Disney’s live-action version of its 1992 cartoon “Aladdin” hits movie theaters this week, but some fans already feel the remake has fallen short of expectations after casting a British actress of Indian descent, Naomi Scott, as the movie’s heroine, Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as the title character and Will Smith as Genie.
Incensed fans called it a missed opportunity for Arab representation. But if they really wanted an accurate representation of the beloved story’s characters, they would all be played by Chinese actors as the original “Aladdin” is set in China. Furthermore, Aladdin is not an orphan living on the streets but a lazy boy who lives at home with his mother, his dad apparently dying of disappointment over his unaccomplished son.
Despite its purportedly Eastern origins, it was the French archaeologist and translator Antoine Galland who penned “Aladdin” in the early 18th century. He was famous in his homeland for bringing exotic tales from the Arab world to the salons of Paris and the court of Versailles. Educated in a Jesuit school in Noyon, Galland was sent to the French Embassy in Istanbul in 1670 as an antiquary of King Louis XIV.
Unlike stereotypical European travelers to the Middle East at the time, Galland didn’t venture to the harems or indulge in other vices pursued by his male colleagues. His journal entries reveal instead a rather stoic man who kept a dry account of the manuscripts he came across in libraries and bookshops.
From 280 to 1,001
Galland discovered a manuscript entitled “The Voyages of Sinbad” in Istanbul, and published a translation of it in 1701. The relative success of his “Sinbad the Sailor,” as it came to be known, inspired the Orientalist to translate a three-volume Syrian manuscript called “One Thousand and One Nights,” which dated back to the 14th or 15th century.
The first written collection of what later became known in the West as “Arabian Nights” had appeared in Persian, in the eighth century. It included stories that have been traced back to Indian, Persian, Greek and Arabic tales that were orally passed down. They are believed to have been translated from Persian to Arabic sometime during the eighth century and published under the title “Alf Layla” (“One Thousand Nights”). It was not until the ninth or 10th century, during the Abbasid period, that the collection began to grow as a result of a major push in Iraq for more written records, literature and art. The Syrian manuscript that Galland found and translated had most likely undergone countless changes since the first Arabic translation centuries earlier.
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The first part of Galland’s 12-volume collection was published in 1704 as “Les Mille et Une Nuit” and was the first European translation of the tales ever published. It contained only 280 stories from the original collection, so in order to bring the number up to 1,001 Galland, like many other scribes before him, pulled stories from various unrelated sources.
Galland added “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Sinbad the Sailor” — tales that would soon become incorrectly attributed to Scheherazade, the famed fictional storyteller of the original “One Thousand and One Nights.” (She saves herself in the story by telling stories nightly to a sultan who marries a new woman every night, only to have her executed the next day.)
Madeleine Dobie, a professor of French and comparative literature at Columbia University, refers to Galland’s tales without known source manuscripts as “orphan tales.” Which begs the question: Is “Aladdin” a French or Middle Eastern story?
“Scholars have argued it’s no accident that Aladdin is about social climbing,” Dobie tells Haaretz. “Arrivisme [French for “ambition”] was a big theme in France in the 18th century. It’s also not an accident that it’s about Arabs as thieves, because that would become a big trope of Orientalism,” or a sensationalized depiction of the East — usually by writers from the West.
It’s worth noting that fairy tales were widely popular in the court of Versailles at the time, making it easy for Galland to fuse a love for stories with a growing interest in the Middle East.
But Galland may not have been the sole author of “Aladdin.” While living in Paris, he befriended a traveler from Syria — a Christian Maronite named Hanna Diab.
Diab, whose existence remains somewhat mysterious, is believed to have relayed Aladdin’s heroic tale to Galland. To date, no Arabic manuscript of the story has ever been found.
The stories in “One Thousand and One Nights” aren’t just based on folk tales, but on both Galland and Diab’s life experiences, Dobie explains. A French merchant once took Diab to Versailles so he could display purchases from his travels for French collectors. “There are things that happen to Hanna Diab while he travels with these French collectors, and his whole presentation at Versailles, that really resonate with what’s told in ‘Aladdin,’” she says.
It’s also no coincidence that Aladdin, in some ways similar to Galland, lifted himself from his humble origins. Galland came from a modest background and was fortunate to receive a Jesuit education, going on to work for the French king. “We can really think of ‘Aladdin’ as not being just Arabic or French, but a story of migration … about someone trying to make sense of another world,” Dobie adds.
Aladdin’s story is influenced by the shared experience of the two travelers, but Diab’s position as an outsider largely contributed to Aladdin’s desire for wealth and status. The sultan’s palace in “Aladdin” is strikingly similar to Diab’s personal records detailing the opulence of Versailles. “The size, number and color of the jewels that Hanna describes seeing as worn by the princesses of Versailles is much closer to what we see in ‘Aladdin,’” says Paulo Lemos Horta, an associate professor of literature at New York University who recently published “Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights.”
