We Deserve Better Than the Live-Action “Aladdin”

Disney's latest piece of myth-making about the Middle East is part of a long tradition

I spent the better part of 1993 watching two VHS tapes on endless repeat: Disney’s Aladdin and the lesser-known 1955 MGM musical Kismet. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad), the latter was an adaptation of a Broadway show of the same name, which married a Cinderella-meets-Arabian-Nights tale with a score pulled, somewhat inexplicably, from the canon of 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Growing up in a Syrian-American family, the granddaughter of refugees from a bloody, post-Ottoman Empire Syria, the closest I otherwise got to my roots was a steady diet of kibbeh and stuffed grape leaves.

The Azar family came to America in the generation of assimilation. My great-grandmother Nabiha’s name was changed to the more Americanized Mona. My grandmother and her sister picked up English and abandoned their fluency in Arabic. Because they were both Syrian Christians and fair-skinned, they passed more easily than many of their compatriots, which gave them an advantage in the United States. Instead of passing on our Syrian-ness from one generation to the next, we wholeheartedly embraced our American-ness.

Instead of passing on our Syrian-ness from one generation to the next, we wholeheartedly embraced our American-ness.

Still, it’s hard to be of two worlds and to feel like you don’t fit into either. And so I turned to two movies that, to my 8-year-old sensibilities, seemed to be faithful documentation of life in the Middle East. My fascination with Aladdin wore off more quickly along with my interest in animated features, but Kismet — a live-action musical with snappy dialogue and a classically-influenced score — is, admittedly, a DVD I still own.

If, as a teenager I had seen the movie’s trailer, in which its star Howard Keel introduces characters like “seductive Lalume, whose heart belongs to her Baghdad Daddy,” I may have understood that Kismet for the CinemaScope kitsch it is. Unlike the widely-acclaimed Aladdin, Kismet was a movie that never should have happened. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1953, reviews were delayed due to a newspaper strike. By the time the critical pans finally made it into print, the show’s popular appeal had spread and kept it running for nearly two years.

One of Kismet’s detractors was the director himself. Minnelli had originally refused to direct the adaptation for MGM, but finally consented in exchange for the greenlight on his Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. But Minnelli phoned in Kismet while pouring all of his energy into his real passion project, and it showed. There was no newspaper strike to save it this time. The New York Times compared the lackluster direction to “the marching orders for the Macy [sic] parade.”

Without any of this context, I accepted the film at face value, as did the rest of my family. They loved Kismet. Three generations of us would watch it in my grandparents’ living room, despite it being as accurate a representation of our heritage as the Moroccan pavilion at Epcot. What’s more, it was a love that was kindled because of our heritage, rather than in spite of it.

Kismet itself was a form of propaganda, released during the height of the Cold War as a cultural salvo against the USSR. As film scholar Brian T. Edwards explains, both the lush, exotic setting of ancient Baghdad and the technological advancements of CinemaScope pitted American abundance against Soviet scarcity. In Kismet’s show-stopping number, “Not Since Nineveh,” the Wazir’s wife Lalume (clad in a gold bodysuit more Aladdin Sane than Ali Baba), lists Baghdad’s benefits to three uncertain newcomers:

“Our palaces are gaudier,
Our alleyways are bawdier.
Our princes more autocratic here,
Our beggars more distinctly aromatic here.”

Kismet was one of dozens of Middle Eastern films to come out of Hollywood in this era, with the “Middle East” often conflating (as Kismet does) various cultures from the Arabian peninsula, but also Northern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. The common thread, as Edwards puts it, is excess. But Kismet also taps into a long-running history of Arabic representation by the West. In his landmark 1978 book Orientalism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said would codify this as both “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western Experience” and “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Part of this domination resulted in two common characterizations of the Middle East that are alive and well in Kismet, even if they are used as a “neutral ground” against the larger enemy of communism, and both trace their roots back to the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Kismet originated as a play by written by Edward Knoblock in 1911 (just a few years before the end of the Ottoman Empire), whose notions of the Orient came in part from the literature of his era — which teemed with Romantics like Byron, Goethe, and Flaubert who imagined themselves in far-flung harems and bazaars.

