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Iman Sultan | Longreads | November 2019 | 16 minutes (4,062 words)

In Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, released back in May, Princess Jasmine finds herself in the clutches of the palace guards after Jafar has taken over the throne and stripped her father, the rightful Sultan, of his majestic turban. Trapped in a moment of doe-eyed silence and unable to reverse her situation, Jasmine is dragged away in a dreamlike sequence. Then, in a striking departure from the 1992 animated film of the same name, she suddenly breaks out into song.

“Written in stone, every rule, every word,” she sings. “Centuries old and unbending. Stay in your place, better seen and not heard. But now that story is ending…”

In the age of Disney live-action remakes, Aladdin has shattered the box office and proven the commercial viability of the genre. Bringing in a little over a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, and with a sequel already under discussion, Aladdin revealed to the public that a diverse cast, strong female leads, and a reformed Disney isn’t just good for the culture. It’s also — if not primarily — good for business.

A dizzying, colorful, and high-budget romp, 21st-century Aladdin tries to do it all: the leads are of Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian descent. Will Smith plays a genie who yearns for freedom. Naomi Scott reimagines Jasmine as an unbending, dignified princess who claims political agency and saves her kingdom from the impending doom of the evil Jafar.

“I saw her as a young woman, not a teenager, with a mature strength that can cut you down,” the British-Gujarati actress told British Vogue. “So I said to them, ‘Just to let you know, I want to play her strong, and if that’s not what you’re looking for, that’s okay, but it’s not for me.’”

Aladdin is seemingly designed to transcend feminist or antiracist criticism by embodying diversity and “strong” womanhood itself. The filmmakers created a near-identical copy of the animated film with tweaks that, in the words of producer Dan Lin, proved Disney “could create a movie that was both diverse and inclusive” as well as “wildly commercial.” Arabic interjections like yalla are casually heard in the background; the Genie seems to riff his dance moves off of Bollywood choreography; elaborate costumes echo elements from South Asian, Kurdish, and Turkish clothing; and the controversial lyrics of the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” shift from “barbaric” (in the 1992 version) to “chaotic.”

And yet, despite these touches, the essence of the remake remains near-identical: it blends cultures together, distorts the source material, and uses “Arabian Nights” as a song title that sets the atmosphere of a film that ultimately takes place in a fictional world. But the world of Aladdin, the storytelling behind it, and the rich tradition of orally passing down tales across generations in Southwest Asia are not fictional — they’re real.

Aladdin’s origins are in a story about stories: telling, listening to, and immortalizing them through a centuries-long chain of transmission.

Aladdin could have been an opportunity to more faithfully represent the myths and lore of the East. It could have incorporated the settings and characters of the One Thousand and One Nights, which are at least as sparkling and multilayered as the CGI jewels in Disney’s Cave of Wonders. The filmmakers and Scott believe that giving Jasmine a voice rehabilitates the film, but they neglect to acknowledge that the ancient canon from which Aladdin springs was narrated by a woman. In One Thousand and One Nights, Shahryar, the ruler of the Persian empire, vows revenge on womankind after he discovers his wife has been unfaithful to him. He weds a virgin each night and orders her execution in the morning. Shahrazad, the daughter of the vizier, volunteers to marry the sultan. She forestalls her death by telling him a new story each night, which she leaves hanging on a note of suspense. The sultan allows her to live to finish the tale.

Aladdin’s origins are in a story about stories: telling, listening to, and immortalizing them through a centuries-long chain of transmission. But it’s not just the story’s framing that gets lost in the Disney live-action remake. Aladdin lived in China in the original version, an emblem of the Silk Road and the transnational connectivity of the East. He was not an orphan but had a mother. And while Princess Jasmine taking on centuries of unyielding stone should inspire, her voice leaves just the echo of the fearless and clever women who came before her.

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When I was a child, I would curl close to my grandmother in her apartment in Karachi and listen to her tell me tales of magic and monsters, heroes and adventure, mighty kingdoms and the brave women who brought them down.

She told me of a girl who fell in love with a man who could transform into a snake and who returned to his world after she’d accidentally betrayed him. She told me about a hidden princess who rode her horse on an enchanted path to find her long-lost brothers. If she looked back, she would turn into stone.

