Introduction Present essay provides a comparative analysis of Shakespeare’s Othello and Abu-Jaber’s Crescent in terms of locating similar and opposite themes. The theme that was chosen is representation of Arabness as social, individual and cultural category. There is no denying the importance of the fact that both works depict the fate of Arab people in Western civilization, including Western attitudes to them, their own perception of Western way of life and traditions and their relations with other people.
Moreover, both works serve as the instruments for revealing negative contours of Western societies, including racist prejudices, which is especially evident in Othello. Based on the latter reservations, present essay defends the thesis, which may be formulated as follows: Shakespeare’s Othello and Abu-Jaber’s Crescent have much in common due to the fact that beneath recurrent symbols and themes, such as love, betrayal etc. lies the central theme of Arabness, reflected through the prism of civilizations’ interchange, conflict and contradiction.
The comparative analysis of Othello and Crescent Both Othello and Crescent have Arab people, found themselves in certain roles within Western civilization, as their main protagonists. The conflict between them and Western civilization takes place on different thematic levels, explained by the difference in plots and historical surrounding. Sirine, the main protagonist of Cresent, is a chef at Lebanese restaurant in Los Angeles with Middle-Eastern cuisine. Her surrounding consists of the Arab people, many of whom were exiled or emigrated from Iraq due to political repressions.
Sirine’s Arabness is constituted by her sentimental intimacy to Iraqi uncle and a great interest in Iraqi history, culture and Muslim traditions in general. Notwithstanding the fact, that Sirine is successful in America, she is rather lonely and still feels herself an immigrant, living in alien and unfriendly culture. The latter feeling of loneliness is well described by the friend of Sirine, called Um-Nadia: “The loneliness of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming….
it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though he marries and travels and talks to friends twenty-four hours a day. ” (Abu Jaber,78) Hence, it is important to note that Sirine’s Arabness and conflicting status within Western civilization are not constituted in direct terms and notions, bearing on direct political connotations. As Nouri Gana rightly suggests about Abu Jaber’s novel, ‘perhaps one of the most glowing virtues of the novel is that it awakens the political in the reader by craftily staging how it bears on the individual and communal on a day-to-day basis’ (Gana, 237).
The same may be said about Shakespeare’s Othello, where Arabness is also not addressed directly, but essentially mediated through thematic, symbolical and cultural discourses. Unlike Crescent’s where the contradiction between cultures and civilization is depicted as the difficulty of adaptation, assimilation and longing for native country, Arabness in Othello is constituted mainly in racist terms. However, the latter racism should also be understood as the instruments by means of which Shakespeare debunks aggressive, brutal, coward character of such members of Western civilization as Iago.
The Arabness of Othello is initially constituted through the mechanism of exoticization, when he is named not by name, but as ‘Moor’ and ‘extravagant stranger’, which immediately creates mental border between civilizations. (Othello 1. 1. 58 and 1. 1. 37). Here, the direct distinction in representing Arabness may be traced at the narrative level of Crescent. Unlike Othello, Hanif Al Eyad, who is an exiled Iraqi professor, does not experience direct racial prejudices, but problems of adapting to American society.
What is more important, he has significant problem of integrating in Arab American community, which is already assimilated into the wider American culture. In fact, Hanif finds himself in a difficult position of finding new contours of his Arabness, as he meets with new conditions of its existence in the American society. In the same vein, Sirine reconfigures her identity, when she starts working at Arab restaurant. Her lost Arab roots come to existence, when she delves into her parents, ’old recipes and to begin cooking “the favorite—but almost forgotten—dishes of her childhood” (Abu Jaber, 22).
Finally, when Hanif and Sirine meet, they are engaged in cultural interchange – Sirine educates him about American and Hanif opens the culture of Iraq and the Arab world to Sirine. In this way, the Arabness is constituted in the contradictory multicultural way, when it becomes a mixture of American way of life, its contradictions, immigrants’ culture and post-9/11 ‘anti-Muslim syndrome’, negatively experienced by Arab people, living in the US.
