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Tayeb Salih: بندر شاه مريود (Bandarshah)

This novel appeared in two parts in the original Arabic, the first in 1971 and the second in 1976. Bandarshah is now retired from a government post in education and has returned to his old village. He had retired, he says, because he was fed up and had, in fact, retired early. He is catching up with his old friends. Things are not as good as they were, his friends explain, but the old men reminisce and tell tales about the past. Sa’eed the Owl, for example, is now Sa’eed Asha ‘l-Baytat (it means he who gives supper to hungry girls, i.e. is chivalrous and generous). He had been the assistant of the headmaster, doing all the odd jobs for him. Every time he was paid, he had the amount logged and gave the money to the headmaster to keep. This went on for ten years. Once the headmaster retired, Sa’eed struck. He demanded all his money back, knowing full well the headmaster did not have the money. In return Sa’eed demanded the headmaster’s daughter as his wife. At first he was refused but, in the end, the headmaster had no choice but to accept. Salih gives us other such whimsical stories, such as Taher Wad Raawasi’s battle with the bitch of a fish, who always outsmarts him. Some show the changing situation in the area, such as the ousting of Makhtar Wad Hasab ar-Rasoul as the chair of the local cooperative by the younger generation, not because of any specific wrongdoing but just because the younger generation want to take over.

But the main story is, of course, about Bandarshah (it means ruler of the city). Bandarshah was a legendary king, who may have been a Christian king of Nubia or an Abyssinian king. No-one seems to know. Isa Wad Dau al-Beit is, one day, dressed up in finery and is immediately nicknamed Bandarshah. The significance of this only becomes clear later. We know that Bandarshah and his grandson, Meryoud, are very successful. Meheimeed recounts a story when he was fifteen that Meryoud, the same age as he, came to visit his grandfather and showed supreme self-confidence when buying a calf from the grandfather. However, some of the main characters recount dreams that they have had of Bandarshah, which seem to mix the real and the legendary Bandarshah. Meheimeed, for example, dreamed he saw Meryoud, at his grandfather’s orders, flogging to death Bandarshah’s eleven sons. We later learn of Bandarshah’s origins. Sa’eed Asha ‘l-Baytat’s father is by the river in the dark, when he sees something approaching him from the river. He thinks it is a devil that has come from the river. As the apparition says that he is hungry, he decides that it is not a devil, particularly when he speaks Arabic with a strange accent and even uses a few Farsi words. The apparition collapses and a deep wound is found in his side. He is nursed back to health but cannot recall his name, his origins, his religion (though he is not circumcised) or his nationality. He is given the name Dau al-beit (Light of the House). He fathers a child, Isa, who will become Bandarshah. He dies when trying to rescue someone from drowning, after having taught the peasants how to grow new crops.

The grandson, Meryoud (it means beloved), is equated with Meheimeed. In the second book, which is called Meryoud in Arabic, we learn of Meheimeed’s love for Maryam, who is now dead but also of Bilal, who has a beautiful voice and is therefore the muezzin, but now is devoted to the Sheikh. It is Bilal’s beautiful voice that brings people back to the mosque, back to religion. But the story of Bandarshah and the other stories all link with stories of the past (some of which are in Salih’s previous works), showing his concern that the past and present are inextricably linked. It is a beautifully told story, mixing fantasy and memory of the past, with the very real world of today with its problems but also its technical advances.

Publishing history

First published by Dar al-‘Awda, Beirut, 1971, 1976
First published in English in 1996 by Kegan Paul