Director-General.
For ten years, he worked as UNESCO’s representative in the Gulf States.
He was introduced to literature while working at al Majalla, a London-based Arabic magazine, where he used to write a weekly column.
Most of his fictional works were centered on the village life and complex relationships of people in northern Sudan, despite living abroad for most of his life.
He released his novel ‘Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal’ in 1966, which was published in English in 1969 and was later translated into over 30 languages.
Despite its popularity across the world, the novel was banned in Sudan. It was made into a theatrical play, where the protagonist, Mohammed Bakri, received the Best Actor award at the 1993 Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre.
His comic short story collection ‘Urs al-Zayn’ was released in 1969, which narrates the ordeals of an odd-looking man while searching for a suitable bride.
His other novels in English include ‘Daw al-Bayt’ (Bandarshah I, 1971), ‘Maryud’ (Bandarshah II, 1976), ‘Al-Rajul al Qubrosi’ (The Cypriot Man, 1978), and ‘Doumat Wad Hamid’ (The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid, 1985).
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Through his 1964 ‘A Handful of Dates’, a collection of short stories, he attempted to make the reader realize that life offers plenty of choices and is not just a palette full of worries.
His 1966 masterpiece ‘Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal’, translated as ‘Season of Migration to the North’, describing the clash of east-west civilizations, is a modern classic work of Arab literature, which made him world-famous.
He launched the Yearly Award, in association with Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre, Omdurman, in 1998, wherein the Board of Trustees awards a writer from the participating novels. The first prize was given away in 2003.
Awards & Achievements
His book ‘The Wedding of Zein’ was adapted into a Kuwaiti movie and was well-received by film critics and movie buffs equally, clinching an award at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.
In 2001, Damascus-based Arab Literary Academy announced his novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’ as ‘the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century’.
‘Season of Migration to the North’ was voted among the ‘100 Greatest Books in History’ by authors from 54 nations in a writers’ poll, conducted in 2002.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1965, he married Julia Maclean, a Scottish native, and settled down in south-west London. The couple has three daughters – Zainab, Sara, and Samira.
He died on February 18, 2009, at the age of 80, after suffering from a kidney failure in a London hospital.
His body was flown to Sudan where he was buried at al-Bakri Cemetery, Omdurman, on February 20, in the presence of over 1,500 mourners.
Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre introduced Tayeb Salih Short Story Writing Prize for Youth in 2008, as a mark of respect to this distinguished Arab novelist.
Khartoum International Community School (KICS) started the Yearly Award, in his honor, which recognizes the talent of KICS students only and rewards them