Therefore, the Arabness in Crescent and Othello are constituted in distinctively different ways. Othello’s racial and cultural difference is the main source of legitimization for brutal behavior of Roderigo, Iago and others, who oppose the relationships between Othello and Desdemona. In fact, Desdemona is the only protagonist, which opposes particularization of cultural differences and represents universality of human relationships. She sees in Othello neither Arab, nor exotic man, but a man, whom she loves.
The narration in Othello is abundant with racial prejudices, which function as the markers of Arabness. At the outset of the play, Iago wakes Brabantio up and tells him that “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1. 1. 89-90), referring to Othello. The relations between Othello and Desdemona are also presented by Iago through racist discourse, “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” (1. 1. 112), and reminds Brabantio of genetic consequences for his family, “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you,” (1. 1. 112-18).
Other features of Othello’s Arabness are reproduced mainly through the depiction of his temperament and here we find Shakespeare’s critical edge, which uses then dominant racial prejudices of English aristocracy to depict their defected nature. Othello is depicted by Shakespeare as lacking Western (Iago-type) ‘virtues’ as cunningness, meanness, egoism, rationality, calculation, but endows him with trustful, kind, energetic temperament. The latter positive constitution of Arabness serves as the critique of Western society deficiencies and problems.
Eventually, such features of Arabness result in tragic ending of Shakespeare’s play (Bartels, 458). Othello as Abu-Jader’s protagonists also seems lonely in the Western world, where all are against him. Pain of loss, exile and loneliness, however, is presented in Crescent in more sentimental quotidian way. For instance, it is evident when Sirine’s Iraqi uncle asks the Italian waiter in a restaurant: “Wouldn’t you say that immigrants are sadder than other people? ” To which the latter responds, “When we leave our home we fall in love with our sadness. ” (Abu-Jaber, 78).
Another important theme, which runs through Abu-Jaber’s novel is difficulty of being Arab. This idea is mainly propagated by Sirine’s uncle and defended through telling mythical stories from Arab history, depicting the suffering of Arab people. The difficulty of being Arab is also presented at the level of racialized and politicized metaphors, which represent Arabness in Western world and in fact distort real culture of Arab people. In this way, Arabness is constituted as the ideological category, which has nothing to do with real life of Arab people (Gana, 241).
The latter contradiction may be traced in Othello, when in fact our vision of the main protagonist is constituted by Oriental discourse. One of the major differences pertinent to the analyzed works is general narrative tone in which the latter discussed contradictions are presented. The contradictions of being Arab in the Western world in Cresent are presented through the depiction of Arab community daily life. The experience of Sirine and Hanif is characterized by sentimental feelings, loneliness, psychological trauma etc.
The conflict between cultures and civilizations is presented as the quotidian difficulties of communication, adaptation and active life. The romantic ties which united Sirine and Hanif may be described as the part of sentimental representation of Arabness in Abu-Jabar’s novel. However, as it was noted above, even such approach to narration reveals much of the tensions and contradictions, experienced by immigrant Arabs. Unlike Crescent, Othello represents the evidence of contradictions between Western and Eastern civilization, which results in tragic implications for the destiny of individual people.
Racial prejudices against Othello function as the legitimization of Iago’s plot against him. The differences between temperament and culture of Othello and his latent rivals, hence, should be understood as the main driving force of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Conclusion To sum it up, Arabness may be described as the central theme in both Shakespeare’s and Abu-Jaber’s works. It is represented on the level of human relations and is not directly interpreted in political manner, however, certain ideological and political interpretations may be found.
Racial prejudices in Othello serve as a tool for debunking negative features of Western civilization and human/universal features, reflected in Othello’s temperament. In Crescent, the Arabness is presented through the prism of immigrants’ difficulty of adaptation, permanent feeling of pain, loneliness and lack of identity. In this way, the discussed theme has both similarities and difference in the discussed novels, explained by their distinct genres, historical and cultural surrounding.
Abu-Jaber, Diana. Crescent. New York: Norton, 2003. Bartels, E. C. ‘Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashioning of Race’. Shakespeare Quarterly vol. 41: 454, 1990. Gana, Nouri. ‘In Search of Andalusia: reconfiguring Arabness in Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent’. Comparative Literature Studies. Vol. 45, no. 2, 2008. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Shakespeare, W. Othello. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 3d edition. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980.
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