Tayeb Salih: The Doum Tree

by martazem

Marta Zemojtel

English 213

The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid

Just as the Doum palm is considered a vital and sacred resource to the preservation of the life and culture of inhabitants of the Nile valley, Tayeb Salih’s short story, centred around this same tree, serves an equally significant function in providing a fresh and multi-faceted perspective to the topic of colonialism and the pressures and consequences of imposed progress and modernization.

            Salih’s story starts off by diving right into a polite lecture by a narrator who clearly exudes experience and a sense of paternal wisdom about his village, which he shares with his presumably younger guest. “Tomorrow you will depart from our village, of this I am sure, and you will be right to do so. What have you to do with such hardship,” remarks the nameless narrator, who is confident that his visitor is too accustomed to the luxuries and standards of the lifestyle he temporarily traded in for the “savage flies” and “dark streets” of an unfamiliar territory. Salih interweaves the narrator’s dialogue focused on the present moment with narratives on which he relies for the recollection of past events to inform his visitor. Of these, the first two narratives focus on a friend of the narrator’s son and a preacher, both visitors to the village who left abruptly after flies, dysentery and malaria outweighed the perceived “delights of the primitive life.” The narratives detailing struggles with the outside, post- colonial bureaucracy which “wished to make [the village] conscious of its presence,”  are contrasted with ones in which Salih illustrates the first hand impressions and identities of the villagers through dream sequences, which fortify their emotional and spiritual connections to the Doum tree and the village itself. The narrative structure’s constant shifts between the narrator’s attentiveness to the present state of his guest and his recollections of the past create a sense of division and separation within the story, which Salih purposely uses to parallel the cultural diaspora resulting from colonial pressures permeating into the village.

            Salih manipulates the narrative structure of the story in a manner which does not limit it to a basic tool of storytelling, but also allows it to function as an instrument of theme. The dramatic shift in narration near the end leads the reader to question the perspective they were being fed for the majority of the story. However, rather than cheating the reader out of authenticity, Salih delivers a feeling of exile which perfectly achieves the purpose of instilling the same sense of disconnect, change and unfamiliarity within the reader. Salih’s ability to make us question our own understanding of what we seemingly just witnessed with an unexpected shift in perspective, wakes in us the same “sadness for some obscure thing which [we] are unable to define,” creating a connection between the reader and the work, which can only be accomplished by a sympathetic and thoughtful author.

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One Comment to “Tayeb Salih: The Doum Tree”

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