I’ve been fond of reading for as long as I can remember, but I only started reading translated fiction roughly a decade ago. Not a lot of books get translated to Sinhala, my native tongue, so I wasn’t able to access most of the translated works until I improved my English reading fluency. And now, even though I believe I have covered a decent amount of ground in the last decade, there are still some gaps in my reading with Arabic literature being at the forefront – I hadn’t read an Arabic story until I came across Tayeb Salih’s The Wedding of Zein today.
Tayeb Salih is a Sudanese writer who immigrated to England three years before Sudan gained its independence from the British Empire. Although Salih authored only a handful of stories, he is considered one of the greatest among Arabic writers who pushed Arabic literature on to the world stage – his prose is rich in symbolism, and Season of Migration to the North, the novel touted to be best of his oeuvre, is apparently renown for its examination of East-West cultural conflict. So reading the NYRB classic publication of The Wedding of Zein, which also contains two of Salih’s earliest short stories, was a good introduction to his writing for me.
The first (and my favourite) story in the collection, The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid, is a tale that depicts the clash between tradition and modernization. In the Sudanese village where this story is set, the doum tree is one of the sacred relics. It has been a longstanding custom among the villagers to pay homage to the doum tree. For centuries they have relied upon it to look after their well-being, and now the doum tree is a part of their identity. However, sadly, the outsiders, including government officials who won’t spend more than one night in the village, just don’t get it. To them, the doum tree is a barrier to progress, and they want to be rid of it and build something ‘useful’ like a water pump or a steamer station in its place! Even though the villagers have managed to thwart these attempts on numerous occasions, the narrator, a pragmatic man from the village knows that their days of resisting ‘progress’ may be numbered. When people like his son who had left the village in pursuit of a better life “go to sleep and don’t see the doum tree in their sleep,” modernization will eventually find their village, which he accepts may not necessarily be a bad thing as long as tradition and modernity mutually coexist.
The next story, A Handful of Dates, is the shortest in this anthology. In it, a doting grandfather is trying to teach his favourite grandchild about the sin of laziness by taking him to their neighbour Masood’s estate. When the grandfather first arrived at the village forty-years ago, he had been a nobody. But with his business acumen, he had managed to buy two-thirds of Masood’s inherited land. The grandfather says Masood is an imbecile who managed his estate poorly that led to his downfall, and he has no qualms about profiting from it – he is, in fact, plotting to buy the remaining one-third of Masood’s land. However, the grandchild is not at all at ease with his grandfather’s aspirations.
I do not know why it was I felt fear at my grandfather’s words – and pity for our neighbor Masood. How I wished my grandfather wouldn’t do what he said! I remembered Masood’s singing, his beautiful voice and powerful laugh that resembled the gurgling of water. My grandfather never used to laugh.
When the grandfather takes the last of Masood’s date palm harvest to settle a debt, what the grandchild sees is a man driven by sheer greed – someone who won’t hesitate to crush others to get to the top. Although Masood’s pain is clear as daylight to the grandchild, his grandfather refuses to see it. So the story ends with the grandchild making himself throw up Masood’s dates he had eaten in defiance of the family’s patriarch.
Even though I loved Salih’s two short stories, I didn’t feel the same way about The Wedding of Zein. The novella begins with the announcement of the upcoming nuptials between Zein and Ni’ma which spreads in the village like wildfire. Despite being a kindhearted man, Zein is considered the village idiot – he had “burst out laughing” into this world, and he is famous for his antics. So at first, the villagers can’t understand why Ni’ma, the most eligible girl in their village will marry Zein, although they set aside their differences come to celebrate the wedding as a community in the end.
The magical realism Salih employs in The Wedding of Zein is the reason why I dislike it. This is purely a preference of mine and one that doesn’t even bother me always as I LOVE the works of Haruki Murakami and Gabriel García Márquez. But I guess mysterious agencies related to mysticism don’t work for me. 🙂