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Notes on Tayeb Salihs A Handful of Dates

University of Newcastle upon Tyne Intl. Summer School 2008
Creative Writing: North of Where?
Commentary on the power of Symbolism in Tayeb Salih's story:" A
Handful of Dates"
The Wedding of Zein & other stories by Tayeb Salih,tr. Denys Johnson-Davies
(London: Heinemann, African Writers Series, No. 47,1969).
Tayeb Salih is Sudan's greatest storyteller whose contribution to both African and
Arabic literatures is grelaty recognized. His stories are celebrated for their high degree
of originality, humoristic and symbolic airs as well as their incorporation of aesthetic
and literary features.
"A Handful of Dates" is one of his best-acknowledged works. It tells the story of
a boy depicted as a witness to the greed and ill-natured spirit of his grandfather who
has gotten his wealth by craftily observing a neighbour, Masood, who inherited a
good deal of land. He waited for the moments when Masood was under the greatest
financial pressure--and that way, bit by bit over forty years; he took advantage of
Masood's property, and gained possession of two thirds of his land. The grandfather
described Masood as an indolent and a much-married man and thus, held him
responsible for all the losses of land and wealth he suffered. The author showed the
disgust of the boy to his grandfather’s exploitation of Masood when he spewed up
some dates his grandfather had taken over from Masood's land and had given him to
eat. Though the story was tiny and brief, it did say and exhibit a lot of themes of
interest and applicability to people of all cultures and ideologies. The fact that the
story- along with other stories by Salih- was celebrated and translated into English by
Denis Johnson Davies has helped in bringing about the recognition of Salih's skilled
literary abilities, and has assisted in proving the undisputed importance and utility of
translation as a tool to enhance and strengthen ties between peoples and literatures of
the world.
Some of the achievements gained from translating this story into English are:
1. Contributing to the depiction and thus, the understanding of the natural habitat
in Sudan as a model of an Afro-Arab community with the details of life based
on love for and dependence on palm trees as major source for income and a
criterion to measure power;
2. Strengthening shared beliefs about the universality of values and feelings
towards them and depict their representation in Salih’s literary works.
The story can be dealt with from different perspectives for all the wealth of
themes it displayed but I will-in this commentary- only be interested in its powerful
symbolic effectiveness.
Symbolism in the presentation of ideas and figures is a common practice to flesh
out a theme in Tayeb Salih's writings. This capacity- I believe- is responsible for all
the fame and respect he receives and the impact of his stories on multinational
readers. Symbolism is an effective strategy when the writer is interested in engaging
his readers in some mental effort. Right from the beginning, Salih started to design the
symbolic frame of his product. The protagonist of the story, the boy, is presented in
such a way as to imply his uniqueness in behaviors. Contrary to his companions, he
loved going to the mosque and won the approval of his grandfather with whom, not
with his father, he used to go out. This suggests the broad gap in strength,
consciousness and physical ability that separated the boy -protagonist- from his
grandfather- to justify the boy's limited reaction at the end of the story to the scenes of
exploitation his grandfather practiced to which the boy was a witness. This is
significant because it implicitly refers to the vast gap in power and resource between
exploiters and the exploited, or even the witnesses to such acts. Colonizers versus
colonized, landlords versus hired farmers, entrepreneurs versus simple workers can be
some examples for relations with potentials for exploitation.
Hating his grandfather for exploiting Masood's troubles and spewing out the dates
he was given to munch were the only logical and reasonable reactions he was capable
of producing, given the limited physical and logistical capacity he was equipped with.
This clearly refers to the same gap in means and resources that separated the
colonialist powers- as one possible reading between the lines may allow- from the
countries that fell into their suppressive hands. What is particularly interesting when
we venture to interpret the exploitation referred to in the story is that it can have a
twofold understanding. The latter being one of them; it can also refer to the
exploitation practiced by nationals when a powerful individual or firm uses or abuses
his status or capacities to bring others to their knees (underpay them, forcing them to
lose hold of their possessions, snapping the fruition of their labor, standing on the way
of their development, denying their right to share power, wealth, luxury, etc. to
mention but a few).
With reference to the content of the story, the feeling of love the boy initially had
for his grandfather is rather an admiration for his distinguished status in the society
and can be attributed- as the writer tells us- to a human instinct to incline to
supremacy. Unlike the children of his age, the boy was intelligent. In sharp opposition
to his mates, the boy was shown to retire himself from partaking in munching from
the harvested dates of Masood –the ex-owner-of-the-fields- while his companions
were swarming like ants around the trunks of the palm trees. In introducing the story,
the boy gave rein to his imagination when tired of swimming, to picture to himself a
tribe of giants living behind a wood, a people tall and thin with white beards and
sharp noses, whom he likened to his grandfather. This sketch is significant for it
depicts a fine symbolic reference to white colonialists and to the thing in common his
grandfather had with them .i. e. selfish desire of exploitation.
Moreover, the grandfather is also equipped with equivalent abilities when he
needs to justify his exploitation of Masood's lands. The demagogy and cunning tactics
- trademark of exploiters of all sorts and ages-are evident is his argument.