Tazeen Ehtesham Faridi migrated from North India to Pakistan as an 8-year-old child. With her stories, she evoked the folklore of the land she came from and a tradition alive in her village and throughout the subcontinent. Storytellers spun their craft in gardens, bazaars, and inns teeming with travelers, who would then recite stories to their children and grandchildren, passing down lore across generations. My grandmother had learned the stories she told me from her mother and paternal grandfather. “A qissa goh could be a man or a woman,” she said. “They didn’t write, they didn’t study or memorize, they just told their stories with the burn of their heart.”

Oral storytelling, spanning from Southwest Asia to North Africa, dates back to ancient times. The One Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla in Arabic) began as an oral tradition in Arabic dialect — not in the eminent fusha, or classical Arabic, in which the Quran is recorded. These stories quickly became popular and spread widely among people who lived within reach of the Islamic Empire. The sexual humor and focus on the lives of commoners suggest a low-brow spirit: these were stories people would encounter on the street, not in scholarly tomes.

Absent from the original Arabic manuscript, Aladdin hadn’t appeared in written form until Antoine Galland, an early-modern French Orientalist, met a 20-year-old Maronite Christian from Aleppo.

The earliest mention of the One Thousand and One Nights appears in The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, by Baghdadi scholar al-Mas’udi, who wrote on history and geography in the early 10th century. Regarding the stories with distaste, al-Mas’udi reported that storytellers had duped kings into believing the veracity of legends. At the dawn of the Islamic Caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the caliph Mu’awiya invited professional fabulists to his court in Damascus. These raconteurs, most of whom hailed from Yemen, blended legend and history in an effort to shape an Arab identity at the inception of an expanding, united empire made of formerly scattered tribes that did not bow down to kings. These storytellers added a dash of cosmopolitanism to the caliphate and provided entertainment at court.

The One Thousand and One Nights also has parallel roots in ancient India and medieval Persia. The Panchatantra, a Sanskrit book of fables and animal stories, is an early forerunner to the Nights. Indian and Buddhist literature has long featured the trope of the wise young woman who liberates herself from calamity not through sex, beauty, or battle prowess but rather with intelligence and wit. The direct inspiration of the Nights, however, is the Persian Hezar Afsana (A Thousand Stories), a collection of fairy tales and historical narratives that Arab historians trace to the court of the Sassanid kings.

The most authoritative written version of the One Thousand and One Nights remains the 14th-century Syrian manuscript, which provides a faithful picture of life in the Mamluk period of medieval Arabia. The text of Hezar Afsana is now lost, but its lasting cultural influence spans countries and centuries. This same legacy of storytelling — riddled with contradictions, recorded, translated and re-translated — thrives most dynamically in the story of Aladdin, the most popular and well-known of Shahrazad’s tales today.

Absent from the original Arabic manuscript, Aladdin hadn’t appeared in written form until Antoine Galland, an early-modern French Orientalist, met a 20-year-old Maronite Christian from Aleppo. Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab had apprenticed with French merchants and knew French, Italian, and Provençal. Lured by the promise of adventure and prestige, he followed Paul Lucas, a tomb raider for Louis XIV, to Paris, where he met Galland, who would record the stories Diyab had probably heard in the coffeehouses of Aleppo or from the wizened women of his family.

Galland first translated the One Thousand and One Nights into French (the first of several European languages soon to follow) in the early decades of the 18th century, spurring the story’s popularity in the Western world, and especially in Paris. As a result of the translation’s runaway success, he faced pressure from his publisher to release more stories. While Galland had neared the end of the medieval manuscript, his encounter with Diyab proved an unexpected coup de foudre.

In an autobiography uncovered at the Vatican Library, Diyab writes, “There was an old man who often visited us. He was in charge of the Arabic library of books. […] At that time he had translated the Hikāyat Alf layla wa layla [Tales of One Thousand and One Nights] […] There were some nights missing from the book, so I told him stories that I knew.”

Diyab’s version of Aladdin’s story is set in China. This was common in Southwest Asian epics, where China plays the role of a faraway land of myth and intrigue, the edge of the world in the stories of sailors and adventurers. Other One Thousand and One Nights stories from the original, authoritative text, like “The Hunchback’s Tale” and “Qamar al-Zaman,” also take place in China.

