Thursday, December 15, 2016

Says Othello: "Remember Aleppo"

Arabi21 News recently published a portrait of Aleppo in anticipation of its fall. Much of the article is an effort to emphasize the deep history of the city and its people. Alongside reminders that the city is among the oldest in the world, and listed among its contributions to world culture, the article states:

"Among the witnesses of Aleppo's public renown is that it is mentioned twice in the stories and plays of William Shakespeare, in Macbeth and in Othello."

The passages in question are, of course, the words of the First Witch in Macbeth, Act 1, Scene Three: "Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o' the Tiger," a reflection of the city's place in the economy of Jacobean England, and of Britain's shipping ties in the Mediterranean.

The second is far more famous, as Othello's final speech before his death in Act 5, Scene 2, in which he describes his killing a Turk who had beaten a Venetian:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus. [Stabs himself]

In a way, it is poignant that defenders of such a great city cite as evidence of its humanity the words of a writer such as Shakespeare. Syrians, after all, do not need Shakespeare in order to be human. There is much in Aleppo's history that is admirable and noteworthy, aside from two brief mentions by a writer from an island far away.

And yet, in light of current events, there is something very fitting in the fact that one of Shakespeare's most tragic characters ends his role with a speech that essentially says:

"Remember Aleppo"

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