Alāʼ ad-Dīn

I just re-watched Aladdin with my son mostly for the sake of seeing Robin Williams’ best cinematic role, second only to his standup—all of the amazing work he did is now tinged with the tragedy of his life’s end—and this morning after waking up and drinking some coffee and reading some Dickens I decided that this decent Disney film, which seems to have been written by people who spent at least a few semesters analyzing literature, warranted a few observations.

Everyone in Aladdin wants to be free—the boy from his hungry poverty, the girl from her royal responsibilities, the sultan from his worries over the future of his unwed daughter, the vizier from playing second fiddle to the sultan, the parrot from the vizier, the genie from the lamp. All of these characters, heroes and villains both, are expressions of the fairy Ariel from the Tempest, longing, begging virtually every person they encounter for the freedom to do as they please.

But a slightly more subtle subtext in this movie is that their search for freedom is meaningless, and that only characters who learn to accept the bars of their prisons have any hope of achieving something resembling happiness. Aladdin abruptly decides that wealth is pointless because people only see his clothes and his treasure and know nothing about the reality of who he is, and that he has to tell Jasmine the truth about his poverty (he then uses Jafar’s incredible greed, which dwarfs his own, to destroy him). Jasmine herself abandons all mention of living as a street rat and has no problem dwelling in the palace as soon as she falls in love with the right prince.

Jafar is the one who violates this ethical lesson—that you have to try to be happy with what you have—by wishing, first, to be the sultan, and then to be the most powerful sorcerer in the world, and finally to be a genie, at which point he is imprisoned in his own lamp and fired off over the horizon, clutching Iago (the parrot named after a Shakespeare character who seems to have nothing to do with that character). He should have been content with being a powerful sorcerer, a position which seemed to have all of the pluses of being a genie without any of the minuses, but the guy didn’t want to accept his prison bars, and so he ultimately found himself locked inside the smallest prison of all—his own lamp.

The genie himself may be the most tragic character among these fairytale figurines. The movie makes no mention of this, but how could an immortal being with infinite power ever find the satisfaction discovered by the prince and the princess—that limits are what define us, and we should be satisfied with them? One cannot see the genie ending any other way than the actor who played him, full of despair and completely alone in spite of his amazing talents and perfect freedom.

When I was in college I saw Aladdin mentioned a number of times as an easy target of anti-Orientalists like Edward Said, who attacked the film for (once again) reducing the Middle East to barbaric, mysterious, sensuous, simplistic fairytale stereotypes, and this would be true if the film were not a fairytale. Only the dumbest people would come away from Aladdin thinking that it was an accurate description of the Middle East—where folks get around on flying carpets and trick one another into becoming genies. Let’s not forget that the film is based on a folktale (supposedly) written by Middle Easterners, and that it does contain a great deal of the spirit of the original adventure—even an Arabian Nights framing device. Now that I think about it, I wonder if anti-Orientalists who despise this film aren’t just another example of Caliban recoiling from his own reflection?

One could argue that a movie like Aladdin perpetuates the racist view of the Middle East as a land teeming with barbarism, poverty, and unquestioned despotism, but again, this is a simplistic generalization taken seriously only by simpletons. Where I live in Korea most people have their own skewed fairytale vision of life in America, where Americans are physically incapable of consuming even slightly spicy food, rice is unknown, bazookas are fired at you by hordes of ravening black people the moment you step off the airplane, everyone stomps around their house in muddy boots all the time without complaint, chopsticks are beyond the comprehension of one hundred percent of the populace, racial mongrelization has de-evolved almost everyone to simians, people are too dumb to speak languages other than English, Asian women are irresistible trophies prized by slavering foreign men, and no one ever helps anyone else, since only Koreans possess the ability to care for one another. Yet in spite of all these frailties, America possesses amazing educational power, and I think there are few parents in South Korea who wouldn’t slit their own throats if it meant their kids could have a chance of studying there to attain the unquestioned glory of a white collar job—even though American schools score way lower on standardized tests than Korean ones.

All of this is bullshit swallowed without question by many people I’ve spoken with, even some who have visited America, eyes like flashlights which cannot see beyond the false light of their preconceived notions, taking their idiocy there and back again. Forgive me, but I suspect the only Koreans who disconnect from these laughable fallacies are those who spend a great deal of time—more than a one-week package tour—in America in the company of Americans, whom, they soon discover, remove their shoes on occasion (yes, even when they go to bed), and also sometimes find it within themselves to put their bazookas down. These well-traveled and, let’s be honest, Westernized Koreans are the characters who will not gasp with amazement when you say hello in Korean or maneuver a leaf of kimchi into your mouth without shrieking in agony—examples of the brain drain, the best minds on the peninsula, who have doubtless left its crowded trash-strewn concrete jungles behind for greener pastures.

Logically I should just be able to ignore people who think I’m no different from the bizarre caricatures in their minds—it’s inevitable, after all, that no one will understand me, that even I cannot understand myself—but as Ambassador and not Doctor Spock reminds us again and again, emotion is not always logical, so I can understand the discomfort and frustration people of Middle Eastern descent would feel upon viewing Aladdin, which at first glance appears to simplify and mock the entirety of their heritage—Islam’s scientific achievements, for example, the numerous mathematical and astronomical terms which originate in Arabic reduced to an old fat bumbling sultan tinkering with amusing toys; the feverish religious devotion reduced to an occasional mention of Allah. But it is just a fairytale, and I think whoever takes it seriously (like me!) should not himself be taken too seriously.