The doum tree of Wad Hamid

by melaniewyn

Melanie Anderson

When you leave us tomorrow—and you will certainly do so, swollen of face and inflamed of eye—it will be fitting if you do not curse us but rather think kindly of us and of the things that I have told you this night, for you may well find that your visit to us was not wholly bad (15).

These words, from the old man in Tayeb Salih’s short story “The doum tree of Wad Hamid,” are shared with a younger guest to his village on the Nile River. Although the story the elder shares may be a passing moment for his guest, this story is not a passing moment for its readers.
With the heartfelt recollections from the old man about the sacred doum tree—how it came to be on the river bank, its meaning to the locals, and the threats against its life—the reader gets a feeling for how traditional lives are being threatened through colonialization, decolonialization, and globalization. These issues are further reinforced through Salih’s use of literary techniques such as characterization, story telling, and point-of-view change.
The first noticeable uniqueness to this work is the characterization. All of Salih’s characters are left nameless. The old man, mentioned earlier, is simply an old man and therefore could be anyone. The only thing we learn about the guest is that he is male and younger than the local man because he is called “son.” Thus, this guest could be anyone as well. Moreover, the location is nameless—we only learn that it is located on the Nile—and each of the governments are titled based on their location in history—colonial, post-colonial, and so on—instead of by names. These vague titles allow readers to see that this story could be any community along the Nile, in any country; Salih makes the readers understand that this is a common issue that happens in many places.
The next literary technique that a reader will find is the use of storytelling. More than three quarters of the story is oration from the old man in the village. His story is not broken by any other thoughts or non-oratory writing. This demonstrates the importance of oration in many traditional communities. It adds an interesting dynamic as the story told by the old man is interrupted only by his own directions for the guest and not by inward thoughts or vocalization by others.
At the end of the story we find vocalization by a new party. In the last few pages inward thoughts are thrown on paper and the reader finds out that this entire story was not actually written by the old man. This disrupts the story and can cause some mixed emotions from readers as they realize that it was not the old man talking to them the entire. This is not a negative aspect of the short story but rather a clever demonstration by the author of how globalization and colonialization are affecting people. The old man cannot even share his own story; someone else has to write it for him.
All in all, this short story is an excellent demonstration of the effects that colonialization, decolonialization, and globalization has had, and continues to have, on many communities. A reader can find these examples on the surface through the man’s stories of his own community’s sacred doum tree. However, a reader can delve deeper and find even more examples of how Salih’s literary techniques reinforce these issues and effects. The story stays with the reader as the old man states his final request: “Tomorrow, without doubt, you will be leaving us. When you arrive at your destination, think well of us and judge us not too harshly” (20).

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