Naomi Scott’s casting as Princess Jasmine triggered online outrage because she wasn’t Arab; critics claimed her Indian descent suggested all people from Southwest Asia were interchangeable. But ethnic boundaries in the original tale were not clearly defined. Aladdin himself appears to be of mixed descent — his mother is Chinese, and his father, Mustafa the Tailor, possibly came to China from the Maghreb; Aladdin readily believes a North African magician to be his long-lost uncle. The king in the story rules a Muslim kingdom and the princess is called Badr al-Budur (“moon of moons” in Arabic), details that possibly speak to medieval Muslim settlements in China, the Mongol Empire’s eventual adoption of Islam, and the access Middle Eastern merchants had to China through the Silk Road.

Aladdin is 15, a naive and lazy teenager who cavorts on the streets all day long to the tearful regret of his mother, and finds the lamp after a magician manipulates him into entering the Cave of Wonders. The original Aladdin is less about destiny, and more about financial struggle and the temptations of money. After seeing the princess unveiled, Aladdin decides to ask for her hand in marriage and uses the enchantments of the lamp to sabotage her union with the son of the ambitious vizier. When the magician returns, Badr al-Budur weaponizes her charm to poison him. Diyab’s rendition prizes money above morals, while inspiring sympathy for a hero who overcomes his poor, single-parent background to become a prince.

While the original manuscript no longer survives, its apparent existence marks Hanna Diyab as the true, largely forgotten, first author of Aladdin.

“Aladdin” and most of the other 16 stories Diyab passed on to Galland didn’t exist in the written tradition of the Nights; Diyab likely heard all of them in Aleppo. At the time, hakawati — professional storytellers in Syria — performed their craft at coffeehouses, holding their listeners rapt and ending each session on a razor-sharp cliffhanger. This tradition remained popular in the 1940s and ‘50s in Tripoli, Lebanon, and is still practiced in the Eastern Mediterranean among women who tell stories at family and social gatherings. It lives on among refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War.

Not unlike my grandmother, Diyab was simply repeating the stories he knew, and which he believed were part of Alf Layla. But in that process, he became something more. An entry in Galland’s diary from May 5, 1709, indicates that Diyab had given him the written Arabic manuscript for “the tale of the lamp.” While the original manuscript no longer survives, its apparent existence marks Hanna Diyab as the true, largely forgotten, first author of Aladdin.

* * *

I grew up on Disney films. Born in the mid-’90s, I watched The Little Mermaid every day as a toddler. I knew all the words to the songs of Beauty and the Beast, and, as I grew older, I came to identify with the bookish Belle. My storybooks were illustrated adaptations of Disney films, satisfying my burgeoning princess obsession. I found myself enraptured in the books as much as I was in the VHS tapes my parents would patiently rewind so I could watch my favorite films again and again.

To this day, the opening notes of “Arabian Nights” in Aladdin strike an anticipatory note in me — the pulse of excitement knowing an adventure is about to begin. As a child, I unquestionably accepted the fantasy otherworld of Aladdin. I saw it as a magical setting that summoned aesthetics and concepts familiar to me in my own culture, even if I frowned at the way characters pronounced “Allah,” or raised my eyebrows at Aladdin and Jasmine’s lack of connection to the land in which they lived or to the people around them.

I wasn’t the only one. In his 1992 review of Aladdin, Jack Shaheen noted in the Los Angeles Times that Agrabah was an artificial city filled with Hollywood stereotypes like “hideous guards” and “harem maidens”, and later wrote in Cinéaste how Jasmine and Aladdin had Americanized features and spoke with accents much different from the rest of the heavily racialized animated cast. Roger Ebert agreed: “most of the Arab characters have exaggerated facial characteristics — hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips — but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

There are racialized touches everywhere, but the original treatment still attempts to humanize an oft-vilified region through the shared joy of humor and music.

Jafar has a lisp written into his lines, dark skin, and a crooked nose, and the Sultan is the prodigal stereotype of an ineffectual Eastern ruler who possesses a vast amount of wealth but can’t govern. Jasmine, however, is a cool pond in the desert. Her black hair, dark brown skin, and big eyes were the closest I could see myself on screen, even if my favorite princess to this day remains Ariel.

At the time, I didn’t know that the man responsible for Disney’s transformation from a studio at the brink of bankruptcy to a dominant producer of films that defined my childhood was Howard Ashman, a Broadway lyricist who reinvented the Disney film as a musical and chose theater talent for voice actors.

