I hadn’t read any Vita Sackville-West before and though I knew of her as an intimate friend of Virginia Woolf and Gertude Bell, my expectations of her writing were hazy. Twelve Days in Persia, an account of her journey across the Bakhtiari Mountains in south-west Iran, was a surprise.
Yes, there are passages that make a modern reader squirm – she spends a fair amount of time being patronising about the Persian peasant – but she also has some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, realistic accounts of the drudgery and pain of travel, and some provoking thoughts.
She ends the account in the oil-fields belonging to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. She writes,
It seems not irrelevant to wonder whether in the course of centuries the Anglo-Persian oil-fields may not revert to the solitudes of the Bakhtiari hills, while London, Paris and New York lie with the wild flowers blowing over their stones, and fields of corn bend to the breeze for the bread of the population in some distant capital whose name we do not yet know.
p 137 (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2009, original Hogarth Press, 1928)
I’d not read any Nawal El Saadawi before this novel and I was blown away.
Zeina is the illegitimate child of lauded literary critic, Bodour. Bodour became pregnant after falling in love with a revolutionary killed for his beliefs. She abandons their child to the streets and later marries a journalist who uses her social connections for his own gain.
Bodour has another daughter from her marriage, Mageeda, who loves ends up going to school with Zeina briefly. Zeina is laughed at for her background but their music teacher loves her and praises her slender fingers and her natural talent for music. Even after Zeina is expelled, the music teacher continues to teach her.
Eventually, Zeina becomes a famous singer and musician who praises mothers and accepts street children into her band. A woman who wears no make-up or dramatic outfits or jewellery to perform, but who uplifts all who hear her, even great religious men.
I loved this book. From the banks of the Nile to the courtrooms of London, the story migrates north and back as the narrator investigates the mysterious life of Mustafa Sa’eed.
We first glimpse Mustafa as the narrator does, as a remembered face among the villagers come to welcome the narrator home from England. His face sticks out because not only was he someone the narrator didn’t recognise, he remained silent whilst the others plied him with questions about the habits of westerners. Why was he so silent? When did he come to this small village? How did he come to be welcomed, accepted and even respected in this close-knit community?
Playing with forms of pre-Islamic poetry, teasing us with glimpses of the past of intelligent Mustafa, we circle around and back over Mustafa’s life, examining the opportunities and dangers of a brilliant mind in the face of discrimination and fetishisation. Women are drawn to Mustafa, but what really makes him feel alive? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.
Season of Migration to the North is one of those books that lingers in the mind. We all know what it feels like to come across someone truly remarkable and find ourselves endlessly wondering about their life and how they came to be the way they are. This should be a classic that sits beside The Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.