Relations of Othello and Mustafa Sa’eed
On the surface, William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604) and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1966) are very similar. The title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a man of color whose marriage with a white woman, Desdemona, is tested by her father, Brabantio. Season of Migration to the North revolves around Mustafa Sa’eed, an African man who faces similar challenges in courting white women. It is Othello’s foreign background, precisely, that wins Desdemona over. Mustafa falsifies his own backstory in order to seduce several white women, namely Ann Hammond, Sheila Greenwood, and Isabella Seymour. However, Mustafa’s wife and only love, Jean Morris, is thus not because of his foreignness, but in spite of it. Othello is convinced by his ensign, Iago, that Desdemona is having an affair. In Season of Migration to the North, it is Jean herself who arouses Mustafa’s suspicions. Othello and Mustafa eventually kill their respective first wives in “the bed [they] hath contaminated” (4.1.195-196). Othello subsequently commits suicide, while Mustafa serves prison time. Through intertextuality, Season of Migration to the North deconstructs the simplistic handling of race relations in Othello, the Moor of Venice. Othello, the Moor of Venice and Season of Migration to the North both propose interracial romances, dampened by parental disapproval. Following news of Othello and Desdemona’s wedding: Brabantio: My daughter! O, my daughter! All: Dead? Brabantio: Ay, to me. (1.3.59) Similarly, in Season of Migration to the North, Sheila tells Mustafa, “my father would kill me if they knew I was in love with a black man” (pp. 115). Yet, a more fitting counterpart for Brabantio would be Ann’s father, Colonel Hammond, who “said that he regarded himself as a liberal person with no prejudices. Yet he was a realistic man and had seen that such a marriage [between Mustafa and Ann] would not work” (pp. 57). Both fathers betray racism in their inability to conceive of a healthy marriage between a white woman and a man of color. While Brabantio suspects, without reason, that Othello “hast enchanted [Desdemona]” (1.2.63), Mustafa himself admits that he “deceived [Ann], seducing her by telling her that we would marry and that our marriage would be a bridge between north and south” (pp. 57). Yet, unlike Brabantio, Colonel Hammond not only gets the opportunity to condemn his daughter’s “deceiver” in court, but opts for neutrality instead. To varying degrees, Othello and Mustafa find their romantic prospects impeded by parental disapproval. However, in Othello, the Moor of Venice, this disapproval is baseless yet enduring and in Season of Migration of the North, this disapproval is well-placed but tempered by sympathy.
Despite societal objections, Othello and Mustafa manage to seduce women with their respective backgrounds, fictional or otherwise. Othello says of Desdemona: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed” (1.3.167). In Othello, the Moor of Venice, this relationship is framed in a positive light, only meeting an unfortunate end because of external pressure. Yet, a white woman falling in love with a man because of his background, foreign to her, almost seems like fetishism. It is this very fetish that Mustafa exploits. Mustafa seduces women with his “life story,” a capitalization on racist stereotypes. His conquests would say “that in my eyes she saw the shimmer of mirages in hot deserts, that in my voice she heard the screams of ferocious beasts in the jungles” (pp. 120) or describe his skin as “the colour of magic and mystery and obscenities” (pp. 115). Mustafa “felt I had been transformed in [Isabella’s] eyes into a naked, primitive creature” (pp. 33). Mustafa’s relationships with Ann, Sheila, and Isabella are portrayed as shallow, ending in suicide. These relationships show the dark side of Othello and Desdemona’s “love.” Mustafa even “saw the tears well up in [Isabella’s] eyes” (pp. 33) at his “upbringing”; Othello “often did beguile [Desdemona] of tears When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffered” (1.3.156-158). The parallel becomes explicit when Mustafa tells Isabella: “I’m like Othello—Arab-African” (pp. 33). Thus, Mustafa’s seduction tactics are a parody of Othello’s seduction of Desdemona.
Desdemona appears to be the only person Othello has ever been in love with; in contrast, the one woman to whom Mustafa professes his love seems averse to his background. Jean tells Mustafa that he must let her destroy a Wedgwood vase, an Arabic manuscript, and a silken Isphahan prayer-rug (pp. 129-130)—“ the den of lethal lies that [he] had deliberately built up” (pp. 121)—in order to win her love. Jean is not only immune to Mustafa’s racially-based seduction tactics, similar to Othello’s, but actively mocks them. Jean being the only person whom Mustafa develops genuine feelings for is further insult to Othello and Desdemona’s relationship.