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Ashman pitched Aladdin to Disney at the tail-end of his work on The Little Mermaid. Imagining an adventure comedy that followed the exploits of a young boy raised by a single mother, Ashman’s Aladdin melded elements of the original One Thousand and One Nights tale with touches of West Side Story. Aladdin has three human friends — Babkak, Omar, and Kasim — with whom he earns meager coins performing in the tapering streets of Baghdad. Abbi, a street rat just like Aladdin, is the true love interest; Princess Jasmine functions as a red herring. Above all, Aladdin’s relationship with his mother plays a major role in the plot. Aladdin uses his wishes to pay a year’s rent in advance and to give Maman a lavish house, promising her he’ll become a better person in “Proud of Your Boy,” which was cut in the final film but brought back in the Broadway musical.

Ashman peppered his treatment with stereotypes of Arabs and the Middle East redolent of the period’s geopolitics. As Jack Shaheen argued, events like the Arab oil embargo (1973) and the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981) “brought the Middle East into the living rooms of Americans” alongside the stereotypes that would fuel Hollywood’s depiction of the region for decades to come. The “barbaric” line already appears in Ashman’s original script, and he also refers to some characters as “oil merchants” and “evil-looking Ayatollah types.”

When the U.S. launched a military offensive in Kuwait to oust Iraqi troops at the climax of the Gulf War, Roy Disney ordered the animators to replace Baghdad as the setting of Aladdin.

Despite these obvious shortcomings, Ashman’s story resonated with the source material and conceived brown characters on a broad moral spectrum. Genie is dark-skinned, not blue, likened to “the strutting bandleader. . . of a Harlem nightclub.” Aladdin’s mother adds depth to his motivations. There are racialized touches everywhere, but the original treatment still attempts to humanize an oft-vilified region through the shared joy of humor and music.

Ashman died of AIDS-related complications in March 1991, more than a year before the film’s release. By then, his original vision had suffered extensive changes. The boy who realized he didn’t need the lamp when he could just accept himself faded, until only the “diamond in the rough,” the hero destined to become a prince, remained. When the U.S. launched a military offensive in Kuwait to oust Iraqi troops at the climax of the Gulf War, Roy Disney ordered the animators to replace Baghdad as the setting of Aladdin. Co-director John Musker jumbled the letters of the ancient city into a half-hearted almost-anagram, and Agrabah — the caricatured city in which the modern Aladdin, including the 2019 remake, is set — was born.

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The live-action remake has put Aladdin on the map again in the 21st century, catering to Gen-Z moviegoers and disillusioned millennials who might feel nostalgia for their childhood at the movies. And nostalgia — magnified by nods at diversity, strong female leads, and an $183 million budget — sells.

Disney’s debt to the source material is long overdue. The stories of the One Thousand and One Nights, once mainstream in the East but now threatened with cultural globalization, are receding underground like an ever-more-elusive Cave of Wonders. They may still exist in the hearts and minds of people from Morocco to Indonesia, but their existence in books, film, and TV is limited, low-budget, or marginal compared to Disney’s mass commercial appropriation of the same tale.

If I had three wishes granted to me by a genie slithering out of a cerulean glass bottle, I’d first wish for the One Thousand and One Nights to re-enter pop culture with intelligent, meaningful screen adaptations true to the spirit of the original stories. Popular translations like Sir Richard Burton’s or Galland’s remain Orientalist, filtered through the language and preconceptions of 18th- and 19-century white men.

The best translation of the Nights to date remains Husain Haddawy’s 1992 volume, which includes only the core stories of the Syrian manuscript and conveys them in lively modern English. Aladdin: A New Translation came out last year and situates the story in the context of Hanna Diyab’s autobiography and in parallel to the life of the hero he narrated. Not only is Diyab’s authorship acknowledged, but Yasmine Seale, the translator, uses her Syrian heritage and proficiency in both French and Arabic to offer possibly the most accurate rendition of the timeless tale.

Understanding not just the original Aladdin, but the wider context in which it may have been told, would allow future screen adaptations to stay loyal to the cultures in which it originated and avoid orientalized characters or supernatural creatures.

The myths and superstitious beliefs surrounding jinn are wide-ranging, and go far beyond Robin Williams or Will Smith singing “Friend Like Me.”

