A blog by Venice 2019 Fellow Hadeel Eltayeb
As an Oral historian in East London, I once heard a funny story from a retired RAF pilot about World War II. I recalled the details because I didn’t really think it was true, but he told it well and it was a good story. It was about one of his fellow soldiers from Clapton who crashed off the coast of Lampedusa as a young pilot. The whole island surrendered to him and treated him like a King . They bowed to him and showered him with gifts. He flew back to Tunisia and announced his royal status to their astonishment, with an official document of surrender. Upon further research, I found the story he told me had roots in the true story of young pilot Sydney Cohen. However, the ‘facts’ had been mixed with more sensational, fictional elements from the popular 1943 Yiddish play ‘The King of Lampedusa’, written about the original news story. And. yet, when he told it to me, I could tell he felt it to be true and this was the story he and RAF friends as they would tell it. The fact Cohen was Jewish, like a lot of the other soldiers, and was an outsider being welcomed into a position of glory and power was more important in the way they remembered it, than the facts. This is how I became interested in social history and the tension between individual, social and public remembering. Italian scholar Alessandro Portelli discovered that the way people remember, misremember and even fabricate details in recollections, can uncover deeper significance about historical events and their meaning, and people can collectively remember events ‘wrongly’. When I started my project, Cultural Imagination and Cultural Memory, Venice seemed like the perfect site to explore how the two converge. It is a place we may feel like we know, as it’s heavily depicted in architecture, literature and film, as well as a popular tourist destination. This aspect of an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, being welcomed and positioned for a prime social standing was interesting, in the current climate in Western Europe around migrants. Of course, this year at the Venice Biennale, the Arsenale controversially exhibited the boat which tragically crashed off the cost of Libya and Lampedusa in April 2015, killing hundreds of North African migrants on their way to Europe. In the context of this year’s theme, ‘May you live in interesting times’, Othello the perfect subject: real, but also imagined. Migrant, at once part of Venice and a part from Venice. I was interested in pinning down Othello as a part of Venice, in culture and imagination.
In my oral history interviews, it was implied Italians found Venice to be colloquially considered to be ‘not for Italians’ with the most perceived ‘foreign’ influence on its local history. The presence of the water, and the motion of the rivers is an important trope in signifying contact with the foreign, outside world. Lapis Lazuli arrived in Europe by boat in Venice, the pigment ancient Egyptians had used to represent the underworld, was used to create Ultramarine, which was the colour used in Renaissance Italy to depict the divine Virgin Mary. In Act 1 of Othello, the threat of a Turkish fleet and their invasion of Cyprus called Othello and Desdemona away from Venice.
Othello has become a larger than life figure of the imagination, and the true basis of Shakespeare’s character is often disputed. A manuscript from a family archive in Venice suggested Othello existed as a real person, with a wife called Palma. For most of the 20th century, it was assumed Othello was a wholly fictional construct, adapted from the plot from a novel, ‘Un Captaino Moro’ by Italian Giraldi Cinthio, which means a ‘A Moor Captain’. Some scholars have suggested he is a modification of the emperor Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, who stole Emperor Nero’s wife Poppea. Nero eventually killed Poppea for the transgression; of course, ‘nero’ is the Italian word of ‘black’. Recently, scholars have suggested Shakespeare drew inspiration from the real historical figure of Abd Al Wahid bin Muhammad al-Annuri, a Morrocan mercenary who came to London with a delegation of Moroccans and almost successfully joined forces with the English military to fight against the King of Spain. al-Annuri had been successful in court, had the privilege of audiences with Queen Elizabeth, and was growing to be a figure of some influence, as evidenced by his portrait. It later was discovered he was a Morisco, a Spanish-born Moor and he fell out of favor as an ally in the Queen’s struggle against Spain. Four years after al-Annuri left London, Shakespeare began writing the character Othello. It would appear authenticity is an issue, where the character of Othello has transient qualities that can seem to be intensified or diminished depending on the cultural context.
It is not clear from historical accounts or from Shakespeare’s verse whether Othello was Black or Arab, or both. In Act 2, Othello has harsh words for a ‘turbaned turk’. The phrase ‘to turn turk’ was fashionable in Renaissance England to indicate betrayal, originated from the reported cases of conversion to Islam during the glory days of the Ottoman empire. Of course, what ‘moor’ meant in the context of orientalism and Elizabethan England, is different to what it means in the context of postcolonialism today. This makes re-imaginings and re-interpretations of the figure of Othello, positioned from different cultural voices and perspectives. For example, the power balance of Turkish empire and Kingdom of Morroco to Western Europe at the time of Shakespeare’s play, indicates a different vision of the Arab, close to the time of al-Mutanarri. Iago’s perspective saw Othello chiefly as a figure of power, and that was part of threat. A re-imagining of Othello as the character of Mustafa Sa’eed, from Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel ‘A Season of Migration to the North’, places the figure of Othello in a post-colonial setting, as subject of the British empire. Mustafa Sa’eed explores a performance as an educated and distinguished ‘moor’ in England, travelling there for the first time as a young man. Like Othello, he is a migrant done good, in a position of honour and privilege, introducing his whereabouts in Sudan by stating ‘I’m like Othello – Arab –African’. However, his success and his glory deteriorate after he falls in love with Jean Morris, and his good standing in England is lost when he is on trial for her murder. He later tells the judge, ‘I am no Othello. Othello was a lie’. The story of Othello continues to be a lie worth telling, and its meaning is compounded of memories, local myths and imagined realities positioned from different cultural contexts, new perspectives of memory and imagination. I saw Othello in scenes of the artwork by artist Khalil Joseph, BLK NEWS in this year’s exhibition; I saw him in the streets of Mestre getting the 2 bus to Venezia. Before I left, I fly-posted a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello by the Giardini as part of my project, near the riverbank, hoping people would consider Othello as a person and an idea positioned from Venice, as they got on and off the Vaporetto.