Disney’s Aladdin

Continuing last week’s post about Aladdin:

The Disney film made Aladdin Arabic (and an accused thief instead of a ne’er-do-well tailor’s son) and renamed the princess of his affections Jasmine—from the original’s Badroulbadour (Bedrulbudour, Bedr-el-Budur, Badr al-Budur). Perhaps more significantly, its villain was not the African magician/sorcerer of the literary versions. Instead, following the 1940 adaptation of Thief of Bagdad, the Disney film’s villain was the evil and conniving court advisor, Grand Vizier Jafar (Jaffar in the 1940 film, played by Veidt, its star). The name and title derives from a figure who appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales and is loosely based on an actual 9th century historical figure, Ja’far al-Barmaki, vizier to the caliph of Baghdad. Another 9th century historical figure, the poet Abu Nuwas, who appears as a court jester figure in the Nights, provided the name for the thief in the 1940 film—which had divided the 1924 film’s title character into two: a prince, Ahmad, and a thief, Abu—and Aladdin’s sidekick monkey in the Disney film.

After its release, the Disney film was criticized for its racism. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee noted Aladdin’s uneven representation of Arab characters, observing light-skinned heroic leads were attractive and Anglicized and spoke with Anglo-American accents while other dark-skinned villains had grotesque facial features and spoke with Arabic accents. They and others protested the lyrics of the film’s opening song, which included the lines, “Where they cut off your ear/if they don’t like your face/It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” eventually convincing the studio to change two of them in video and DVD releases to “It’s flat and immense/and the heat is intense” while retaining the “It’s Barbaric” line.

Understandable and correct as these criticisms were, they nevertheless followed Disney’s reductive logic. Arguing Disney’s caricatured stereotypes were unfair and unrealistic representations of Arabs—and therefore a disservice to the Arabic community—they authenticated, if they didn’t fully accept, the cultural, geographic homogenization and historical distillation in the studio’s adaptation. Arguing against racism, they scarcely noticed Disney’s decision to relocate the film’s setting to Agrabah, a fictive city in Arabia. The move was significant not only for its contrast from the literary original’s China, but also its difference from film precursors’ Bagdad, which in the context of the 1990s—given the conclusion of the first Gulf War fought against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—might have been deemed problematic. Despite the city’s rich history as one of medieval Islam’s cultural and intellectual centers, and indeed, the setting for much of the original Thousand and One Nights, the 1992 Aladdin was set in a desert city of an American ally.

The more severe, if not radical changes from literary versions of the story—Aladdin’s ethnic conversion, the change in villains, or the transformation of Abu Nuwas, considered by some to be among the greatest of Arabic poets, into a monkey—were similarly little noticed or commented upon, even though those original figures evidenced the historical reach and ethnic heterogeneity of Muslim culture and society. China, the literary Aladdin’s location, represented the eastern edge of Islam’s extent while the African sorcerer, who in several versions was identified more specifically as from the Maghreb, or in Burton’s effusive prose, the “Land of the Setting Sun,” represented its west.[1] Between those geographic poles, Islam, in the historical period and tradition of the Nights, encompassed much of the known world and many of its peoples.

[1] African (in Galland), Moorish Darwish from Barbary (Lane), Maugrabin (Payne), Darwaysh from Inner Marocco, Maghrib, Land of the Setting Sun, (Burton). African (Haddawwy)