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Dressed as Aladdin, but No Happily Ever After

Adeel Hassan

Orientalism[1], or stereotypical, colonialist representations of Asia, especially the Middle East, has been pernicious and persistent[2]. In 1992, the opening song[3] in Disney’s “Aladdin” contained these lyrics: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” and “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” It was changed[4] in the home video version, but it left out only the ear cutting.

The setting, Agrabah, was a stand-in for Baghdad, which had been bombed by the American military only the year before. In an editorial in 1993, The New York Times wrote[5] that “one form of ethnic bigotry retains an aura of respectability in the United States: prejudice against Arabs.” They were seen as “billionaires, bombers, belly dancers and boisterous bargainers,” Dr. Shaheen said.

It took another generation to fix the other problematic lyric: In Disney’s 2019 live-action remake[6], “chaotic” replaces “barbaric” in the opening number of “Aladdin.”

The story “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was not even in the original Arabic-language version of “One Thousand and One Nights,” according to scholars. While the earliest manuscript dates back to ninth-century Baghdad, the story of a boy and his magical lamp first appeared in French[7] in the early 18th century.

A translator in France said a traveler from Syria had told him the story. So “Aladdin” reflects the Orientalist imagination of a European, layered on a tale from an Arab. To add another cultural layer, “Aladdin” was originally set in a nameless kingdom in China.

References

  1. ^ Orientalism (www.nybooks.com)
  2. ^ pernicious and persistent (popcollab.org)
  3. ^ opening song (www.youtube.com)
  4. ^ changed (variety.com)
  5. ^ wrote (www.nytimes.com)
  6. ^ 2019 live-action remake (www.nytimes.com)
  7. ^ appeared in French (www.theguardian.com)

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