Tayeb Salih, who has died aged 80, was Sudan's most illustrious literary figure, a critically acclaimed and popular writer in the Arab world. His later work was largely overshadowed by Mawsim al hijra ila al shimal (Season of Migration to the North, 1966), a slim, idiosyncratic novel that was immediately lauded and has subsequently been translated into more than 30 languages. It has spawned vast amounts of academic analysis.
It tells the story of a man who returns to his village after years of study abroad, only to discover that another man, Mustapha Sa'eed, has taken his place. A strange, elliptical work, Season of Migration to the North reads like a series of theatrical monologues which map out the distance between the rural countryside of northern Sudan and cosmopolitan London of the 1920s. Colonial and sexual conquests compete across the east-west divide in one of the most remarkable encounters of its kind. In a form of revenge for the colonial "taking" of his country, Sa'eed devotes himself to seducing English women by posing as the fulfilment of their Orientalist fantasies.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Salih refused to settle for a simplistic denouncement of colonialism. In Salih's world, everything remains uncomfortably ambiguous. It is this ability to evade all fixed labels that accounts for the novel's longevity. Salih manages to put his finger on the root of our intertwined fates. The novel is also equally critical of parochialism and the hardships endured by women in traditional society. Edward Saïd described it as being among the six finest novels of modern Arabic literature. In 2001 it was declared the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus.
Salih was a quiet, courteous man. Respectful of tradition, yet not bound to it, he enjoyed intellectual discussion and always had time for younger writers. He played an active role in the world of letters, presiding over literary prizes and speaking at conferences throughout the region. A popular series of his collected works is widely available in Arabic and reflects a much more diverse range of writing than is obtainable in translation, spanning decades of fiction, literary criticism, travel writing and political commentary.
Born in Karmakol, near Al Debba, Salih moved to Khartoum as a young man to attend Gordon Memorial College (later Khartoum University). In 1952 he travelled to London as part of the first generation of Sudanese educated in Britain in preparation for independence, which came in 1956. Salih's encounter with the west was to mark his fiction and his life, though his depiction of village life in northern Sudan formed the centrepiece of most of his fiction. Through a rendering that is both realistic and absurdist, he transformed that humble setting into a universal stage.
Salih was to remain abroad for most of his life. He joined the BBC Arabic Service, becoming head of drama, followed by a period with the Ministry of Information in Qatar before he joined Unesco in Paris. Britain was to provide a fixed point of reference on his errant course. His life, like his work, reflected the cadences and discords of bridging the gap between east and west. He married a Scottish woman, Julia Maclean, in 1965 and settled in south-west London.
In the 1990s, in an article entitled, "Where did these people come from?", Salih voiced his disapproval of the Islamist regime in Khartoum, questioning the displacement of Sudanese culture and values in the name of Islam and "national salvation". Season of Migration to the North, which is sexually very frank and depicts the drinking and bawdy language of the villagers, was banned briefly, though it did little harm to a book that was already a classic.
In one of Salih's best-known short stories, A Handful of Dates, a young boy comes to realise that the idyllic world he lives in is ruled by tensions of which he is unaware. For the first time, he sees that life is full of choices and is obliged to face the fact that his beloved grandfather is not so innocent. It is this depiction of complicity and disgust that conscience can evoke that makes Salih a writer of truly universal proportions, and one whose work will continue to resonate through coming generations.
He is survived by his wife, Julia, and three daughters, Zainab, Sara and Samira.
• Tayeb Salih, writer, born 12 July 1928; died 18 February 2009
Tayeb Salih (Arabic: الطيب صالح; 12 July 1929 – 18 February 2009) was a Sudanese writer.
Born in Karmakol, near the village of Al Dabbah in the Northern Province of Sudan, he studied at the University of Khartoum before leaving for the University of London in England. Coming from a background of small farmers and religious teachers, his original intention was to work in agriculture. However, excluding a brief spell as a schoolmaster before coming to England, his working life was in broadcasting.
For more than ten years, Salih wrote a weekly column for the London-based Arabic language newspaper al Majalla in which he explored various literary themes. He worked for the BBC's Arabic Service and later became director general of the Ministry of Information in Doha, Qatar. He spent the last 10 years of his working career with UNESCO in Paris, where he held various posts and was UNESCO's representative in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Tayeb Saleh's writing is drawn from his experience of communal village life that is centered on people and their complex relationships. "At various levels and with varying degrees of psychoanalytic emphasis, he deals with themes of reality and illusion, the cultural dissonance between the West and the exotic orient, the harmony and conflict of brotherhood, and the individual's responsibility to find a fusion between his or her contradictions"  (Tayeb Salih (n.d)). It can be said that the motifs of his books are derived from his Islamic background and his experience of modern Africa, both pre- and post-colonial (Tayeb Salih (n.d)).
Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal was published in Arabic in 1966, and in English as Season of Migration to the North in 1969. It is narrated by a young man who returns to his village of Wad Hamad in the northern Shamaliyah province in Sudan, after studying in Europe for seven years, eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country. Once back, the narrator discovers a stranger among the familiar faces of childhood: the enigmatic Mustafa Sa’eed. Sa'eed takes the young man into his confidence, "telling him the story of his own years in London in the early part of the twentieth century, of his brilliant career as an economist, and of the series of fraught and deadly relationships with European women that led to a terrible public reckoning and his return to his native land."
Salih achieved immediate acclaim when Season of Migration to the North was first published in Beirut. In 2001, the book was declared "the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century" by the Arab Literary Academy.
The novel was banned in Saleh's native Sudan for several years despite the fact that it won him prominence and fame worldwide. The novel was adapted into a theater production in Israel.
Urs' al-Zayn (published in English as The Wedding of Zein) is a comic novella published in 1969 centering on the unlikely nuptials of the town eccentric Zein. Tall and odd-looking, with just two teeth in his mouth, Zein has made a reputation for himself as the man who falls in love over and over with girls who promptly marry other men- to the point where mothers seek him out in hopes that he will draw the eye of available suitors to their eligible daughters. (The Boston Bibiophile, 2010)
"The Wedding of Zein" was made into a drama in Libya and won Kuwaiti filmmaker Khalid Siddiq an award in the Cannes Festival in the late 1970s.
the year he stroke up the yearly award Yearly Award, Endorsed by Tayeb Salih during his life and organized by Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre, Omdurman,Sudan. A group of Salih's friends and fans formed a committee to honour him in 1998. The committee collected $ 20,000 for Tayeb Salih’s personal use. However, he indicated his desire to utilize the money in launching a cultural initiative that supports literary life in Sudan. Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre's Board of Trustees established an independent secretariat to administer the Prize award and the associated activities. A committee of writers and academics in Sudan receives and evaluates the participating novels, and selects the winners. The winners are announced on 21 October of each year and the winning titles are published by Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre. The award of the Prize is usually accompanied by a conference on various aspects of Sudanese literature.
The first Prize was awarded in 2003.
In 2008, Abdelkarim Mirghani Cultural Centre launched another prize under the name Tayeb Salih Short Story Writing Prize for Youth.
Altayeb Salih Prize for Creative Writing
- Yearly Award, started after his death located Khartoum, Sudan in KICS (Khartoum International Community School). This award is only open to students of KICS and not the general public.
The prize has, year by year, acquired more significant importance and worth with expansion of the domain of participation from all over nations of the world, besides the magnificent and distinctive organization of the conclusive works which are always attended by first vice-president of the republic of Sudan, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha. However, board of trustees of the Prize has announced, this year, the launch of the third session whose conclusive events will be run during the coming February.