It’s Fetishised, But Hey, It’s Home: Aladdin At 30

While Orientalist stereotyping in Aladdin is impossible to miss, the film still carries special meaning to an entire generation of Arabs and South Asians 30 years later, finds Samia Qaiyum

Nothing about our collective longing for the 1990s surprises me, even though I was far too young to enjoy most of it – the slip dress was dubbed age-inappropriate, shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 were off limits, and owning a Super Nintendo Entertainment System remained a pipe dream. Still, as a Pakistani pre-teen growing up in a much simpler Dubai, the last analogue decade was gloriously uncomplicated. The city was drastically different from what you see on The Real Housewives of Dubai today. It was barren. It was boring. And weekends rooted in boozy brunches weren’t a thing. But we were content, in a way that now feels foreign.

For me and my sister, that meant watching Aladdin on repeat. The thrill we felt when a new VHS tape gave way to a brown-eyed, tan-skinned Disney princess in the form of Jasmine is not one we could articulate as young girls. After a childhood dominated by the (very white) likes of Cinderella, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, we’d liken Jasmine’s long, dark locks to the braids my mother sported in her younger days. We’d giggle over the fact that our father shares a name with Aladdin’s alter ego, Ali. We’d laugh uncontrollably when the genie broke down his three-wish rules, despite comedic references to Peter Lorre and William Frank Buckley Jr. going over our heads. And we’d relish the dialogue that felt tailored just for us – I said “wake up and smell the hummus” for years to sound cooler.

Little did we know that 8,339 miles away in Los Angeles, a debate around the film’s opening song ‘Arabian Nights’ was brewing. It was the summer of 1993 when members of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested its racist lyrics, resulting in the rewrite of two lines – a rare occurrence considering Aladdin was released in November 1992, and composer Alan Menken had already won the Oscar for Best Original Score. The original lyrics read:

Oh, I come from a land

From a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam.

Where they cut off your ear

If they don’t like your face

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

The word ‘barbaric’ remains in the revised version, which reads:

Oh, I come from a land

From a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam.

Where it’s flat and immense

And the heat is intense,

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

“I teach a course on representations of the Middle East in Hollywood and many of my Arab, Iranian, and South Asian students have reported that Aladdin was extremely meaningful to them, because it’s all they had in terms of representations growing up,” says Evelyn Alsultany, a leading expert on the representation of Arabs and Muslims in US media. “Seeing it again after learning about the history of stereotypes and picking up on all the stereotypes in the animated version is both crushing and eye-opening for them. It shows that the bar was so low 30 years ago. Stereotypes have been commonplace and normalised. Any representation of an Arab that was not as a terrorist and in a leading role was memorable and meaningful – even if problematic.”

It wasn’t until after my conversation with Alsultany and a subsequent rewatch of Aladdin earlier this year that this problematic representation became glaringly apparent. The ‘good guys’ – Aladdin and Jasmine – have American accents and Western facial features. As for the ‘bad guys’, like the burly street vendor who accuses Jasmine of theft and threatens to cut off her hand? Bushy eyebrows, a full beard, a crooked nose, and a noticeably foreign accent. Turns out, Aladdin was modelled after Tom Cruise, while Jasmine was voiced by a blonde voice-over artist by the name of Linda Larkin, whose high-pitched voice was considered too childlike for the oversexualised 15-year-old character. Elsewhere, Arab names are repeatedly mispronounced, a nonsensical scrawl appears in place of the Arabic script, and Jasmine’s pet tiger has a name of Hindi origins, Rajah (despite the film being set in a fictional city based on Baghdad).

