A remake of Disney’s Aladdin movie has remedied a lot of its cultural mistakes from the 1992 animated musical film, but what’s with the Bollywood features that were supposed to be symbolic of a fictional Arab country called “Agraba?”
From the characters’ clothes, to the dance moves that are typical of Bollywood’s dancing and singing, the animals that are native to the Indian region such as elephants, monkeys and tigers, Aladdin felt more like a fictional Indian tale than an Arab one.
The women and men also dressed in costumes that are typically Indian, such as the salwar kameez/ghagras and kurta/sherwani.
While the 2019 movie fixed a lot of the stereotypical messages of the 1992 film, like the lyric in the introductory song that described Agraba [the fictional Arab country] as, “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”; as well as depicting Arab characters with harsh features and mannerisms, except for the main characters [Aladdin, princess Jasmine] who had White, European features and accents; it still portrayed the Arab culture as Indian.
So why is Hollywood still releasing movies with false cultural facets? It is the 21st century after all.
In his 1978 book Orientalism, Columbia University’s late literature professor Edward Said argued that Western cultures historically stereotyped the Middle East to justify its rocky foreign relations with it.
Orientalism has a long history in Hollywood. Among Said’s references were magical Hollywood films such as The Sheik and Arabian Nights, which portrayed the Middle East as a monolithic fantasy land containing a magical desert filled with genies, flying carpets and rich men living in extravagant palaces with their half naked harem girls or conservative oppressed women.
“Barbaric”, “backwards”, “cruel”, “silly” and “weak” are some of the stereotypical depictions that Hollywood usually associates with the Arab culture. Although arguably silly and harmless, these depictions repetitively shaped the image of the Middle Eastern culture in entertainment media, portraying the region as backwards and in constant need of civilizing by the West.
On the political front, there were a series of Middle Eastern conflicts and wars: The Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis and the Gulf War. In American media, the exotic and mystical Middle East disappeared and was replaced with depictions of violence and terrorism.
Media scholar Jack G. Shaheen also pointed out in his research a link between Islam and terrorism from hundreds of Hollywood films over the past 50 years. Muslims were depicted as either “hostile alien intruders waging a holy war” or “lustful, oily sheikhs intent on using nuclear weapons.”
The Arab culture has its own traditional attire separate from the religious conservative one.
Aladdin featured various instruments that are usually used to make Arabic music, such as the tabla, in its soundtrack, and a scene showed Aladdin owning an oud, so some Arabic cultural music, as well as some other elements that the culture certainly does not lack, could have been incorporated into the movie.
While the 2019 version of Aladdin included false cultural depictions, the producing team made an effort to change the offensive stereotypes in the 1992 version.
Disney sought advice from a Community Advisory Council comprising Middle Eastern, South Asian and Muslim scholars, activists and creatives.
While this is a good sign that Hollywood is finally taking a step in the right direction to fix its problematic portrayals of Arabs in entertainment media, it would be nice to see some of the positive facets of the true Arabic culture, as opposed to borrowing elements from other cultures.