Arab men were branded, as a rule, as despotic barbarians and women as sexual trophies.

In turn, these authors drew inspiration from legends of the Middle Ages, spread by Crusaders who worked to counter the perceived threat of Islam. Such legends began taking shape around Muhammad in the 7th Century. Christians were quick to brand the Prophet as an over-sexed despot who used religion to justify his own sexual behavior. This characterization soon spread to all Arabs (including those who weren’t Muslim) as a means of sequestering their influence, resulting in Arab men being branded, as a rule, as despotic barbarians and women as sexual trophies.

Continuing in this lineage, Kismet could have simply been one more knot in the thread. But it was revisited in the early ‘90s following two pivotal moments in 1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall, which precipitated the collapse of Ronald Reagan’s so-called “Evil Empire,” and the Disney Renaissance, which would in a few years lead to the release of Aladdin.

American attitudes towards the Middle East continued to change in the 37 years between Kismet and Aladdin. With the dissipation of the Soviet threat, the Middle East seemed less exotic and tantalizing and — with events like the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Hostage Crisis, and the United States entering the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990 — more tyrannical and dangerous. Women who slinked around the MGM backlot in bikini tops and harem pants were now covered up in live-action films of the ‘90s and early 2000s to reflect the oppressive nature of the veil.

It’s out of this historical narrative that Aladdin was released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1992. Initially, Disney had planned on setting the film in Baghdad, but the progression Gulf War forced them to fictionalize the setting to Baghdad-assonant “Agrabah.” Nevertheless, Aladdin owes much of its actual playbook to the Baghdad that Kismet had recreated a generation earlier: showing off technical sophistication with a groundbreaking style of animation, while appropriating the story of an Oriental “Other” with what Edward Said would read as the attitude of authority. The underlying notion connecting Knoblock’s Kismet, Minnelli’s adaptation, and Aladdin was that a Western artist (or collective of artists) was best-suited to tell a Middle Eastern story.

In Aladdin’s case, it may be that the story is completely Western. French archaeologist Antoine Galland produced the first translation of the One Thousand and One Nights the early 18th Century. What began as a multi-authored, at times sexually-frank collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from Islam’s Golden Age gained new life in the West as a collection of children’s stories. Galland himself added a few new yarns to the compendium, including the tale of Aladdin, after claiming to have heard them from a Syrian traveler visiting Paris (no record of an Arabic version of Aladdin exists).

From there, One Thousand and One Nights went through seemingly as many translations in the ensuing centuries, each one adjusted to suit the sensibilities of its respective era. Galland held back on topics that would have been too salacious for his audiences, and the focus on capturing these stories as fairy-tales not only meant that many details were toned down, but also fueled the sense that the Middle East was far less moral than its European counterparts. By the late 1800s, Sir Richard Burton (to whom Knoblock’s original Kismet was dedicated) would subvert censorship laws of his time by self-publishing his own translation, which over-emphasized the sensual details in an attempt to course-correct the decades of prudish translations and building an adult readership.

As Syrian historian Rana Kabbani writes in Europe’s Myths of the Orient, “The mental barrier between Christian Occident and Muslim Orient was upheld by ignorance and related myth-making.” In the case of One Thousand and One Nights, the myth-making was literal.

Disney’s version of Galland’s story continued the themes of male barbarians and female trophies into the fictionalized world of Agrabah. Much like the Wazir in Kismet, who coerces a sham magician into helping him unseat the Caliph, Disney’s Jafar misuses his magic and the magic of the Genie towards absolute power. The hand of the Princess Jasmine (who claims she’s “not a prize to be won”), would be a bonus for the Sultan’s evil advisor, whom Disney’s animators took great pains to over-caricaturize to emphasize his undesirability (one model for his facial features: Nancy Reagan). While both Jafar and the Wazir, by virtue of being the antagonists of their respective films, are demonized in part for their commodification of women, their threat is neutered by both men being rendered as impotent, in another instance of the West maintaining the upper hand over the East. “I don’t need any more wives,” the Wazir moans to Lalume in Kismet. “In fact I’ve already got more than I have any use for.” “My lord, no one knows that better than I,” retorts Lalume, knowingly. (Compare this with a Rolling Stone ad from 1992 with a T-shirt that read  “America will not be Saddamized.”)

