Compare the portrayal of death in ‘The Story of Zahra’ and ‘Season of Migration to the North’

In both ‘The Story of Zahra’ and ‘Season of Migration to the North’, many characters die as a result of their own actions. Some deaths are ambiguous, like those of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed in ‘Season of Migration to the North’, whilst others are more overt – such as the death of Zahra in ‘The Story of Zahra’ and that of Jean Morris. In all these events, characters have chosen death, and it is this self-destructive death that I will be examining.Zahra becomes obsessed with the sniper as a result of the events of her life in the ‘Story of Zahra’. When Zahra first learns of the presence of the sniper, she makes a conscious decision to die by purposefully walking down the street which he is targeting. She anticipates ‘only one thing: hearing a bullet and then falling dead’. She does this because, traumatised by her mother taking her on her mother’s illicit assignations with her lover, she had lived her life with great apathy. She later a man to seduce and continues to allow him to use her even once it is clear that he isn’t prepared to marry her. In Africa, she agreed to marry a man she had only just met and didn’t even like. After they separated, back in Beirut and the midst of civil war, she cowered in the house with her mother, waiting ‘to be obliterated’. After escaping the city with her family, she feels compelled to return.In ‘Season of Migration to the North’, Sa’eed’s widow, Hosna Bint Mahmoud, is forced into marrying Wad Rayyes, an elderly man. Although many of the villagers advise Rayyes not to marry Hosna Bint Mahmoud, everyone in the village, apart from the narrator, supports Rayyes’ right to marry her, against her will. Despite Hosna Bint Mahmoud’s grievances, she remains submissive, causing very little commotion – at least until her tragic death at the end. When Hosna Bint Mahmoud kills Rayyes this is described very graphically and visually: ‘blood covered the mat and the bed and flowed in rivulets across the floor of the room’.The detail of this description shocks the reader, especially as the book has been philosophical peaceful up until this point. Hosna Bint Mahmoud’s body is covered in bites and scratches. Hosna Bint Mahmoud stabbed Wad Rayyes in the groin multiple times, as a woman’s purpose in marriage in this society is to produce children and do as the man wants. It could be said that both Hosna Bint Mahmoud and Wad Rayyes caused their own deaths: Hosna Bint Mahmoud killed both her husband and then herself, falling onto the dagger, in the literal sense, yet Wad Rayyes also played his part. He forced a woman into marrying him who did not wish to do so, and went against the advice of the rest of the village.The pressure on the similarly apathetic Zahra mounts up until she finds that when she wants to do something, she is powerless: after seeing a group of refuges, she wishes desperately to help them, but at the time had only watched ‘like a tourist’. It is at this point – when she realises her apathy – that she becomes scornful of herself, comparing herself to a tourist, and she becomes fixated by death. She walks to where she believes the sniper to be targeting and thinks ‘well here I am. I am about to lose myself forever’. She thinks this as though she has already lost herself and dying will merely make it permanent.However, she is not shot and does not die. Zahra’s fixation with death intensifies to the point that she becomes ‘obsessed by the sniper’. Approaching the building, she still wills the sniper to kill her. She enters the building and, at the prospect of death, her feet ‘seemed to grow extremely light’. Climbing the staircase, the higher she goes, the higher she holds her head – as though going to her death emboldens her and makes her proud of herself. Previously, Zahra had always been submissive, doing as others willed, scarring herself and never speaking out. It is ironic that only when she actively seeks her death does she hold her head high and have a spring in her step.In ‘Seasons of Migration to the North’, Sa’eed pursues Jean Morris, who was the one woman who rejected him. He becomes obsessed with her and is filled with a selfish desire. Although he sees himself as the predator, using words such as ‘hunting’ and using metaphors involving bows and arrows such as ‘my arrow missed’ when he fails to win her over, she is clearly the one in power and is enticing him on. Such is her power over him that she gets him to destroy his most precious possessions, which are parts of himself and his heritage.When he kills her, she seems to want death: her eyes ‘follow the blade’, wanting him to kill her, until he finally plunges it into her chest. When he kills her, she seems to welcome the act, calling him ‘darling’ – a term of endearment perhaps strange to use towards the man who is killing you. Mustafa Sa’eed does not then kill himself as she asked; he shies away from killing himself. Sa’eed’s killing of Morris is very graphic and shocking, and sex is mingled with murder. The violence of their relationship is developed with verbs such as ‘crushing’ and ‘gushing’ which are both dynamic and violent. Jean Morris opens ‘her thighs wider’ both as an invitation to him to have intercourse with her and also as a request to him to kill her.Zahra also invites death. Zahra’s objective, her own death, and her means of achieving this death, the sniper, converge both in the reader’s and in Zahra’s minds. Death is personified as ‘crouching in the dark corners of the building’ whilst the footsteps of the sniper’s approach are described as those of ‘a soul which knew only the pulse-beat of death; that knew only the void.’ This merging of the sniper and death produces a grim reaper like figure, ‘the god of death’. When the sniper fails to kill her but instead uses her for his own pleasure, rather than never returning, Zahra keeps on coming back.She justifies her return by telling herself that she is distracting him from his task and that she must surely be saving lives. Although she may no longer be consciously seeking death, the imagery of the ‘god of death’ continues, making it clear that, sub-consciously at least, she still associates him with her own doom and is seeking her death. After a while however, Zahra’s fixation on death pales away and is supplanted by her fixation on the sniper. Finally she has seems to have a prospect of happiness, yet what she recently sought so desperately she now receives: death at the hands of the sniper. This death is brutal and very overt.In ‘Seasons of Migration to the North’, there are two much more ambiguous deaths: the death of Sa’eed and the possible death of the narrator. Sa’eed was last seen in his fields beside the flooding Nile. His body is never found, yet it is presumed that ‘he must have been drowned and his body had come to rest in the bellies of the crocodiles’. We never find out if Sa’eed intended to kill himself, had an accident or is actually still alive (although the reader is led to favour the former). It is ironic that it was the ‘life-giving Nile’ which is meant to have killed him. Later, the narrator also decides to kill himself in the Nile. He feels a ‘great thirst’ and is drawn to the river. Feeling a longing for it, and death, he throws himself in. However, he changes his mind – crying ‘help! help!’ – and decides to live. Despite this, we never know if he is rescued as it is at this point the book closes. The narrator’s possible death reflects that of Sa’eed not just in its manner but also in its ambiguity. I believe he dies – and that this is symbolised by the ending of the book which he has narrated.The manner of the narrator’s possible death is similar to Zahra’s: both choose to live and only then die. Traumatised by her mother’s actions, Zahra lived her life with great ambivalence until she realised that she was just watching, like a tourist, the world go by. Seeing all the death and suffering in the war-zone around her she is much attracted to death and seeks death with the sniper. However, he does not kill her and instead takes her as a lover. She finally feels that she is doing something, trying to save innocent lives, and her obsession with death fades. Once she loses her obsession with death and instead looks forward to life, the sniper shoots her. It is ironic that she is thwarted: her desire is never fulfilled until it is no longer her desire and the fulfilment of her previous desire obliterates her new one.In both ‘The Story of Zahra’ and ‘Seasons of Migration to the North’ characters pursue self-destructive courses, many deliberately – even if they have changed their minds by the time death comes to them. These deaths are often very symbolic – used to portray the domination of women over men, the ambiguity of death, or the uselessness of war. Both Zahra and the narrator of ‘Season of Migration to the North’ seem to be thwarted when they choose to live, rather than die.

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