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Arabic Culture as Seen by Disney

Written by Ahmad AlGhahaity

Disney is the stuff our dreams are made of. From Snow White and Pinocchio to Lion King and Toy Story, its animated features have shaped the childhood memories of entire generations. The incredible quality of animation, solid storylines and catchy tunes make them timeless favorites with children. One of the main features of a Disney film is its universal appeal. These films are designed to be entertaining to anyone in the world, regardless of cultural and civilizational barriers. Even when they are grounded in real world instead of fairytales and fantasies, they effortlessly jump across continents and millennia, from American suburbia to Han Dynasty to Indian jungles. Paying great attention to detail, they faithfully recreate a particular time and place. Or do they?

Of course, slip-ups are bound to happen in any movie. Obsessed fans eagerly jump at every opportunity to find inconsistencies or anachronisms and point them out on the internet. Not to mention crazy conspiracy theories about subliminal messages in children’s movies. But these things are trivial pastimes.

Things get much more serious when a film shows blatant prejudice. And, unfortunately, that is the case of one of the best-known Disney films: Aladdin. Released in 1992, Aladdin became the highest-grossing film of the year.

The plot outline was taken from one of the most famous tales from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. It tells the story of a poor boy who finds a magic lamp with a genie inside. When freed by Aladdin, the genie makes him rich and powerful, so he can marry a princess. After fighting some evil schemers, Aladdin lives happily ever after.

The “Barbaric” Home of the Arabs

Allegedly, the movie did it best to paint a sympathetic and picture of Arabic culture. That is far from the truth, however. Audiences were served a distorted image of that culture, which has persisted for decades. Where did Disney go wrong?

For starters, its suggestive Arabian atmosphere is not Arabian. Or rather, it is a chaotic mixture of Persian, Indian and Arabic cultural elements. The film blatantly displays Indian architecture, since the king’s palace is a rip-off of Taj Mahal. Traces of the Indian sari can be seen in dresses, too, but most of the characters’ clothes are Persian, from the veils to the Omama. The flying rug, which follows Aladdin like a dog, has an undeniably Persian pattern. So what is Arabic in the film? Not much, really. The hot weather (duh), the bazaars and shops, as well as details of clothes and architecture.

But the detail that caused the greatest controversy was the first song of the film. It is the introduction to the setting, sang by a man traveling through the desert on a camel.

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.

Cutting off ears is obviously the main highlight of Disney’s Arabia, second only to camels. In the United States, there are three million people of Arab heritage. To say that they felt it like a slap in the face would be an understatement. Arab Americans were outraged. After protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the studio decided in 1993 to change the “cut ear” lyrics to: “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”. At least that is something. But it seems that Disney didn’t feel that calling a culture “barbaric” was anything to be ashamed of, since that verse has remained. As we shall see, the animated Arabs will have plenty of opportunities to act barbaric. It was a fitting introduction to a film full of prejudice.

Parade of Stereotypes

A patronizing attitude pervades the film. “If the song wasn’t convincing”, says Genevieve C. Goddard-Pritchett in Phantasmagorical Culture: A Discussion of Disney as a Creator and a Cultural Phenomenon, “then viewers can observe other slights against Arab culture such as signs in the marketplace that appear to be written in Arabic, but are instead just nonsense scribbles, promoting the fact that Arabic culture is not something that should be taken seriously.”

But the most annoying element, reappearing over and over, is violence. Some of it isn’t obvious at first sight. It is only in retrospect that one might ask oneself whether palace guards in every animated film are such sabre-wielding bloodthirsty maniacs.

Violence is most despicable in the scenes where it is completely unwarranted. This is what I mean: the heroine, Jasmine, takes an apple from a seller and gives it to a hungry child. The seller flies into a rage and wants to punish her for stealing. How does he intend to do it? By cutting off her hand. In fact, maiming seems to be a legitimate course of action for any petty offense in Disney’s Arabia.

Another ubiquitous element is greed. It is enough to compare the supporting characters of Aladdin with the cast of any other Disney movie to realize how their human failings have been amplified beyond measure.

Some stereotypes are more insidious. The heroes of the film, Aladdin and Jasmine, differ from other characters in being more light-skinned. Their faces are refined and modeled after European facial features, while most of the others are grotesque caricatures. Finally, there is a crucial difference in language: Aladdin and Jasmine speak perfect English, while others have Arabic accents. The heroes are closer to “us”, the Western audiences, unlike the “others”, representing a dangerous and boorish Arab world.

It would be a misrepresentation if we said that everything about Aladdin is bad for Arabs. An American film having an Arab as a hero is such a rare occurrence that it should be applauded when it actually happens. But it is lamentable that stereotypes, rooted in ignorance of other cultures, have resulted in so many odious depictions of Arabs and their world. Films are the only education that millions of people will ever get. It should not be an education in prejudice.