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“Othello in the Seraglio” Offers New Ways of Seeing “the Outsider”

Early last summer, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, senior affiliated faculty member in Emerson’s Performing Arts Department, began noticing a troubling trend. Everywhere he looked he saw the media portraying a “monolithic” stereotype of Muslims.

He saw stories about Muslims accompanied by photos of women in hijabs or men on prayer rugs, regardless of whether the piece was about religion. He heard “distinguished” NPR hosts ask guests if sharia law was compatible with the U.S. Constitution.

Sanlikol, who was raised in a not terribly devout but culturally Muslim family in Turkey and emigrated to the United States in 1993, suddenly began feeling “excluded from U.S. society.”

To try to counteract some of this stereotyping, Sanlikol decided to bring his “coffeehouse opera,” Othello in the Seraglio, to Emerson College.

“This stereotyping, I thought, wasn’t helping the current issues we’re facing,” Sanlikol told the audience in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre on Thursday, March 2. “If anything, in my opinion, what we need in the world these days is truly a cosmopolitan understanding of the Islamic societies and Islamic culture in general. That will be far more achievable if there are more talks that will allow Americans to understand the diversity of people, diversity of practices, and diversity of culture in this great geography we’re talking about.”

The performance was preceded by a talk with Sanlikol; Robert Labaree, a New England Conservatory ethnomusicologist who wrote the English portion of the script; and Pulitzer Prize-winning Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, who spoke about Islam and the “other” in Shakespeare’s work.

The “Othello” in Othello in the Seraglio isn’t Shakespeare’s Moorish general—his name is actually Sümbül, and he’s chief black eunuch to the Sultan (a positon reserved for Africans and one of great influence, according to Sanlikol), recently given his freedom after years of service.

The stories are different versions of a trope common in the 16th and 17th-century Mediterranean world—that of a dark-skinned African “outsider” rising to levels of immense power within the dominant culture, only to be undermined and fall in a spectacular tragedy.

Both Othello and Sümbül fall in love with and marry an Italian woman (in Sümbül’s case, a pregnant slave he bought for his former master), both are duped into thinking she’s cheating on them by a malevolent but trusted lieutenant, and both (spoiler alert!) take their own lives after killing their wives in a fit of rage.

Sanlikol was inspired to write Othello in the Seraglio a number of years ago, after channel surfing late one night. He came across the film Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne, and thought about doing a musical version of the story, but taking it out of Venice and placing it in the Ottoman Empire.

He had read a novel published in the 1930s, The Bastard of the Chief Black Eunuch, which told the Sümbül story.

“Within a few minutes, I suddenly thought of the story of Sümbül and…I immediately knew I had the potential to do something unique,” Sanlikol said.

Shakespeare himself was a champion borrower of other people’s stories, Greenblatt said, and his Othello came from A Moorish Captain, a not especially good story by a 16th-century Italian writer named Cinzio.

One thing the story did do well was provide a motive for Iago, Othello’s right-hand man who plants the seeds of jealousy in his boss’s ear. In Cinzio’s telling, Iago was in love with Othello’s wife, who spurned his advances. Shakespeare’s Iago isn’t tormented by love; he’s just kind of a sociopath.

“Shakespeare takes that story and takes out the one element in the story that makes it make sense, which is it gives Iago a motive…,” Greenblatt said. “And then he sees what he can do with the story when it no longer makes any sense.”

What he does with it, Greenblatt said, is take the opportunity “to start digging into very strange places,” possibly into the bard’s own psyche.

“What he was looking for was some way of understanding the feeling…that he himself was an alien in the world he lived in,” Greenblatt said. “This keeps coming back in his work over and over again.”

The military clash between East and West that looms at the beginning of Othello is defused fairly quickly, and “then the real work of the play begins,” Greenblatt said. The work is understanding that sometimes the most terrifying person is not in some distant land but is right at home, by your side.  

Othello in the Seraglio has additional work for its audience.

It was important for Sanlikol and Labaree to introduce an American perspective to this Mediterranean show, Labaree said, and that perspective is the unexamined and unaddressed specter of slavery on American society.

The music and lyrics are a pastiche of existing music from 16th- and 17th-century Turkey and Italy, along with original music composed by Sanlikol, who sings the part of Sümbül, as well as plays in the orchestra.

The story is tied together, however, by a traditional Ottoman coffeehouse storyteller (Max Sklar), speaking in English. He sets the scenes for the audience and charms them with offers of strong coffee and mild jokes. Then he forces them to examine their own privilege as they contemplate the life of a boy stolen from the Sudan, castrated by a Coptic monk, and then sold into slavery and a loveless life of servitude.

“At one point, he becomes very ironic,” Labaree said of the storyteller prior to the performance, “as if he knows he’s got them, but he wants them to see something very different.

“And that’s you,” he tells the audience.



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