Jafar, for example, deserves a major rethinking. The character has become widely known as the evil, power-hungry vizier who dabbles in sorcery and attempts to take over Agrabah. But the prototype for the Disney villain was Ja’far al-Barmaki, the Persian vizier to Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Heroic and handsome, Ja’far serves as the right-hand man of the caliph, and accompanies him on outings in which Harun al-Rashid dresses as a commoner to observe the lives of his subjects. Ja’far appears in many a Nights story, and his downfall is not villainous, but tragic: Harun al-Rashid executed Ja’far after he fell in love with the caliph’s sister. (Other historical sources suggest the caliph felt threatened by the increasing power of the Barmaki family.)

Similarly, the Genie is rooted in the concept of jinn — spirits made of smokeless fire who can take many shapes and transcend the material world of humans. Jinn can be represented as good or bad. While they may be trapped or controlled by a human’s whims, they remain sinister, powerful creatures that predate man; in the Quran, Satan himself is said to be a jinn. The myths and superstitious beliefs surrounding jinn are wide-ranging, and go far beyond Robin Williams or Will Smith singing “Friend Like Me.”

My second wish would be for existing books that reinvent and modernize these stories to receive just a sliver of the attention the Disney live-action remake accumulated. Perhaps the best creative adaptation of Alf Layla is Hanan Al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling, published in 2011. It focuses on the women of the Nights in all their witty, complex glory, and presents them as the narrators of their own stories to the reader and to other characters. Aziza, a sensitive girl in poor health, helps the boy who doesn’t love her back decode the seductions of a dangerous woman, sparking a dialogue between the women through poetry. Three sisters run a business together and refuse to marry after being traumatized by men, but must reckon with their past when Harun al-Rashid, dressed as a commoner, stumbles upon their home. Zumurrud, a cross-dressing slave girl, becomes king, and Dalia, a gray-haired widow, cons the citizens of Baghdad out of their money to finally receive her pension.

Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning author, uses the entire narrative of the One Thousand and One Nights to paint an enthralling story on corruption, informants, and state repression. A group of jinn begin wreaking havoc in what appears to be Cairo, compelling their human victims to change the idle and depraved lives of the powerful. It’s a searing political portrait of Egypt in which the supernatural and the pedestrian collide.

Recent fiction like Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, Nafiza Azad’s The Candle and the Flame, and Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame use ancient Arab and Southwest Asian folklore to spin fantasy yarns for a new, multicultural generation. Ahdieh writes from Shahrazad’s perspective, and in a twist, reveals the Shahryar-character’s killing of virgins to be the result of a curse rather than a misogynistic compulsion. Mirage by Somaiya Daud is set on a moon colonized by a space empire, but borrows elements from the Nights, and codes the occupied population as black, Moroccan, and/or Arab.

Fresh stories revamping the magic of the One Thousand and One Nights, addressing contemporary realities, or putting a twist on the tales already exist. What would they look like as an HBO or Netflix series, or as a period piece that casts actors of color?

For too long, One Thousand and One Nights has been reimagined by white men or corporate giants.

My final wish? I’d like for more folktales, epics, and story cycles to be digitally recorded, transcribed if they don’t yet exist in writing, and eventually translated into English. My grandmother’s tales, and reams of unwritten, orally conveyed stories deserve to be recorded like Aladdin was, but in a form that honors their legacy and represents them accurately.

Fortunately, this endeavor of cultural preservation is already in the works. Musharraf Ali Farooqi has translated The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a Persian/Urdu epic following the exploits of a hero chosen by prophecy. The Game of Thrones or Harry Potter of its time, Mughal emperor Akbar commissioned an illustrated manuscript of the epic that took 15 years to complete, and the story often pops up in Indo-Persian miniature art. Farooqi has since translated a handful of Nabi Baksh Khan Baloch’s folktales from Sindh, which were collected from oral records of villagers and possibly trace back to the Indus Valley Civilization.

A revival in indigenous storytelling, and modern re-adaptations of the medium — whether through podcasts, theatrical productions, or live events — will strengthen an art potentially endangered by cultural marginalization. Careful translations and inventive retellings faithful to the spirit of the One Thousand and One Nights will promote a better-informed appreciation for diversity among culture consumers, and rely not just on a colorful amalgam of different cultures and identities, but on a more solid knowledge of world history and folklore.

For too long, One Thousand and One Nights has been reimagined by white men or corporate giants. The time has come to reclaim Shahrazad’s voice, resonating through centuries, and experience once again the power of a good story.

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Iman Sultan is a Pakistani-American journalist and activist, who covers politics, culture, and communities. Her work has appeared in Dawn, GOOD Magazine, Playboy, and The Islamic Monthly.

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Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen