Why Aladdin is really not that great
And how it has effected my childhood
First things first:
Your favorite racist 90s children movie is NOT an Indian story (although clothing and features of Yasmine made a lot of people assume so) – and it’s definitely not ARABIAN.
(Off topic but it really needs to be said: There is no such thing called ARABIAN. „ARABIA“ consists of hundreds of countries, hundreds of religions, thousands of cultures and ethnicities and thousands of LANGUAGES.)
So what’s really my problem with that popular movie? Well – you all know Aladdin is a story of 1001 nights. But who has originally written this frequently adapted story?
Wikipedia tells us:
Aladdin (/əˈlædɪn/; Arabic: علاء الدين, ʻAlāʼ ud-Dīn/ ʻAlāʼ ad-Dīn, IPA: [ʕalaːʔ adˈdiːn], ATU 561, ‘Aladdin‘) is a folk tale of Middle Eastern origin. It is one of the tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), and one of the best known—despite not being part of the original Arabic text. It was added to the collection in the 18th century by the Frenchman Antoine Galland, who acquired the tale from a Syrian maronite storyteller, Youhenna Diab, also known as Hanna Diyab. Contemporary historians consider Diyab to have been the original author of „Aladdin“ and believe the tale to have been partly inspired by Diyab’s own life. Since it first appeared in the early 18th century, „Aladdin and the Magic Lamp“ has been one of the best known and most retold of all fairy tales.
So whereas the whole collection of 1001 nights does have influences of India and Persia this particular story of Aladdin does NOT. It’s originally recorded to take place in CHINA! Yeah, there were (and still are) Chinese muslims! So, when translating the story and bringing it to Europe the setting was changed into „one of the cities of Arab“.
Disney took this and made it AGRABAH – which reminds us a lot of BAGHDAD. (In fact the producers intended it to be Baghdad, only changed it when Gulf War happened).
Now – Disney’s purpose is merely and purely to teach us love, coexistence and acceptance…
Hah, gotcha! No, it’s not. It’s MONEY, duh!
So in 1992 movies like Jurassic Park (where the only black dude gets eaten by a dinosaur in the first 30 seconds) were really popular. So you get a feeling of the sentiment and propaganda that was still around that time.
Now, really – what’s my problem? It’s this:
Did you watch the movie in English? Have you recognized that Aladdin, Yasmine and Genie are the only ones that speak American English? Whereas the bad guy speaks British English with a very broken Arabic accent AND has the darkest complexion AND a crooked nose? How can this even happen in a country like the US where so many Jewish people found refuge and a new home? Aladdin, Yasmine and the Sultan are very whitewashed (a thing that still happens today to black girls on American magazine covers). So they are americanized, or you could say – humanized? Because you are less of a civilized human If you are not white and American?
Because that’s what movies like Aladdin do: They paint a very stereotypical and racist picture of „the Arab world“ (please never use that stupid word… think about what it means…) and plant in the heads of little white European and American kids.
What they also do is make fun of people like me and my family and affect us directly.
Being a kid and getting constantly asked if you ride on camels, if there are streets where you come from or just a lot of sand, if you fly on a carpet and if you eat on the floor – that’s not cool.
There’s nothing bad about riding a camel or eating on the floor and I would love to have a flying carpet – but it’s bad if it has a bad connotation. And, let’s not lie: it does have a bad connotation. The intend is to make Arab people seem inferior, not that civilized, not that progressive, not that intelligent. The only pseudo-positive connotations are exotic, sexy, almond shaped eyes… (see Yasmine).
Which all makes sense – an American movie after the second Gulf War… come on, can we be that blind?
So this is what makes me really sad and angry when I see and hear people glorifying that racist movie of 1992. I have no idea about the new movie and I don’t really feel like finding out. Because it happens too much and it sits too deep.
The „Orient“ is no homogenous place. You can’t just ignore the diversity there and throw a dozen cultures, costumes and dancing half naked girls into a movie and say: That’s Aladdin, that’s Arabia. These are the Arabian Nights.
Or… you can’t. At least that’s what Orientalists have done the last hundred of years.
What is Orientalism? Basically tropes portraying Asia and the Middle East „bizarre, regressive, and innately opaque and impossible to understand“.
(If you’re curious search for Orientalism by Edward Said.)
So when I went to circus with children acrobats with my 2 year old daughter and saw a show that was as racist and orientalist I just left. Unfortunately I did not have the courage to speak to creator of the show but then again… would it make any difference?