Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tayyib Salih is dead

Sudanese novelist, Tayyib Salih is dead. I was rather sad to read this news. I read his Season of Migration to the North (which is available in an excellent English translation supervised by Salih himself) in college and was affected by it. His Arabic style was not what affected me but the themes: the anger and even aggression. I was rather disturbed by the sexual aggression and never understood what Salih was doing with this element, but then understood that it was a 1) metaphor for Arab dealings with the colonizers although I did not like the use of sex as a weapon; 2) semi autobiographical. I met Salih in the 1980s and he could not have been more peaceful, and mild-mannered, and nice. I liked him instantly. I have said before that some of the most impressive and sophisticated intellectuals I have met in life have been from the Sudan. I don't know what it is: Sudan is a place brimming with ideas. Remember that in the 1960s, the Sudanese Communist Party was one of the biggest political parties in the region. Sudanese like ideas and debates, until the US-supported dictator, Ja`far An-Numayri was permitted to impose his Islamist version (assisted by the brilliant but dangerous Hasan Turabi) in return for opening up his country for US companies and intelligence, and in return for the smuggling of the Falasha. Sudanese are comfortable in the realm of abstract ideas and would debate in a way that is different from us Arabs in the Mashriq: we end up shouting and getting agitated, while they can argue for hours while drinking and munching, very calmly. I know, I am engaging in cultural generalizations but I allow myself--but not the White Man--that privilege. I once saw Tayyib Salih in Washington, DC through his friend Halim Barakat. I went with Halim Barakat, Hisham Sharabi and Arab literary critic, Kamal Abu Dib, to hear him talk. Salih (who is one of the best conversationalists I have met--let us say that he is the anti-thesis of Michael Totten whose picture appears in the dictionary under the word "Boring") was most interesting and amusing. Abu Dib responded by telling him that his talk was awful and that it did not say anything and was so rude to him--don't get me wrong, I can be rude when politically necessary. I was so pissed at Dib and had an urge to submerge him in Hummus. But Salih is one of those talented people who peaked early in life. I remember reading in a biography of Orson Welles that after he screened his movie, Citizen Kane before a crowd in Hollywood, a major director came to him and told him: I feel sorry for you. Wells asked: why, you did not like it? The guy said: oh, no. It is brilliant but you will never top that you and you are still in your mid-twenties.