Disney released their live-action film ‘Aladdin,’ an adaptation of the 1992 animated film of the same name in May 2019. Like many animated Disney films, Aladdin was one of the most memorable films of our generation’s childhood. The film was hugely anticipated as there were high hopes for the representation of minorities when Naomi Scott, a British actor from a Gujarati Indian background, and Mena Massoud, an Egyptian Canadian actor, were cast as Jasmine and Aladdin. However, the 2019 release has sparked a debate on the representation of ethnic minorities.
Can anyone explain the thought process behind a 21st century Orientalist children’s film? Edward Said, we need you. No one can deny that both the original Aladdin and the new-release are problematic, as someone who has not watched the film, there is only so much I can say about the issues with the representation of minorities. However, the fact that I am able to make these comments without actually watching the film just proves how obviously problematic the new release is.
The origin of the tale of Aladdin is found in a folktale from One Thousand and One Nights, although the collection was compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 14th century), Aladdin was one of the stories later added to the collection in the 18th Century by a Frenchman. It is said that Syrian storyteller, Hanna Diyab, passed this onto Frenchman Antoine Galland who translated it into French.
This is where the issues with Aladdin arise, the work of translation is difficult and transforms the original tale itself. The most obvious pitfall is the translation of the tale from Arabic to French, anyone who is bilingual can tell you how much is lost in translation, no language can capture the feelings and emotions of another, especially when they are from two completely different cultural backgrounds. Further to this, the colonisation of countries in the Maghreb region by the French complicates the origins of Aladdin. Galland did not simply translate an Arabic folktale, no, he made is comprehensible and desirable to a Western French audience.
Fast-forward to the 20th century where American film-studio Disney capitalised from this folktale. The makers of the animated film planned to stay ‘faithful’ to the original tale. But this raises the question of what the original actually was, Diyab’s tale or Galland’s? Of course, to an American film institution, a Frenchman’s translation is more reliable than an Arab man’s original tale. Disney’s animation took inspiration from The Thief of Bagdad made by the British in the 1940s. So, now we have the British, the Americans and a Frenchman writing about a Middle Eastern folktale – if this doesn’t prelude to a disastrous representation of ethnic minorities in mainstream media then I don’t know what does.
Disney transformed Baghdad to the fictional Agrabah, an amalgamation of Agra and Baghdad that absolutely no one asked for. Unsurprisingly, Agrabah bares resonances to aspects of Mughal culture in South Asia, but for some reason, Iraq seemed like a more suitable cultural backdrop for the adaptation. Whereas in Galland’s translation he foregrounds the tale in China, along the Silk Roads, in cities that were and still are historically home to Muslims, such as the Uyghurs.
What’s more exotic than one Eastern Islamic culture? An unorthodox mixture of two vastly different Eastern cultures that can be materially unified through Islamic architecture and their shared religious belief in jinns. Et voila! You have your wish-granting genie! I don’t what I imagined jinns to look like, but it definitely was not Will Smith in harem pants.
As for the cast of Aladdin, does it really matter whether Arab or South Asian actors were cast as the characters of Jasmine and Aladdin? The film does no justice to either cultures or their peoples. If anything, Aladdin further perpetuates Orientalist stereotypes which come from Western paintings and writings from the 19th century on the East – the ‘East’ meant anything that white men could conquer and label as a civilising Christian mission.
Until mainstream films about ethnic minorities are made by ethnic minorities there will be no fair representation. This needs to become a common practice and until then, multi-million companies such as Disney will continue to profit from a long-standing ignorance towards our cultures, while we argue on Twitter about whether Jasmine should’ve been played by an Arab or Desi girl.