The Doum Tree

by tasharennie

Tasha Rennie

Tayeb Salih’s “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid”, is the story of a small Sudanese village caught in a struggle between the pressures of modern progress and the preservation of tradition and spirituality. A visitor is told the story of the doum tree of Wad Hamid by an old man of the village. The tree is an ancient palm with mythical origins that plays an important role in the spiritual lives of the villagers. It is the essence of the village and represents community, tradition, religion and culture. Though the isolated community knows little of the nation and world around them, their tree periodically finds itself in danger from outside sources. The old man states, “I cannot remember [the people]  ever having rebelled against anything. However, when they heard about cutting the tree down they all rose up as one man”. (4) Modernization threatens the tree with both physical destruction and the elimination of its spiritual significance. The sad and sympathetic tone illuminates the views of a villager who for the most part is ignorant of what goes on in the world, but who knows that eventually he, his community and the tree will be affected by development and modern progress.

The strongest aspects in this story are the unexpected narrative structure and the illustration of the setting. The reader is led to believe that the narrator is an old man. In the paternal fashion of a story-teller he weaves a pattern of stories that switch from the present to various points in the past. They also flip between the spiritual experiences the villagers have with the doum tree and more historical events involving the bureaucratic outsiders who periodically visit the village. As the old man explains, “our village actually witnessed many great men of power and influence…whom we never dreamed would ever come here – they came, by God, in droves”. (3) However, the narrator is eventually made known to be the young guest listening to the story. He reveals himself towards the end with a change in point of view, “When the old man had finished what he had to say he looked at me with an enigmatic smile..”. (18 ) Salih’s clever switch is startling and causes the reader to stop and reconsider the perspective from which they have been reading. This is a creative literary technique that allows both points of view to be shown told. Though the setting is not explicitly stated, the varied uses of imagery bring to life the atmosphere of a small African village.

Being of Sudanese origins and educated in both Khartoum and London, Salih’s experiences enable him to give both the insider and outsider perspective on colonization and the post-colonial period in Africa. Salih is known for fusion in his writing, and this story expertly brings together the issues of colonialism and political instability with cultural traditions and spirituality. Salih’s clever manipulation of the reader brings to life the tales, beliefs and wisdom of an old man isolated from the world and subtly contrasts them with the worldly, travelled and future-focused view of the nameless guest.

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