I was struck by the many ties between Shakespeare’s play Othello and the Palestinian cause when, as a teaching assistant in the Islamic University of Gaza English Department, I had the opportunity to teach this tragedy about the Moorish general in the Venetian army. In the play, Othello wins his position in the Senate and Desdemona’s hand in marriage by presenting an appealing narrative of his life and adventures as a military man. His success elicited my awareness, as a Palestinian living under Zionist occupation, of how words and the process of storytelling can be a means to fight oppression and maintain existence.
Not only can words create a life, but they can also collapse one’s life when used by a tyrant. Iago, a Venetian soldier serving under General Othello, used the same tool of language to colonize the minds of almost all the other characters in the play, compelling them to act like puppets in his hands. Iago deceived Othello by convincing him that Desdemona had cheated on him with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He tricked Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman who loved Desdemona, by exploiting his unrequited love for her. Iago stole Roderigo’s money, leaving him penniless, and later killed him. Cassio was also a victim of Iago’s duplicity; Iago persuaded him to change his mind and influenced his actions multiple times throughout the course of the play. For example, he convinced Cassio to drink to Othello’s health even though Cassio’s weakness was alcohol.
Perhaps most tragically, stories were the means Iago used to drive Othello and Desdemona apart. By fabricating a story of Desdemona’s adultery, Iago drove Othello to madness with false jealousy, which led him to kill his wife.
Storytelling in Palestine
Storytelling has always been a traditional practice for Palestinian elders in order to educate new generations and preserve Palestinian heritage. A saying about the Palestinians attributed to the early Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion is, “The old will die and the young will forget” (it may not be what he actually said, but it is reflective of his thinking). But in fact, the very opposite of forgetting is true. Elders’ stories have strengthened the bond between us and our land, leading us to love a land that we may never have visited but only seen through images and heard of through words.
As with all things in life, language is a form of power that is not equally distributed. More often than not, the voice of the socially privileged is dominant. As a result, mainstream reporting is often asymmetrical. The Palestinian narrative is usually wiped out or appropriated to match the establishment’s prevailing view of the situation. For example, in the Israeli aggression on Gaza in May 2021, the narrative was wholly formulated by Israeli-biased media outlets, portraying the resistance of Palestinians in response to continuous Israeli attacks as “terrorism.” The media also presented the victim as the victimizer, while the actual victimizer and colonizer were pictured as the victim. Whispering such lies in everyone’s ears induced people to believe they were true.
Resistance to occupation language
It is possible to resist deceptive language. Iago knew that the value of Desdemona’s handkerchief –Othello’s first gift to her – did not lie in its physicality but as a symbol of fidelity and Othello’s need for Desdemona to stay loyal to him. Therefore, he lied to make Othello believe that Desdemona was unfaithful and had given the handkerchief to Cassio. But Emilia, the wife of Iago, exposed her husband’s vicious lie. Though she paid a price with her death, Emilia’s words, “O thou dull Moor, that handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune, and did give my husband” revealed the truth that she was the one who gave Desdemona’s handkerchief to her husband.
Similarly, Israeli soldiers could not control the voice of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a prominent figure who chronicled the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Abu Akleh maintained her own narrative as a reporter for 25 years before being killed by Israeli gunfire as she was exposing Israel’s crimes to the world. Yet, even after her death, her voice has not been silenced.
Every Palestinian must be a storyteller
An Israeli settler named Yaqob infamously has said, “If I don’t steal your home, someone else will steal it.” If we do not share our stories, someone else – the Israeli occupation forces – will usurp our narratives and tell the versions that suits their interests. Therefore, it is the responsibility of every Palestinian to narrate the everyday suffering of Palestinians caused by the ongoing apartheid occupation and aggression.
In the most recent assault on Gaza in August 2022, there was barely any media coverage on how this aggression has affected the lives of millions of Palestinians. Khalil Abu Hamada was one such life. Nineteen years old, he was the only child of parents who had tried for 12 years to conceive a child. He, along with other Palestinian martyrs, were treated merely as numbers that were killed or injured by U.S.-made Israeli bombs that pulverized their homes into dust, leaving Palestinians wrestling with death from beneath the rubble or scattered across the roads.
Mainstream media considers it unworthy to report on or cover the daily Israeli violence against Palestinians, such as military checkpoints that force Palestinians to wait in queues for hours for a permit to enter the occupied lands of 1948 or to receive medical treatment. It is only through the killing of hundreds of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers that the mainstream media notices that Palestinians even exist. Yet, it still continues to objectify this violence targeting Palestinians, making it look as if it has happened by itself without mentioning the doer enacting it.
It is incumbent upon us Palestinians to recognize that words are never neutral. We must stay aware of the power intrinsic in words – even one word, one story – to help expose and end the occupation, similar to the way in which Emilia’s brief story ended “honest Iago’s” deception and Machiavellian scheming.