When the fabulous centuries-old Arab folk tale of Aladdin's adventures was transformed into a Disney feature film, Arab-Americans held their breath, eager like all interested in animation and fantasy, yet wary. The unease stems from years of experience in seeing the Arab image distorted by filmmakers, cartoonists, TV series scriptwriters and news editors.
Common stereotypes have become cemented in the media industry's stockpile of "instant Arabs." These images range from a half-clad veiled flock of belly dancers making up a "harem" for their polygamous "master," to bearded terrorists in urban settings and oil-rich rulers called "sheiks" of unsavory desert lands.
Contrary to this past tradition, Disney's "Aladdin" offered two young heroes who did not comply in character with any of the past infamous ones. Jasmine made her own wedding decisions, the sultan complied with her desires and Aladdin had eyes for only one wife. These values were imparted to moviegoers in an unprecedented way, by Arab characters. But the question remains: What image of Arab culture emerges from the movie? And were these characters presented as Arabs to "Aladdin's" viewers at all?
In numerous films with Middle East-based plots, fictitious cities pop up in what Jack Shaheen has referred to as a "standard, sinister 'Arabland' backdrop. ... Into the perennial desert the producers drop a military air base or a cheap mock-up of an Arabian Nights palace." For this movie, Disney dreamt up the fictitious city of "Agrabah." Given the numerous films that have been produced and fueled by political agendas, it's often probably better when the locale remains unattributed to a real city of the Arab world. Still, the Arab can always be identified through the film industry's traditional reliance on stereotype, which is even expressed in "Aladdin's" surprisingly vicious opening lyric, "Arabian Nights:"
"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."
Not only are the characters from this unusual place, they also speak with an unusual mix of accents. The three main characters, Jasmine, Aladdin and the Genie, have Anglo-American accents, while the rest have foreign accents. Aladdin and Jasmine's cultural values are thus presented as "American," representing innocence, subversion of social tradition, freedom of choice and courage. The ones with foreign (or Arab) accents are mainly conspirators, thieves, violent guards or the people of the street. If Disney were to be believed, one could come to the understanding that these are foreign, or specifically Arab attributes. In fact, though, pitting Americans against Arabs is not required by the story line, and it does a disservice to all non-native English speakers.
The expression of an Arab-American's national origin (through physique and sometimes through accent) still elicits prejudice from many. It has led to such discriminatory acts as airline personnel harassment or crimes of hatred. Most hate crimes recorded in the past four years were committed against Arab-Americans as the United States intervened in Iraq.
In the collection of tales recorded around the 15th century in Arabic, and which comprise "The Thousand and One Nights" or "Arabian Nights," Aladdin and Jasmine were actually residents of Baghdad, Iraq, a city widely considered a center for Arab culture and civilization. Though we are speaking of fiction and fancy, the obscure reference to "Agrabah" precludes viewers from making the association of Baghdad with admirable heroes and heroines like Aladdin and Jasmine. Both were perfectly content with their Arab heritage in the original version of "Aladdin."
We challenge Disney and other film companies to offer all-American heroes who demonstrate their Arab heritage with pride and subtlety, while reflecting a balance of character traits like members of all ethnic or national groups. When this precedent is set, the media may be able to let go of their cultural and political baggage. Clearly, "Aladdin's" purpose is not to have viewers reflect on positive aspects of the Arab world, but why should this not be a possible consequence of its viewing?
In effect, the tale is a rich one of universal appeal, full of insight about human character, values and goals. Its adaptation should not demean its Arab heritage. One modern example in which Disney was able to put forth an element of Arab cuisine and combine it with an American saying was when the Genie suggests to Aladdin, "Wake up and smell the hummus." Combining both Arab and American cultures in a phrase is a step in the right direction. It's okay to be Arab.
The writer is media coordinator for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.