Both Othello and Mustafa question the fidelity of their respective first wives. In Othello, the Moor of Venice, Iago plants doubt in Othello’s mind without outright implicating Desdemona, e.g.: Iago: In Venice they do let God see the pranks They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. Othello: Dost thou say so? Iago: She did deceive her father, marrying you (3.3.202-206) In Season of Migration to the North, Jean fills the roles of both Desdemona and Iago, making Mustafa question her own faithfulness. Mustafa tells the narrator, “She used to like flirting with every Tom, Dick and Harry when we went out together” (pp. 133), but Mustafa never caught her seeing flirtation through. When Mustafa found someone else’s handkerchief in their house, Jean was as evasive as Iago: “’Assuming it’s not your handkerchief,’ she said, ‘what are you going to do about it?’” (pp. 134). A handkerchief serves as evidence of an affair in Othello, the Moor of Venice as well. Othello gives Desdemona a handkerchief, which Iago leaves in Cassio’s lodgings. When Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief (4.1.150), this confirms his suspicion that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Mustafa comes to suspect his wife through means similar to Othello, but while Mustafa’s suspicions are probably correct, Othello’s are not.
Convinced of infidelity, Othello and Mustafa both set out to murder their respective wives in bed. Othello kisses Desdemona before killing her, but Mustafa and Jean take it even further. As narrated by Mustafa: “I leant over and kissed her. I put the blade-edge between her breasts and she twined her legs around my back. Slowly I pressed down. Slowly. She opened her eyes. What ecstasy there was in those eyes!” In Othello, the Moor of Venice, the kiss is Othello’s last indulgence before supposedly sending his wife to hell. However, in Season of Migration to the North, Mustafa and Jean seem aroused by the murder itself. The romance to these climactic scenes is not purely physical. While Desdemona is on her deathbed, both literally and figuratively: Othello: Think on thy sins. Desdemona: They are loves I bear to you. (5.2.40) Desdemona’s declaration of love is an attempt to dissuade Othello from killing her. In contrast, Jean clearly has no interest in stopping Mustafa. However, she also voices a love, repeatedly: “’I love you,’ she said to me, and I believed her. […] The smell of smoke was in my nostrils as she said to me ‘I love you, my darling’” (pp. 136). This declaration of love—Jean’s first, at that—may be genuine. It may also be Jean trying to convince Mustafa to “come with” (pp. 57) or, failing that, maintain her emotional hold on him. If it is the latter, then, judging by Mustafa dreaming about her years after her death (pp. 77), Jean was successful. Desdemona tries to stop Othello from killing her and Jean tries to get Mustafa to kill her, but the end result is the same: a man kills his wife in bed while she professes her love for him.
After killing their respective wives, both Othello and Mustafa contemplate suicide. Othello describes himself as being at his “journey’s end” (5.2.268). Similarly, Mustafa tells the narrator, “My life achieved completion that night and there was no justification for staying on” (pp. 57). Othello goes through with killing himself. Despite Jean using one of her last breaths to tell Mustafa to “come with,” Mustafa is too afraid to do the same. With the lives of the women they love ending, both Othello and Mustafa see their own lives ending in a symbolic way, but only Othello is able to actually end his own life.
After committing uxoricide, both Othello and Mustafa face the threat of imprisonment. Othello is about to be apprehended for Desdemona’s murder when he kills himself. Mustafa goes to trial for Jean’s murder and is sentenced to prison time. The hypothetical of what would happen to Othello, should he survive his play, is Mustafa’s reality. This is cemented by the fact that, during Mustafa’s trial, when witnesses try to paint him in a sympathetic light, Mustafa thinks of countering: “I am no Othello. I am a lie. Why don’t you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?” (pp. 29). Mustafa draws a dichotomy between being, like Othello, a victim of one’s own otherness and, therefore, deserving of mercy or being, unlike Othello, damned by one’s own hand and, therefore, deserving of death. Othello probably would not have killed Desdemona if the narrative of a white woman betraying a man of color for a white man had not been so persuasive at the time; Mustafa may have killed Jean regardless of their differing races. Nonetheless, Mustafa is sentenced to prison time, not death. The title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice, is, ultimately, a pawn. The sentencing in Season of Migration to the North indicates that the Western world wishes to see Mustafa as just as powerless as Othello, though the reader is given substantial evidence to the contrary.
Othello, the only character of color in William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a mere puppet, but Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, though following a similar narrative, portrays Mustafa Sa’eed with depth and agency equal to that of the principal white characters. Brabantio vilifies the title character of Othello, the Moor of Venice for his relationship with Desdemona. Season of Migration to the North depicts more subtle racism, with Colonel Hammond betraying “separate but equal” leanings. Desdemona falling for Othello as a foreigner first, person second, is romanticized in Othello, the Moor of Venice, but in Season of Migration to the North, Jean, Mustafa’s only love, doesn’t seem to have this racist fetish. Due to Iago’s convoluted scheming, Othello comes to suspect Desdemona of and murder her for adultery; in Season of Migration to the North, the wife is guilty and her death not the product of a misunderstanding, but an organic conclusion to her relationship with the main character. Othello dies a victim; Mustafa lives to watch, in horror, as lawyers and witnesses reduce his case to an issue of ethnicity. Its intertextuality with Othello, the Moor of Venice in mind, Season of Migration to the North criticizes narratives that would frame a man of color as powerless to stop his interracial relations from ending in tragedy.
Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, New York Review Books, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, 10th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 1156-1238.
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