The theater is packed with children munching popcorn, hungry for Walt Disney's "Aladdin" to begin. For many this is the second or third time they've seen the film. As the opening credits roll, they watch a Bedouin riding his camel through the desert and listen to these lyrics from a song called "Arabian Nights":
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.
Barbaric? Chopping off ears? In the first minute of a children's film?
Millions of children and adults are streaming to theaters to watch Disney's retelling of the classic tale in which poor Aladdin finds a magic lamp and is granted three wishes by the genie who lives inside. The movie is a charmer, the reviewers almost unanimously proclaim, a brilliantly animated fantasy-adventure in which Robin Williams, as the voice of the genie, gives a classic comedic performance. There is talk of Oscar nominations, and the film is topping 10-best lists. What's more, "Aladdin" has been hailed as politically correct: Its heroes are not white.
But for many Arab Americans and Muslims, the film is not innocent, funny or particularly triumphant. Many of its characters are portrayed as grotesque, with huge noses and sinister eyes. And they are violent, willing to chop off the hand of a woman who steals an apple for a hungry child.
Such caricatures exemplify the negative stereotyping with which Hollywood and the media have stamped Arabs and Muslims for nearly a century, these critics say. The sting of "Aladdin" is particularly intense because it is a high-profile Disney release, playing to massive audiences, including impressionable children.
"It's gratuitous Arab-bashing," said Casey Kasem, a nationally syndicated disc jockey in Los Angeles, of Lebanese ancestry, who is particularly bothered by the film's opening song. "It just drives another nail into the casket of what has been a bad image for decades. If you were to replace the word 'Arab' with 'black,' 'Jew,' 'Italian' or 'Irishman,' it just wouldn't float because everyone would be up in arms."
Yousef Salem, owner of a Sunnyvale, Calif., engine-parts business and former spokesman for the South Bay Islamic Association, saw the film recently. "All this violence," he lamented. "All the bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and they're wielding swords constantly. Aladdin doesn't have a big nose; he has a small nose. He doesn't have a beard or a turban. He doesn't have an accent. What makes him nice is they've given him this American character. They've done everything but put him into a suit and tie.
"As an Arab, it made me feel, 'My goodness, this is not a film I want my children to see,' " said Salem. "I have a daughter who says she's ashamed to call herself an Arab, and it's because of things like this."
Complaints like these are coalescing into a public debate that seems to have taken Disney by surprise.
Last month Albert Mokhiber, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, wrote to Disney Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to suggest that the lyrics to "Arabian Nights" be changed before "Aladdin" is released on videotape. (Disney has not responded to the request.) In the letter Mokhiber "applauds marvelous moments in the film when there is a successful fusion of Arab and American cultures, such as the scene in which the genie suggests that Aladdin 'wake up and smell the hummus.' These moments are unfortunately overshadowed by the surprisingly vicious opening lyric."
Howard Green, a spokesman for Disney, rebuts the criticisms: "It's certainly coming from a small minority," he says, "because most people are very happy with it. All the characters are Arabs, the good guys and the bad guys, and the accents don't really connote anything, I don't think. ... As for the song, it's talking about a different time and a different place. It's a certain license that they're taking, but it's certainly not meant to reflect on the culture of today. It's a fictitious place. This seems kind of nit-picky."
Studio executives see the film as a simple entertainment, yet many Arabs and Muslims view it in a political context. They see it as part of a trend that reflects the U.S. government's support of Israel and the influence, some say, of Jews in the film industry and other media.
This last charge is denounced by others as racist in its own right, for its implications that Jews behave monolithically and are universally prejudiced against Arabs. The arguments go on endlessly, and "Aladdin" sits in the middle of this political debate about Zionism and Palestinian rights.
The earliest Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims arose during the Crusades almost a millennium ago, said Charles E. Butterworth, a visiting professor of Middle East politics at Harvard University. "These are the terrible people who captured Jerusalem and who had to be thrown out of the Holy City," he said. The image of Muslims as uncivilized and barbaric gradually crept into Western art and literature, he said, citing Shakespeare.
Today's media caricatures reflect similar fears and ignorance. "There's the Bedouin bandit," said Jack G. Shaheen, professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and author of "The TV Arab." He ticks off other film and media stereotypes: "There's the billionaire -- the Arab oil sheik. And there's the bomber, which more often than not is associated with a Palestinian. Those are the main images associated with men. And with women, they're primarily belly dancers or bundles of black, covered head to toe. And generally they don't speak."
Shaheen is one of many who say negative stereotyping has reached new proportions in the two years since the Persian Gulf War against Iraq: "There have been 16 Hollywood films produced since then that have denigrated Arabs -- and in particular, our allies in the war, the Saudis," he said.
"Since cameras started cranking, there's been a negative image of the Arab people," Shaheen said. "And in most of the films they fabricate this 'Ay-rab-land' by plopping down a castle or a military fortress in the desert. And then there are tents and camels and an oasis, and around the palace there's a dungeon, dancing girls and intrigue; somebody's trying to kill the king. And outside, you have the masses, the people in the marketplace. They're unscrupulous; they charge you too much; they're not clean shaven; they're not helpful. They're the opposite of the reality... .
"If you look at the people in the marketplace in 'Aladdin' and you look at the friendly creatures who populate the underwater kingdom in 'The Little Mermaid' -- what a difference!"
"Aladdin" is set in the fictitious Middle Eastern city of Agrabah -- and the anonymity of the setting upsets some viewers. "This is a tale from 'A Thousand and One Nights,' " said Nabil Al-Hadithy of Berkeley, Calif., a director of the Committee for Fair Representation, a group that monitors how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in the media, referring to the body of Arab folk tales also known as "The Arabian Nights."
"It was created in Baghdad," he said. "I am from Baghdad. Baghdad has just suffered an immense human devastation two years ago, and to make a film about it without really showing any of the ethnicity or links to that place is outrageous."
In fact, contrary to popular belief, "Aladdin" is not one of the original "Arabian Nights" tales and does not exist in Arabic in written form. Nor is it set in Baghdad. Husain F. Haddawy, translator of an authoritative collection of the "Arabian Nights," explains that it is a Chinese story, often set in China, that circulated in the Arab world and was adopted into "the Arab oral tradition."
In this way, the tale was given its Arabic name: "Ala-idin" means "one who exemplifies the sublimity of religion." In the original tale, Aladdin is a ne'er-do-well who grows to accept responsibilities and the guiding hand of Allah. In the Disney version, Aladdin is admirably loyal to the Princess Jasmine but otherwise a frivolous fellow. He is not worthy of his name.
There are other criticisms: Arabic names are mispronounced in the film. Storefront signs are not written in Arabic. "They are scribblings," says Khalil Barhoum, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University.
More seriously, Islamic law is misrepresented. In the opening sequences, Princess Jasmine wanders through the marketplace and, without thinking, grabs an apple from a cart to feed a hungry child who passes by. The merchant who owns the cart immediately attempts, unsuccessfully, to chop off her hand. For an apple? Never.
Despite common stereotypes, Islamic punitive laws are only implemented for repeat offenders who refuse to repent for crimes that are far more serious than this. In any event, the law spells out that someone who steals out of hunger or poverty is not to be punished. And in the modern world, hand-chopping "is almost never implemented anywhere, except in some cases in Saudi Arabia," said Maher Hathout, a Los Angeles physician and Islamic scholar. "Although the movie is lots of fun -- my granddaughter liked it a lot -- I was very, very aware of the stereotypes that Islam is a cruel religion, a harsh religion."