Stigmatizing Masood as an indolent and much-married man was how he justified his
getting hold of his fields. This is- evidently- not the case with Masood. The boy grew
up to notice the haughtiness of his grandfather in the village to the extent that it was
hard for him to believe he had overtaken Masood's property. Nothing in his attitude
suggested otherwise. What an excellent symbolic reference to colonialist presence in
their colonies or local exploiters over suppressed fellowers? Masood typically framed
the picture of an inhabitant whose innocence and simplicity made him the potential
victim of the grandfather's exploiting and selfish personality. The feeling of being
exploited, though, is bitter like Colocynth. It is not only people like Masood who can
experience its irritation, palm trees, donkeys and camels experience are also capable
of sensing that and express their disapproval of it by drying up, braying or
complaining noisily.
To demonstrate this, we can refer to many symbolic implicit-yet provocativesigns which prevail throughout the story. It may be felt in the careful use of character
phrases in the same way as it is displayed in fine and vivid pictures. When the writer
quoted the boy saying in describing his grandfather's unparalleled powerfulness: "I
never saw anyone in the whole village address him without having to look up at him,
nor did I see him enter a house without having to bend so low" - both indicative of his
strength and authority and the status he accomplished in the community. The boy
expressed the real motive for the early feeling of love he felt towards his grandfather
when the writer caught him uttering: ' I loved him and would imagine myself, when I
grew to be a man, tall and slender like him, walking along with great strides". It is
then a pragmatic materialist love with its 'sweet' consequences in mind.
The reference to colonialist- in its two forms: foreign and local- exploitation can
be figured out from many statements uttered by the grandfather, such as: "Yes, my
boy, forty years ago all this belonged to Masood- two thirds of it is now mine". Greed
and ill-natured will of carrying on exploiting others through possessing the land in its
entirety is apparent in the grandfather's materialist prediction: "Before Allah calls me
to him, I shall have bought the remaining third as well". This is so blatantly typical of
what happened to the whole colonies of which Sudan is one, whose land and riches
were taken over by the colonialists. It also refers to any local unorthodox or unjust
ruling which abused people, drifted them aside and marginalized their capacities.
Though tiny and brief, the story intelligently amalgamates all the tools necessary to
accomplish a comprehensive picture for an theme of exploitation: setting, exploiters '
'characters', a realistic plot, techniques and a theme worth appreciation. The physical
description of the exploiter i.e., grandfather (so tall that he has to bend low when
entering a house as well as making others look up at him) signifies both materialist
and abstract traits of exploiters. The story tells us that he uses to wait to the time when
his neighbour Masood is under severe financial pressure to buy land for cheap from
him (technique) and is planning for getting hold of the remaining sum of Masood's
land (strategy). Naming Masood as an indolent man and lying about the real motives
behind his losing hold of his property symbolically complements the demagogical and
malign tactics used by exploiters of all sorts.
The local setting that represents village life in its casual form is the preferred
domain for almost all Tayeb Salih's writings. Not only it adds much to the
genuineness and originality of the work and agitates enjoyment but it enables to
consider the factor of locality in drawing critical insights about the interpretation of
the story's themes and lessons. Likewise, realizing and recognizing the the emphatic
effects of culture on the language: both spoken and written, Tayeb Salih skillfully
used the language to serve an apparently twofold objective: celebrating the features of
tradition and strengthening adherence to it. In this way, his language plays an
effective role in conveying and developing nationalistic concepts.
As mentioned above, emotional vomiting the ill-gained product (dates) was the
only symbolic means the boy- witness of the exploitation incident- afforded to dispose
of to express his disapproval and resentment (limited resistance with an ominous
powerlessness to react), meanwhile the braying of donkeys and the palm trees'
weeping are symbolic aesthetic referents to the soar reaction of natural elements.
The time in which this story had been written, .i.e., '60s' is crucial in understanding
the explicit 'exploiter' referred to by the author, although it can still be valid for
various anterior or posterior epochs, areas and situations both in the Sudan and
elsewhere. It can well stand for any tyrannical political or economic ideologies or
regimes which happened to rule Sudan or other parts of the world, e.g. communism,
socialism, capitalism, Islamism, etc. The author's personal beliefs and philosophies
play the upper hand in interpreting the underlying connotation of the story's subject
The effectiveness with which Tayeb Salih mastered the use of symbolic features
throughout "A Handful of dates" to tie the story's external action to the theme and
display the everlasting struggle between good and evil is one of the many reasons why
this short story will continue to raise the interest and passion of millions of readers
both locally and abroad.
1. Georgy Berjandzi.2004. Hawla Thulathiat El Tayeb Salih: Mawsim Al Hijra Ila
Ash Shimal, 'Irsu Az Zein wa Bandarshah. Khartoum University Press.
2. Mukhtar Ajoaba.1972. Ar Riwaya As Sudaniya Al Haditha.The Modern Sudanese
3. Elhassan. O. M. (2002). Al Tayeb Salih: Ar Rjul wa Fikruhu. The Man and his
Thought. 1st edition. Medical Sciences Academy Press. Khartoum.