I find Rajah’s name far less ridiculous than some of the other conflations between Indians and Arabs in Hollywood. Remember when Miranda informs the rest of her Sex and the City gang that ‘haanji’ is the Arabic word for ‘yes’ while en route to Abu Dhabi in that trainwreck of a sequel? Ironically, no, it’s not. ‘Haanji’ is Punjabi, while ‘aiwa’ and ‘na’am’ are Arabic – and it doesn’t take long to figure that out through Google Translate. And who can forget the time when Dev Patel and Avan Jogia were in the running for the role of Aladdin in Guy Ritchie’s 2019 live-action remake? Sure, it wasn’t as appalling as Emma Stone playing a Hawaiian-Chinese character in Aloha, but it rightfully caused uproar. While both Patel and Jogia are perfectly decent actors, neither is of Middle Eastern descent, reinforcing the reminder that Indians aren’t Arabs. And Arabs aren’t Indians. And brown people aren’t interchangeable.

“I suspect that casting practices might play a role in this," says Alsultany of the ignorance, despite the availability of resources like cultural consultants, case studies, and diversity toolkits. “Even though people from ‘the Middle East’ have a wide diversity of appearances, Hollywood has created an Arab look – a brown person who might be South Asian, Latinx, Arab, or of any other background. I have a friend, an Afghan-American actor who has not been cast in roles for Afghans because she is told that she does not ‘look’ Afghan enough. What does that even mean? It shows that Hollywood is hellbent on typecasting as opposed to accurate casting, which means that if not whitewashing the cast, then an Arab character could be played by an Iranian, an Israeli, a South Asian, or a South African actor,” she explains resignedly. “Casting practices need to shift to be more accurate; an Arab could be white, brown, or Black.”

The remake continued to be a source of controversy when Naomi Scott (an actress of English and Indian descent) landed the role of Jasmine, and Disney admitted to darkening the skin of white extras to make them look Arab. Partial redemption, however, came about when Mena Massoud – who is of Egyptian-Canadian heritage – was eventually cast as Aladdin. Incidentally, Alsultany (alongside other Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim scholars, activists, and creatives) was asked to serve on the Community Advisory Council for the 2019 film, as Disney wanted to avoid repeating the stereotyping issues of 1992’s original. And while a major studio engaging with this community reflects Hollywood’s growing commitment to diversity, she says it leaves much to be desired.

“It’s frustrating that producers make an effort and correct one problem, but not others, as if they’re not related. In the case of the live-action Aladdin, they got a lot right – most significant was casting people from the region, correcting the trend of whitewashing. However, conflating Arab, Iranian, and South Asian identities wasn’t seen as something in need of distinction. Also, Orientalism is not seen as an issue. Of course, whether Aladdin could be made in a non-Orientalist way is debatable.” Citing films such as 1921’s The Sheik and Arabian Nights from 1974 as examples, Alsultany highlights Hollywood’s long history of Orientalism – it’s not just Aladdin that’s anchored in mystical deserts, flying carpets, and opulent palaces. Admittedly, this past tendency to exoticise feels like a step up from the demonisation of Arabs and Muslims that followed in the years post-9/11. I landed in the States as an international student exactly one month prior, and had a front-row seat to this demonisation, both on and off screen.

While TV shows like Homeland, 24, and Sleeper Cell fed into the stereotype that any man with a beard and turban was trouble (and any woman with a hijab was oppressed), my Texan college roommate moved out, simply declaring, “Even though I know you, I no longer want to live here.” Thankfully, Islamophobic subtexts have lost momentum in recent years, making way for a more relatable depiction of Arabs in mainstream media. On Hulu’s Ramy, actor Ramy Youssef plays a young Muslim American who’s intentionally flawed, but attempting to balance the requirements of his faith with life in secular America. And over on Netflix, in Mo, comedian Mo Amer plays an undocumented Palestinian refugee selling designer knock-offs out of his car, but relentlessly pursuing his asylum request in search of a stable life.

Having said that, I will continue to watch the original Aladdin enveloped in nostalgia, if for nothing else than Robin Williams’ impressions and what Jasmine once meant to me – there’s something about that first taste of representation, I suppose. In fact, you know those little Black girls who recently went viral for their priceless reactions to the new Ariel, Halle Bailey, in The Little Mermaid? That’s me and my sister, just 30 years later.

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