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  • Writer's pictureMalak AlSayyad

Etching in the new Seasons of Migration

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Sudan’s most influential printmaker, Mohammed Omar Khalil, collaborates with the Beirut-based experimental publishing house ‘Dongola’ to bring a classic postcolonial Afro-Arab novel to life.

Mohammed Omar Khalil in his Long Island studio. (PC: M. AlSayyad)

Set in a “small village at the bend of the Nile” and filled with tales of sexual conquest, passionate murders and challenges to coloniality, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North quickly grabbed worldwide attention. It was translated into English only three years after its publication, but in Sudan, Salih’s home country, it did not make it past the censors. Despite critical acclaim, the novel was banned for thirty years due to its explicit sexual imagery. This, however, did not hinder the Arab Literary Academy from recognizing it in 2001 as “the most important Arab novel of the twentieth century.”

Fifty years after its publication, in a small town south of Tangier, Morocco,  Season of Migration to the North was to become the topic of discussion between two people who would give it new life.  

“I met Sarah in Asilah and explained to her that I want to publish a book on Tayeb Salih’s novel.” recounts Mohammed Omar Khalil, the master Sudanese printmaker currently living in New York. “She responded by saying ‘No. We’ll publish it,’ and told me about her new publishing house in Lebanon. It was called Dongola.” He smiles. “I liked this name, Dongola, because it’s the name of an ancient village in Sudan. So I said yes. And here we are.”

Dongola Limited Editions is an independent experimental publishing house founded by Sarah Chalabi. It specializes in limited edition artists’ books and focuses on creating collaborations across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. These books are not about art, rather they are art.  

Season of Migration to the North flips the post-colonial narrative of the time on its head. Instead of the white European man going south to ‘liberate’ the Africans from themselves, the African man was now writing his own narrative, and he was doing so while headed north. Equipped with certain remnants of colonialism—an elite education and fluency in the occupier’s language—the main character, Mostafa Said, engages the minds of London academics and conquers the hearts and bodies of the white women who fall prey to his charm. He plays the part that is expected of him with malicious accuracy, turning his room into a “harem,” dim with incense and burnt sandalwood; a trap for the orientalist woman-victim of the week. The book has been widely regarded as a reversal, the antithesis even, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mostafa Said is a product of the post-colonial crisis of identity. He is powerful and yet powerless, a victim and a perpetrator—“he loved a woman that treated him like dirt.” And eventually, he lost his grasp on life. “He never left England,” Mohammed Omar Khalil explains. “He carried it with him on his back, even when he went back to Sudan.”

Khalil was born in 1936 in Bourri near Khartoum, Sudan. He immigrated to the United States in the 60s and made a home for himself in New York City. He is regarded as one of the most important contemporary Middle Eastern painters, and as a pioneer printmaker. He has influenced more than two generations of artists as a teach and mentor. His work has been featured in the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Museum and the Jordanian National Museum, among others.

I visited Khalil in his Long Island studio, a vast warehouse-like space where the only place to walk is amongst piles of dusty books, CDs and large canvas paintings leaning against each other in seemingly endless rows. The ceiling is high and large windows covered in white curtains let in the sunshine, which illuminates every corner of the studio. He makes us a pot of cardamom coffee before settling into his favorite chair. His workstation is cluttered with books, etching knives, snippets of magazines and ink rollers, organized in a manner only clear to the artist himself.

Switching between English and Arabic, he recounts his own tales of migration and art. He tells me the story of the first time he took an art class in Italy, where the nude model was, in fact, naked; after the semester, she told him that he had scared her initially, “because you come from Africa.” Shifting in his chair, he explains how he wrote his letter of resignation to the faculty of Arts at the University of Khartoum after becoming fed up with administrative corruption. When he told his colleagues, they laughed. The next day, he left the country, not to return for another 27 years. Mohammed Omar Khalil distances himself from Mostafa Said, the novel’s main character, a womanizer who murders his sadistic wife with a knife during a passionate sexual encounter. “I’m not like that. […] He was horrible with women.” Khalil grimaces. But despite everything, he adds, “We all have a little bit of Mostafa Said in us…” As he chronicles his own journeys from Sudan to the US and Europe, I picture Khalil as the unnamed narrator of the novel, a voice of reason and balance, both disgusted by Mostafa Said and in admiration of him.

. . .

Season of Migration to the North is Dongola’s most recent project and will be published in a limited edition of 30 copies. Each will include an original Dongola publication of the Arabic novel designed by the acclaimed Iranian graphic designer Reza Abedini and a used English copy acquired from online retailers. Finally, each artists’ book will include a series of ten original etchings, printed, signed and numbered by Khalil himself. The project has already caught the attention of l’Institut du monde arabe, which will host a live book signing in Paris in March of this year.

Tayeb Salih’s novel was published ten years after Sudan’s independence from British rule and is widely recognized as one of the most powerful works of post-colonial Afro-Arab literature. Censored in Sudan, it was finally serialized in the Lebanese journal Hiwar in 1966. Now, more than fifty years later, it has found its way back to a publishing house in Beirut, at a time when its themes seem ever more relevant to the world we live in. Today, Beirut is going through its own identity crisis and Lebanon has witnessed season upon season of emigration and immigration. And the book? Well, the book has been touched by the magic of Mohammed Omar Khalil, joining the ranks of artists’ books that reinterpret the very notion of what it means to read a book.

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