“A Handful of Dates” is an interesting but thought-provoking short story. The writer attacks the false religiosity and pretentious piety of the adults like the grandfather in the story. The young boy considers him a role model. He adores him to the skies and regards any service to him as a sort of worship. However, on knowing his true self, he dislikes and hates him so much that he spews out the dates given to him by the grandfather.

Summary of the Story

The short story A Handful of Dates, by Tayeb Salih uses many different themes and literary techniques to tell a story of an innocent young boy discovering life’s hardships. The story begins with three introductory paragraphs which contain background information about the grandfather, and a boy from whose perspective the reader receives the story. These paragraphs reveal that the boy is young, innocent, very intelligent, and possesses a great love for nature. His grandfather is a man of power, who is very tall and has a beard which is described to the reader as being beautiful and soft. The story then moves on to the neighbour Masood, who inherited a large sum of land from his father, but gradually was forced to sell the land to the boy’s grandfather due to an excessive number of wives. The action of the story describes a day of harvesting in Masood’s date field, where various people from the town appear and help the effort as well as eat some of the dates. When the harvesting is done, the grandfather as well as four other men divide the product and take their share away. This sickens the boy, who runs into the forest and throws up the dates which he had eaten. Salih uses different literary techniques as well as various themes in order to describe the loss of innocence.

The end of the story is also interesting in that the connection that the narrator felt with his grandfather has been transferred to Masood. The narrator, despite his young age, knows that what is happening is unjust and he wants to reach out and help Masood. Grandfather is not happy that he already has two-thirds of Masood’s land; he wants all the land and he knows in time he will get it too. However, the most important aspect of the story is the fact that the narrator’s connection with his grandfather has been severed and he has seen his grandfather for who he is. The child realizes that his idol has ‘feet of clay’ and is terribly hurt. By spewing the dates, he wants to purge himself of all defilement.

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 behaviour. Contrary to his companions, he loved going to the mosque and win the approval of his grandfather whom he idolized. The boy’s limited reaction at the end of the story to the scenes of exploitation his grandfather practised are justified by this love. 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 capacity he was equipped with. The feeling of love the boy initially had for his grandfather is rather an admiration for his distinguished status in society and can be attributed- as the writer tells us- to a human instinct to incline to supremacy.

Thinking Critically about the Plot

1. In the first few paragraphs, what do we come to understand about the boy’s grandfather? What is Saleh’s tone when he writes about this character? How does his attitude towards the grandfather change by the end of the story?

2. What is the significance of the title of the story?

3. What type of figurative language does Saleh use in the story? How does it add to the plot? (symbol, simile )

4. What is the conclusion of the story? Were you satisfied with this ending or were you left asking questions? If you were left with questions, what were they?

5. What is the tone of the book? How does it change from the beginning to the end?

6. Why do you think that the boy in the book has such a close relationship with his grandfather, but that there is no mention of his father?

7. Explain the significance of the mosque, river and field in the story. How were they the landmarks of life?

8. What is your initial opinion on Masood? How does this change by the end of the story?

9. What do you think the next interaction between the boy and his grandfather would be like?


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