By Sohail Inayatullah
Aladdin perhaps is among the most culturally violent movies recently made.
Lulled by brilliant animation, classic images of good and evil and internal battles of egoist self-image and truth, one forgets the cultural rape of the Islamic people. Taking a classical Muslim and Arabic myth, the story is transformed into a Hollywood cartoon.
Simply put, in the beginning he is Aladdin, the servant of God but by the end of the story having now realized truth and beauty, he says, “just call me Al.”
Unfortunately it is the comic genius of Robin Williams who does the most damage. Instead of trying to find humor within the Islamic tradition, within the terms of the story, we are barraged with imitations of mockeries of Jack Nicholson, William Buckley, Arsenio Hall and others. Mythology is taken over by current humor. The only thing that finally separates Aladdin from a normal midwestern caucasian boy is his the slight brown coloring. Aladdin could have easily grown up in an American city or 19th century British city. From muslim children, this movie however will complete the colonization of the mind. Islamic categories of thought will seem meaningless in the onslaught of Disney.
The examples of Orientalism are numerous and obvious. The good guys are all clean shaven, the bad guys have facial hair typically associated with Easterners and other evil characters. The streets are lined with bartering arabs and hindu fakirs. Araby is the land of the exotic. Women are portrayed as erotic, swaying about, wearing the briefest of harem costumes. The only interesting and developed character is the genie, largely because of Williams but also because the genie is full of cultural richness, This is unfortunate since even though the genie was trapped in the Arab world, he only knows Western culture.
But we should not be surprised at the Orientalist nature of the movie, we know this from the beginning. The story teller begins with the secular Salaam (peace) not the appropriate asalaam alakum (may god be with you). The story is secularized and westernized with Allah thrown out and Al thrown in. While cultures appropriating each others myths can enrich the world and help create a new culture, in this case cultural sharing leads to cultural cannibalism. A bit of history reading, a few attempts to understand Arabian mythology in its terms not in the terms of 1990’s America could have created a universal fable, authentic to history but innovative in its ability to speak to the West and East, to create a cultural dialog. Instead we are given vicious pornography.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses comes out as pious literature compared to Disney’s Aladdin. Movies rarely depress me as this has. I remember Aladdin from my childhood.
Hoping to be taken back to dreams and fantasies of a time gone, instead I was transported to the future–I future I know I will have no part of since I do not have a Western name nor am willing to have “sohail” transformed to “Sam” or some other derivation.
What Bush could not do to the Islamic and Arab world, Disney with the help of the genius Robin Williams certainly has. By all means see it.