Aladdin, a product of Arabization and Orientalism

Let’s talk about Aladdin, baby. Let’s talk about Jasmine’s casting specifically, let’s talk Arabization’s f*cked up history; let’s talk about it! That’s the best way I could think to broach such a complicated topic, and it let me Pepa (ba dum tis) in an old reference, so you will have to deal with it. 

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let us learn the official definition of Arabization.

According to Wikipedia, Arabization or Arabisation is either the conquest and/or colonization of a non-Arab area and growing Arab & Islamic culture influences in the area’s non-Arab populations, causing a language shift by forcing adoption of the Arabic language and/or their incorporation of the culture, mainly Islamic or Arab identity

Beginning in the early 7th century CE, starting in Old Southern Arabia (Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) the Arab colonizers slowly expanded their empire in all directions over the next century into most of Central and South Asia, North Africa and Southern and Eastern Europe. Cultures mingled giving us beautiful works of Islamic architecture, Arabic poetry, and delicious food, but along with it came much more sinister things.

The eradication of regional languages and dialects, ousting ethnic groups from their ancestral homes and “encouraging” them to assimilate were all adverse effects of the Arab conquest. Rampant anti-blackness also became very common in Arab majority nations where darker skin (as with most countries) was seen as ugly or lesser. Traditionally “Arab” features such as lighter skin, hair, and eyes were held as a standard of beauty, and still are in many countries that were Arabized, especially after being reinforced by various European Colonizers. As it afforded the colonized people a proximity to whiteness. Words such as the K slur, that were once associated with non-believers and non-muslims became a slur used against Black people and dark-skinned South Asians (though most South Asians don’t consider it a slur) in these regions.

Unlike most other countries in Africa, Central and South Asia, Spain was able to mostly reverse the effects of Arabization during the Reconquista (O’Callaghan, 2003), by removing the Arab/Islamic influences and spreading Christianity into the Iberian Peninsula but it only empowered them to continue the cycle of conquest and become colonizers themselves. Sailing to the Americas, South East Asia and a handful of west African nations they colonized and spread Christianity throughout the regions with means just as brutal as those of the Arab colonizers (Pemberton, 2011). In what became known as the Spanish Inquisition, an estimated 150,000 people were prosecuted, and several thousand were killed, either forced to convert or flee in fear for their lives.

As for many of those who couldn’t decolonize, Islam became the dominant religion. Native languages were either replaced with Arabic (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, to name a few) or permanently changed. In the case of my language, Hindi, it was something minor like the replacement of ज  (phonetically pronounced juh) with the letter Z, which had previously never existed in the language. In the case of Farsi (Asgharzadeh, 2007), the language’s original letters were replaced with more Arabic style letters which also affected Farsi based languages like Urdu, written in letters that appear very similar to Arabic, but when spoken sounding like Hindi or Punjabi.

In less fortunate nations their ancestral languages were wiped out and banned entirely. Like in Syria were Kurdish is neither recognized by the state or taught in schools and is outlawed in the workplace. Ethnic minorities in these regions are still pressured to identify as Arabs or of Arab descent (Sheyholislami, 2011).

With these small steps of erasure, our own culture was taken and banned. Our stories that were shared with family, along trade routes, amongst friends, and colleagues were stolen and claimed to be a product of the Islamic Golden Age, such as the Arabic book of folktales One Thousand and One Nights, even though these stories older roots in Sanskrit, Tamil, Thai, Loa, and Javanese.

Even Aladdin, though not in the original compilation of stories, is claimed to be Arab even though it was later added by French Orientalist Antoine Galland who heard it from Maronite Syrian storyteller, Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab. Still, people are blaming South Asian actors for participating in a movie that is based on stories that don’t exclusively belong to any one Asian culture.  A movie that is a racist amalgam of our collective histories and cultures, yet the Indian actress is to blame for its existence, not the studio that purposefully cast light skin actors with more Eurocentric features, or put extras in brownface, or gave us the most lacklustre rendition of “Prince Ali’.

By claiming Aladdin to be an Arab only story and blaming Naomi Scott, you perpetuate the violent Arabization of South Asian culture and stories. When you ignore that the palace of the Sultan looks eerily like the Taj Mahal and is in the made-up city of Agrabah (a name made up of Agra, the Indian city where the Taj Mahal is and Bagdah) you ignore the appropriate of Indian culture Disney committed in 1992 AND AGAIN IN 2019. When you ignore that Jasmine’s animal sidekick is a tiger named Raja (the Sanskrit/Hindi word for King) you ignore the influence of Sanskrit in the original story of Aladdin. Even minor things like the existence of elephants and peacocks in the original stories and movie show the importance of South/South East Asian and African influence as these animals had been extinct in Arabia for centuries before the stories were recorded. 

At NerdyPoC we know the research and effort Disney put into the remake of the new Aladdin movie and are saddened to see that it still wasn’t able to separate itself from the story’s orientalist roots and were enraged to see a light skin lead and extras in brownface. But none of this detracts from the fact that Aladdin is just as much Naomi Scott’s chance to represent South Asians in a positive and impactful way, as it is Mena Massoud’s chance to do the same for Arab people.

So rather than pray for the movie to flop solely based on the fact that an Indian woman was cast as a lead instead of an Arab woman, go into the movie aware of its orientalist roots and free of unconscious biases you may have against non-Arab Asians and judge it for what it is. An old story from a time of cultural appropriation and exchange that is being used by a massive conglomerate in the hopes of making millions off our nostalgia and the children who don’t know or care enough about its cultural significance.

Edited By: Chichi Amaefuna

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