The Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih is famous for his novel ‘Season of Migration to the North’, which received worldwide acclaim when it first appeared in English in 1969. A counter-narrative to ‘Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ (and involving a reverse Kurtz-like journey from Africa to Europe), this book on my shelf is widely regarded as being among the finest Arab novels of the 20th Century.
‘A Handful of Dates’ is a compact short story by Salih, set in a Sudanese village sketched with a few brushstrokes: a mosque, a river, a wood full of acacia trees, and fields with date palms. The boy who lives there adores his grandfather, regarding him as the embodiment of virtue. Their lives seem idyllic, until, while discussing their neighbor Masood, the grandfather explains that most of the fields with date palms that once belonged to Masood are now his. During the date harvest, the boy realizes that his beloved grandfather is not the person he thought he was. In a culture where usury is frowned upon, the grandfather has reduced Masood into a laborer indebted to him, forcing Masood to pay off his debt by tilling the land that he once owned. Simple in its elements, focused in its effect, ‘A Handful of Dates’ is a quiet coming-of-age story that gets at the costs of destroying the traditional decencies that hold a community together.
First published in 1964. Included in a translation by Denys Johnson-Davies in The Wedding of Zein, Penguin Random House NYRB Classics, 2011. Available online here