Aladdin: Fact Check
This month, I had the honor of watching live-action Aladdin movie. Although I fell in love with both Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud and was fascinated by their acting/singing, as a Turkish person I didn’t feel like it was a story in Arabic peninsula. Instead, I was actually able to see elements from my own culture mixed with Indian influences. This got me thinking– does Disney see the entire Asian continent as one particular place, or do they see our distinct cultures as just one big package of exoticism? As any 17 year old would do, I tried to find my answers on the Internet and found some pretty compelling proof for my initial thought, and even more about why Aladdin, or as the original name “The Magic Lamp of Alaa el-Din”, is a train wreck of a tale even more so than its Disney adaptation. In addition, I have seen many people angry about the casting. Well, what I have found might excuse the casting but not the nonsense of this story.
To begin, let’s establish the fact that Aladdin is one of the most well-known tales from the Middle East, right next to classics like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Despite this, it makes no sense historically or culturally. In fact, it’s not really part of the stories told by Shahrazad to King Shahrayar in One Thousand and One Nights–t was added by a European translator in 1712.
A brief history lesson:
One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of folktales presented in a story-within-a-story context. A Sasanian king, Shahrayar is shocked to learn that his brother’s wife is unfaithful. Discovering that his own wife’s infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her and her lover put to death. but Her infidelity drives him mad with paranoia; He decides to marry every virgin in the kingdom and have them put to death come morning so they wouldn’t have the chance to cheat on him.
Alas, he runs out of virgins, all except for his grand-vizier’s daughter Shahrazad. She agrees to marry the king, assuring her father she had a plan. After their wedding night, Shahrazad began the distraction plot to end all plots. She asks the king if he wanted to hear a story and spent the whole night entertaining him with it, making sure to end with the start of another tale. Once he’d ask “What happened?” she’d tell him, “Wait for tomorrow,” and restart the same process.
She kept him on the episodic hook for a thousand and one nights, spinning so many tales and retelling many until she finally ran out. But, by the time she did, they had developed a good relationship, had children, and he no longer cared about his kill-come-sunrise rule, and they lived happily ever after.
So what is actually wrong with Aladdin? For starters, the original story is set in China but the ruler is named “Sultan”, the title of Ottoman rulers. The story is similar to the Disney adaptation, Aladdin is recruited by sorcerer Jafar who is from Maghreb, which is typically used to refer to Morocco or all of North Africa except for Egypt. Jasmine, or her original name Badroulbadour, has a pretty typical old Arabic name meaning “full moon of full moons” but she is described as being from the Far East. To sum it up, China is ruled by a Turkish, Aladdin is Chinese, Jafar is Moroccan, and Jasmine is probably Japanese. The concept of a genie, or a djinn, is literally the only Arabic part of the story. At this point it is pretty obvious that the story was made up by a confused foreigner who knows nothing about Asia.
If we get to the Disney movie, somehow they successfully followed the original storyline. The style of the character and the places are unmistakably a Persian-Indian fusion with some Ottoman sprinkled and a tiny bit of Eastern Asian influences to complete it all. Let’s look at some more specific details to better illustrate this. In the animation, Jasmine’s headpiece, appearance, pet tiger definitely drive in the Indian influence but she is wearing shalvar, harem pants, which are Turkish. She looks like a toned-down belly dancer! (FYI, belly dancing is practiced from Turkey to India but it was definitely spread by the Ottomans.) In the live-action, she was dressed more according the Indian traditions yet still carried some Turkish influences on her outfits. Getting to the Sultan, his entire attire is a mix of a Sikh maharajah, Indian, and a Sultan, Turkish.
Furthermore, his palace was obviously inspired by the Taj Mahal. Except for the Arabic-speaking background characters, they weren’t able to drive in the fact that the story was happening in an Arabic place. It felt more like pseudo-Arabia, with all Asia sprinkled in there.
Then what about the casting? Here is my two-cents on the issue. As we know right now, even the original source is flawed in itself and the movie, even though claims to be focusing on Arabic culture and characters, is just not doing it. What a lot of people who grew up in the Western world doesn’t understand is that from Maghreb to Egypt; to Turkey, to the Arabian Peninsula, to Iraq, to Iran and to India we all share some common traits because of trade, history, and invasions. I, personally, thought it was smart to amass a cast from different parts of the Near, Middle and South East and include everyone who likely grew up with Shahrazad and her tales. If there’s anyone I felt a little bit uncomfortable with, it was Will Smith as the genie, the only Arabic part of the story. Obviously, he is an incredibly talented actor who brought life to the character, but there were some instances where I was extremely uncomfortable watching a black actor play a character whose dream was to be set free from servitude by his lovely master.