If Kismet in the 1950s was about reveling in material excess, Aladdin in the 1990s branded itself as a quest for something beyond material gain. Disney Renaissance characters sought a more metaphysical sense of self-realization, codified in the first 15 minutes or so of each movie since The Little Mermaid with a main character’s “I want” number. This desire, spelled out in song, drives the rest of the plot. “If only they’d look closer,” Aladdin laments early on, in one such moment. “Would they see a poor boy? No siree; they’d find out there’s so much more to me.”

The lack of anything genuinely Arabic about Aladdin became even more pronounced when the show landed on Broadway.

And yet, like Kismet, there’s very little attempt to go past the surface with Middle Eastern representation in Aladdin. Musical numbers like “Prince Ali” play out with Broadway showmanship, complete with Kismet’s groan-worthy rhyming schemes. The lack of anything genuinely Arabic about Aladdin despite Disney’s much-ballyhooed attention to animation detail in this era became even more pronounced when the show landed on Broadway in 2014. James Monroe Iglehart, who originated the role of the Genie for the stage, described the Cab Calloway-esque “Friend Like Me” number (as choreographed by Casey Nicholaw) as “MGM meets Mel Brooks meets Bugs Bunny.” These overtly American touches glossed over the fears many Americans had of the Middle East — fears stoked by the same legacy of mystification and obfuscation that led to Aladdin in the first place, and fears that didn’t exist in the MGM era that Aladdin’s animators borrowed from.  

Most infamous among Disney’s missteps in representing a fictionalized Arabic country came in the film’s opening song, which paints the Middle East as “a faraway place where the caravan camels roam,” and heighten both the danger and romance in a place whose nights are “hotter than hot in a lot of good ways.” Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s original lyrics also included the line: “Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Following complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disney altered the lyrics (“Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”), still leaving in the link between the Middle East and barbarism. It was one of the rare instances in which Disney altered one of its films following release, and one of the fastest turnarounds. Regardless, the change didn’t do a fig leaf’s job of hiding the other elements that remain problematic nearly 30 years later.

The whitewashing continued beyond the musical numbers. Aladdin and Jasmine’s features and accents were among those that were Westernized and whitewashed: Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise and voiced by Scott Weinger for the film — and 21 subsequent spinoff iterations. Nowhere in Jasmine did I see my aquiline nose (inherited from my grandmother, along with an untamed bush of eyebrows and hair whose frizz triples in size at the mere mention of the word “humidity”). As a child, I was blissfully unaware of this cognitive dissonance, and perhaps that’s why I initially felt inclined to forgive if not forget. Aladdin, for all its faults, could have a second life, much like other Disney films whose problematic aspects appear more clearly in hindsight. We could use it as an exploration of representation of its time, and a benchmark for the progress we’ve made since then.

Then, Disney decided to make a live-action version of Aladdin.

Set for cinematic release this month, the live-action Aladdin could have been a chance for Disney to be its own before and after around representation. In the 27 years since the original Aladdin, ongoing scholarship around Orientalism, a continuing dialogue around Arabic representation in Western entertainment, and the larger context of the positive impact the Middle East and Islam have had on Western culture (on their own terms) in the wake of early-2000s Islamophobia and the last few years’ worth of Muslim-majority travel bans, Disney still seems to blithely miss the point. Instead, to borrow again from Said, Guy Ritchie’s production only seems to further “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.”

“Although Disney managed to pretty much get the casting for its lead character [Egyptian-born Mena Massoud], there’s still a larger issue at play,” wrote Krystin Arneson for Glamour on the casting of British-Indian actress Naomi Scott as Jasmine. “It’s not cool that casting is still such that anyone who appears to be ‘ethnic’ is OK. It groups people of color into one, larger, ‘Other’ culture… when what the industry needs, more than ever, is a dedicated effort to be genuinely inclusive.”

Six months after Arneson’s editorial, Disney admitted that it was using makeup to darken the skin of dozens of white actors who played extras in the film. Fellow extra Kaushal Odedra, who broke the story to The Sunday Times, stated, “Disney are sending out a message that your skin color, your identity, your life experiences amount to nothing that can’t be powdered on and washed off.”

