Aladdin Remake Redresses Some Negative Muslim Moments From the Original
Disney’s new Aladdin remake made all my Canadian Muslim childhood dreams come true. It addressed some of the blatantly inaccurate and even insensitive dialogue that pervade its nineties predecessor. It featured my childhood dream-guy as the Genie. And somehow through a fluke of chance, it avoided casting Zayn Malik or worse, Hasan Minhaj.
Yet, critics are still upset about what they call a “stereotypical” and inaccurate depiction of Muslims. Here’s my response: Change takes time.
The nineties Aladdin
I grew up in the nineties as a first generation Canadian, the child of Pakistani immigrants. In many ways, all of those factors contributed to my heavily culturally and religiously influenced youth. We sought identity and representation because we grew up among diversity. Yet in that era, we failed to find that representation in pop culture, so we took our wins where we got them.
Aladdin was one of those wins.
We ignored the repeated references to cutting off Aladdin’s hands and at his judgmental response “all this for a loaf of bread?”
We pretended not to hear the negative stereotypes littered in the song lyrics.
We happily accepted the words “by Allah,” and “brush up your Sunday Salaam,” even if they were inaccurate, because hey, we made it to the big screen and it didn’t matter that our holy day was Friday and not Sunday.
We even pretended not to notice that Princess Jasmine dressed less like a princess and more like a hooker.
Aladdin had a lot of fixer-upping to do.
I sat there in the nineties at halaqa a — that’s like, the equivalent of a Muslim church youth group — where we broke down the Islamophobic content of Aladdin. All we could to was rant, because nobody cared about our voices in the nineties, least of all, the voices of some angry Muslim teenagers in Montreal.
But it’s not 1992. It’s 2019. And I’m not a teenager in Brossard, Quebec. I’m a lawyer and screenwriter in California. One week ago, I sat at an invite-only dinner with the Muslim movers-and-shakers in Hollywood. I sat with the very people who had a say on the way Islam was portrayed in the 2019 remake.
Ladies and gentlemen — we were invited to the table, so let’s put our pitchforks away. Disney asked the Muslim community for their input.
And they didn’t just ask “Uncle Let-Me-Splain-You” from the Fremont, Dearborn, or Mississauga mosque. They asked the Muslim watchdog agencies to weigh in.
They asked prominent Muslims like Reza Aslan and his agency, BoomGen, to give commentary. When I reached out to another major Muslim watchdog agency for their commentary, their spokesperson said the following:
In our work to create change in the entertainment industry or in Washington, DC, we see over and over again that it’s better to be engaged than to be outside of the process. This has been our experience. We are over the moon that a film that includes five main actors who come from underrepresented communities is the #1 film in America. This is another game-changer in Hollywood.
But weighing in doesn’t mean that the movie will be a perfect depiction of Muslims. It just means that there won’t be anything overtly insensitive. And when remaking a decades-old classic that was cluttered with cultural insensitivity, sanitization was no easy task.
Were Muslims portrayed accurately in the remake?
Let’s back up a second — it’s a live-action Disney movie. Cinderella didn’t have a religion. Nor did Maleficent. Nor Belle. So why now should the rules change? After all, the Arab world itself isn’t unilaterally and homogeneously Muslim.
One of the most beautiful moments in the remake of Aladdin came at the beginning, in the song “Arabian Nights.” In the original, the lyrics say:
Where they chop off your ear if they don’t like your face; it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home.
The very use of the word “barbaric” was talked about in many Muslim circles, as many felt it was insensitive. The new version of Aladdin replaces the lyrics with a more appropriate and nuanced description of the Muslim world:
Where you wander among every culture and tongue, it’s chaotic but hey, it’s home.
That’s only one of many things the new Aladdin gets right. There are no references to the cutting off hands — an extreme, antiquated and rarely practiced Islamic penalty for theft.
Then there’s the subtle dialogue when Jafar asks to be “the most powerful being in the Universe,” a request that would be deemed blasphemous to a Muslim. Will Smith’s Genie responds with “well, there are a lot of grey areas with that one,” which, as a screenwriter and as a Muslim, I felt was the most balanced and respectful answer to that request.
Furthermore, Jasmine is portrayed as a strong female who is held back not because of cultural norms but because of an anxious and overprotective father who seems to suffer from PTSD.
Finally, there’s the whole Agrabah fiasco. According to a 2015 research poll, 30 percent of Republican primary voters want to bomb Agrabah. But where the fuck is Agrabah anyway?
Answer: Disneyland. That’s right, folks. There is no Agrabah on the map. Trust me, I went looking for it as a possible escape after Trump’s 2016 election, in the event my Canada escape plan failed. And while Muslims can hold that useless fact against Disney, the ambiguity of Agrabah actually helps us because… well… because it’s FICTION, damnit. The Muslim world is diverse and there is no one culture that adequately captures the full essence of Muslims.
Just like there really isn’t a country that can fully capture every culture and subculture of Africans or their descendants.
Agrabah is my Wakanda. It’s a fictional land where our stereotypes are presented in the beauty of art and set design, with elaborate costumes and choreographed scenes.
I get it… Aladdin was directed by a British white boy and Black Panther was not.
But hey, Muslims were at the table when Aladdin was being produced. And we did have impact. And I bawled my eyes out like a baby for the whole movie, while singing A Whole New World at the top of my lungs.
Because that’s all my thirteen-year-old self wanted. Progress takes time and we’ve come a long way already.