In Galland’s time, China was a popular, imaginative place that was associated with wealth. So, the storytellers set “Aladdin” in China but overlaid the story with Muslim culture and characters who pertain to Islamic cosmology.
Diab’s accounts of the West may be much closer to “Aladdin” than Galland’s accounts of the East, but there is nothing in Galland’s personal records to prove that the story is the product of a Christian Maronite from Syria.
“There’s something peculiar and mysterious about the origins of this particular story, because of all the other stories that were added in French, this is the one story that has no summary in Galland’s diary,” Horta notes.
The tale must be examined as one that was co-created simultaneously between two great cosmopolitan trading places — the salons of Paris and the coffeehouses of Aleppo. “It’s hard to tell where the Orientalism of the French traveler to the Middle East ends and the Occidentalism of the Arab traveler in Paris and Versailles begins,” says Horta.
Kaffiyehs, fezes and turbans
“Aladdin” did not just help canonize “Arabian Nights” as an authentic collection of ancient tales of the Middle East. It also perpetuated preconceived notions of the Middle East as morally inferior, coupled with the belief that the Middle Eastern woman was either overly oppressed or overtly and wildly sexualized.
Such notions are apparent from the opening scenes of Disney’s animated version when the lone merchant traveling the desert introduces the audience to Agrabah, the fictional city of “mystery and enchantment.” He sings about the faraway “barbaric” land where “camel caravans roam.” (After a public outcry, Disney changed the next line, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” to “Where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense.”)
The 1992 film was slated to take place in Baghdad, a prominent city during the Golden Age of Islam. But due to the United States’ involvement in the first Gulf War, which only ended the previous year, Disney decided to set it in the fictional city of Agrabah.
Agrabah is located by the Jordan River, while the landscape and architecture of the palace show clear Indian and Persian influences, as do the characters’ clothing. In one scene, men crowd together wearing dissimilar head coverings, which include kaffiyehs, fezes and turbans.
Scenes from the movie are vaguely Eastern — perhaps an intentional acknowledgment of the tale’s diverse origins or an ignorant clumping of disparate regions together.
Oversexed and helpless
Maybe Disney didn’t know that “Aladdin” was never part of Scheherazade’s original stories and was instead imagined a thousand years later. In any case, the 1992 movie perpetuates Orientalist stereotypes: Those who talk with an accent are villains or comical characters, and those who don’t — Aladdin and Jasmine — are the ones Western audiences can relate to, capable of falling in love and striving for better lives. The film introduces the audience to a world of sorcerers and genies, where the women epitomize the fantasy of the harem, wearing bras and veils in the marketplace.
Unlike in most Disney princess movies, Jasmine is not the main character but rather the love interest. While her European counterparts sing to birds and attend elaborate balls, the first non-European princess resorts to seducing Jafar — the male antagonist many years her senior and the man to whom she is supposed to wed. Dressed in a turquoise bra and billowing salwar pants, the repressed yet rebellious princess, whom Jafar refers to as “pussycat,” is easily one of Disney’s most sexualized characters.
Following Galland’s publication of “One Thousand and One Nights,” in the 1880s English academic Richard Burton — famous for documenting his travels around the world — translated what is thought to be the most comprehensive version of the tales into English.
The Iranian-American author Reza Aslan argues that Burton intended for the collection to serve as a sex manual for Victorian-era British men. Burton’s version included detailed footnotes on “Oriental” sexual mores. The sexual openness that scholars attribute to the medieval Middle East, which is undeniable in some of the tales from “Arabian Nights,” clashed dramatically with the values of many European readers and soon became an outlet for feeding the curiosity of sexually repressed Victorian men.
After Galland’s version of the tales, many translators with little or no knowledge of the Middle East took it upon themselves to cater to a new demand for thrilling Eastern tales. This played out in the oversexualization of women and the addition of sexual innuendos in every story with origins in the Arab world. Translations of the “Kama Sutra” also became popular. In time, these trends would transpire into the vilification of Arabs, the portrayal of Arab women as helpless and oppressed, and the stereotyping of Middle Eastern film characters as terrorists.
While many fans hope the live-action remake of “Aladdin” can right some of the wrongs of the 1992 version, the tale itself cannot be essentialized as an authentic Middle Eastern story. Try as they might, there is no way for Disney filmmakers to accurately portray a story whose origins remain mysterious.
Despite it all, people continue to be invested in “Arabian Nights” — partly because of the beloved story of transformation and the star-crossed lovers in “Aladdin,” and partly because the tales distill something about the complicated history of the relationship between East and West. The story of “Aladdin” is the story of Orientalism.