I recognize in my family the desire to trade heritage and a sense of home for an MGM-budget American dream.

Many Arabic emigres to the U.S., especially those in my grandmother’s generation, might have found that image desirable. The one consolation I have around my nonagenarian grandmother’s late-stage dementia is, at this point, she is unaware of the ongoing presidential tirades against those coming from her home country (including our own family members still living there). While many immigrant families maintained their culture in the United States, I recognize in my family the flip side: A desire to trade heritage and a sense of home for an MGM-budget American dream.

Perhaps that’s why my grandmother loved Kismet as much as I did: A vision of the Middle East in which the Illinois-born Howard Keel was a convincing beggar-turned-emir meant that her family wasn’t too far off from being convincing Syrians-turned-Americans. Perhaps this, too, is why I popped Kismet into our VHS player after my high school dismissed us early on September 11, 2001. I needed, in the face of Arab-demonizing propaganda, the sense that my Arabic identity was closer to that of Dolores Gray and Vic Damone.

The face-value of a Western representation of the Middle East, according to Said, “is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would. Since it cannot, the representation does the job.” Disney’s response to admitting that it was darkening the skin of extras was to say “This is the most diverse cast ever assembled for a Disney live action production. More than 400 of the 500 background performers were Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and Asian.”

As a child, and even as a teenager, I could have accepted this cultural gaslighting. But reading Said’s Orientalism for the first time in college made me reconsider my connection to both of these movies. If I, as a Syrian-American, could have represented myself at age 8, I would have. Since I could not, I let Kismet and Aladdin do the job. I now realize it was a shoddy job.

In 2019, Syria’s infrastructure continues to teeter on the brink of collapse between ISIS and the Assad regime. What memories my grandmother had of her parents and their home in Saidnaya (a town just 20 minutes north of Damascus), are also all but gone. But at the same time, we now have access more Arabic artists who can represent themselves on their own terms. Omar Souleyman and his dabke–inspired music went from being a hit at Syrian weddings to headlining SXSW and collaborating with Björk. Born in Aleppo to Armenian parents, folk musician Bedouine (also known as Azniv Korkejian), even merges her American identity with her Aleppine background in a way that’s more Laurel Canyon than “Ya Leily.”

I have more options than ever to understand my roots. But I have to contend with the fact that these roots are grounded in America’s view of the Middle East.

I have more options than ever to understand my roots. But now I have to contend with the fact that some of these roots are now grounded in two movies that, while set in the Middle East, were truly about America’s view of the Middle East. And as interested as I am in Arab and Arab-American representation in Western media, I would be ignoring an essential part of that representation if I ignored the works we allowed to stand in for that authenticity over the past 1400 years — and how that has shaped our world today far beyond the culture we consume.

Is it possible to undo this legacy? For third-generation immigrants who grew up, as I did, through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, I sense this drive to return to our cultural origins in a way that is more authentic than the amorphous pastiche of Eastern identity that was presented to us by American corporations. In this way, the Middle East remains mystified, both culturally and theologically. The Orient is still a faraway place where the caravan camels roam. It crosses the sands of time in ways mysterious, foreign, and — because history is written by the winners — inferior.

A former European colony ourselves, the United States has, in an effort to reinforce its identity as a world superpower, co-opted Europe’s colonization of the Middle East, retrofitting it to our own mythos. While steps are being made (from Ramy Youssef’s new series for Hulu, Ramy, to Ari’el Stachel winning a Tony Award in 2018 for his role in The Band’s Visit and using his acceptance speech to talk about the years he repressed his Middle Eastern heritage), we still can just as easily bar other performers under the guise of an executive order.

The problem with this is that we continue to rely on theory and stereotype versus experience and consideration. While we ban citizens from Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S., we just as easily recreate their worlds and stories for our own entertainment, setting up a film crew in Jordan more easily than a Jordanian film crew could film in Hollywood. The real terror of the Middle East aren’t the mythical dangers we’ve concocted for it; it’s that we might rely on this outmoded theory versus actual experience. The real terror is that we may not care enough to understand.

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