C: Growing up as Arab Americans, the Quibbling Siblings got used to characters purportedly of our heritage played on the small and large screens by just about anyone vaguely “dark looking,” whether the actor was white, Latinx, or whatever. Notably, for the better part of a decade, this was The Face Of The Middle East to many Americans:
For those of us regularly munching kibbe and fatayer at the Lebanese picnic, however, it was really really obvious that that’s an Indian guy.
Cue the great Aladdin debacle of 2017. The filmmakers of the live action remake (because the nostalgia machine cannot be stopped) have come out and said they can’t seem to find an actor “of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent” who could play the role, despite searching for several days in London! So the internet — specifically a subset of the internet that’s passionately vocal about fairness — has pounced on them, deservedly. People who believe that Representation Matters are calling out the absurdity of the implication that such an actor could not be found. But oddly, most are not calling out the “or Indian” part of the casting call. Instead they themselves are pointing to many excellent actors from India, rather than considering the fact that we have no established Arab American or Arab British lead actors as the real problem here.
Thus, as food for thought for anyone who wants to express annoyance about this in a savvy, representation-conscious way, here’s a summary of the Three Big Problems with this well-intentioned uproar.
1. India is not in the Middle East
I know you know this. And most articles I’ve seen do acknowledge this, in a “teach the controversy” kind of way. Like, “Some people point out that Indian and Middle Eastern people are different, but wouldn’t Dev Patel make an awesome Aladdin? Also, Bollywood!”
Okay, but they are actually different. Different language groups, different cultures, different in typical appearance, quite often different in religion (though both have Muslim & Christian populations). Same goes for the other some-kind-of-Asian men being suggested (like the Filipino model whose picture I saw posted with a caption claiming him to be identical to Aladdin). The principle behind these posts is that these groups tend to have brown hair & eyes and tanner skin, and are underrepresented on film because they’re not pasty-white guys. Trouble is, you might as well be suggesting Latino actors to play Aladdin.
You know that would be messed up. I know you know it. But it’s time to apply that logic to the current situation.
2. Agrabah is definitely the Middle East
There have been several posts talking about how it’s unclear where Disney’s Aladdin is set, which is kind of true – I couldn’t pinpoint a modern country here. But it’s obviously set in a stereotypical cartoon fantasy Arabia. That’s why people who don’t like negative Arabic stereotypes got annoyed about the line: “Where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” That song is called “Arabian Nights,” by the way.
Yes, the original story has a complex ancestry, but does that actually matter given that this is a remake of the Disney film, not a reinterpretation of the old tale? If you saw the live-action Beauty and the Beast, you know they might get momentarily confused about where the movie is set (as when a Frenchman by the name of Gaston remarks that he doesn’t know what “je ne sais quoi” means), but they are dead serious about being nostalgically, painstakingly faithful to the ’90s films. So yeah, this Aladdin is Arabic.
3. Men of Middle Eastern descent rarely get work in Hollywood
Truly: even Terrorist #3 may be a Russian actor. Women fare a little better, especially if they have a mixed heritage (like Salma Hayek and Catherine Keener), but for male actors of Arabic descent who have played actual leads you get Tony Shalhoub (of Monk, notably a cable TV show not a movie), and… um, is that it? Surely I’m missing someone. Apparently Vince Vaughn is a quarter Lebanese, if that counts for anything.
And is that because there are no Middle Eastern lead parts? HECK NO. How about Gods of Egypt or Exodus: Gods and Kings or Prince of Persia, just to start with the current decade? All of those, as you know, starred exclusively Euro-descended white guys, a longstanding tradition.
“Come on though, isn’t it better to cast someone who at least isn’t white? Isn’t that a victory?” Sure. Absolutely. I would love to see more Indian leads, more Filipino leads — heck, more Latino leads in Hollywood movies. And yes, if I had to choose between Dev Patel and Jake Gyllenhaal for this role I would 100% pick Dev Patel. If those were the only options.
But let’s keep our eye on the ball here. Disney came right out and said they’re having trouble finding an actor to play Aladdin. By suggesting they cast all these non-Arabic actors, you are proving their point. We need a lead actor of Middle Eastern descent working in Hollywood yesterday, but since there’s a shortage on time machines, let’s advocate for one to get his first major film role now.
Oh yeah… what about Jasmine in all of this? According to the Hollywood Reporter, it’s down to two actresses: one Indian, and one British of half-Indian, half-European descent.