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Thoughts on the Portrayal of Middle Eastern Culture in Animation

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Aladdin and Jasmine

*This is a user-submitted post by Jordan Hashemi-Briskin*

When Westerners think of the Middle East nowadays, they typically envision bloodthirsty, war-hungry savages who go around spreading terror and killing others—and occasionally themselves— supposedly in the name of the Creator. Obviously, that is only true of a few individuals who have corrupted Islam by using it as a screen for their political ideals.

Map of the Islamic World

At the opposite extreme, people from the Middle East (which extends from Afghanistan to the Arabian Peninsula and the Holy Land) and North Africa are viewed as a society where people consort with jinni (spirits) and/or fly on rugs, men walk on hot coals, vendors harass people into buying their merchandise, thieves are punished by the loss of their hands, women are eroticized, and the only forms of transportation are camels or horses. In short, when Arabs, Persians, or other Middle Eastern peoples are not being shown as a bunch of terrorists, they are viewed through the prism of the romantic, Orientalist stereotypes perpetuated by regional folklore and myth, exemplified in The Book of 1,001 Nights.

Having recently begun to seriously connect with my own Middle Eastern heritage (I claim Persian ancestry on my father’s side of the family), it has come to irk me to no end that there are so few accurate depictions of Middle Eastern life and culture—both Islamic and Judaic—in mainstream Western media, most notably in the medium of animation.

Animation is, one would argue, the best way to introduce Westerners to other cultures, humanizing people about whom many people in the U.S. and Europe know next to nothing. The first real attempt to accurately portray a non-Western culture via animation—both visually and in terms of the writing— was with Pocahontas. Despite its good intentions, the film is still largely based on the Western layman’s idea of what First American culture is. (Still, it was a start, and a start’s better than nothing, right?) With each successive attempt from Mulan onward, Western animated filmmakers have gotten progressively better in terms of cultural sensitivity, coming to a head with the recent successful portrayal of Oceanic, East Asian, and Latin American culture in Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco, respectively.

This brings us back to the portrayal of the Middle East in animation. Up until Persepolis and, most recently, The Breadwinner, pretty much every animated feature or short film (Western-produced, that is) set in the region has been steeped in Orientalist stereotypes. By far, the best-known examples of this are 1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the oldest surviving animated feature, and Lotte Reiniger’s magnum opus), The Thief and the Cobbler (Richard Williams’ dream project that started production in the 60’s and ultimately finished production in the 90’s), and, of course, the one that audiences around the world know and love dearly: Disney’s Aladdin.

ALADDIN poster

 

(Aladdin, as I’m sure everyone in this community is aware, has been the subject of heated discussion in regards to its portrayal of the Islamic world since it was released 25 years ago—the development of the upcoming live-action remake seems to have rekindled that debate, as far as I can tell.)

Luckily, things appear to be starting to turn around; as previously stated, Persepolis (2005) and The Breadwinner (2017) have enjoyed great success, as has the 2011 film adaptation of Joann Sfar’s graphic novel series The Rabbi’s Cat. Meanwhile, on television, the youth-oriented series 1001 Nights (based on the lesser-known entries in the famous folktale anthology) premiered around this time in 2011, created by Iranian-Americans Aly Jetha & Shabnam Rezaei.1001 NIGHTS

On a more personal note, I happen to be studying to pursue a career in feature animation, with the ultimate goal of directing some animated features of my own. And one of the films I hope to make is a hand-drawn musical adaptation of the Algerian Jewish folktale The Sabbath Lion (which was put down in book form in 1992). While it centers on Jewish culture, the story is set in a mostly Muslim country, so I intend to pay as much attention to the traditions of Islam in the film as Judaism. (My dad was born Muslim but converted to Christianity, and my mom raised me as a Jew, so I hope for this to be a way to reconcile both parts of my heritage.)

THE SABBATH LION cover art

 

If any of you who read this are of Middle Eastern heritage, I would greatly appreciate your views on the matter. How far has Western animation come in portraying our culture, and how much further should we go?

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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Rotoscopers is an animation news, reviews, and interviews site for animation addicts young and old. In addition to articles, the site has a podcast called the Animation Addicts Podcast and YouTube channel.
  • Harith Sami

    For me, Aladin felt like a movie set in India specially with the Indian stereotypes, clothing and the architecture, while the only thing that feels middle eastern is the Arabian names of the main characters. . . . . events and names are basically taken from the original folktale story, but anything regarding the culture and the setting was changed because people in US were more familiar with Indian culture. (just speculating).
    Good luck finding tigers and cobras in the middle east. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/28858ff02828c91f77d822d066b7cd65af4e387e583c6e3325b1bd482c156bfc.jpg

    • Jordan Briskin

      Well, the Taj Mahal was built during the time that people of mixed Mideastern lineage (mostly Persian) ruled India, and as I understand it, snake charming is also practiced in some North African nations.

      Nonetheless, I see where you’re coming from.

  • Katie

    I am not of Middle Eastern descent (ghost- pale girl of Italian and European descent here), but would like to contribute my thoughts nontheless.

    I, personally, adore fairytales: including those found in The Arabian Nights (I found a love of exploring folklore and fairytales from around the world). Therefore, I quite enjoyed seeing it brought to life in “Aladdin”. I, personally, don’t find it offensive, as all cultures are romantisized and generalized in film. We are presented the “fairytale version”, and I see nothing wrong with it, as long as it is acknowledged as such (Just like, there is nothing wrong with joking stereotypes as long as they are acknowledged as stereotypes), and there are more realistic depictions to go alongside it.

    Part of accurately introducing audiences to a new culture and world is balancing said fairytale version/ what we imagine, with truth and grit. Audiences want to enter the magical world or culture they envisioned, but also learn. Overall, I think finding a balance between the two: realistic depictions of life in the Middle East throughout various time periods and delving into the fantasy of their fairytales which we know, is key.

    • Jordan Briskin

      I understand your reasoning, but because the fairy tale side has been presented so much, I feel that it’s time that the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, should be shown to the Western world.

      • Katie

        Oh– I 100% agree! Currently, finding the balance I mentioned definitely means depicting the truth, as we have had lots more of the fairy tale side. I just hate to see films like “Aladdin” unfairly criticized, or it to go the opposite extreme.

  • I’m not of Middle Eastern descent (Northern Irish, white as white can get). I don’t think I have much to add to the discussion itself, so won’t attempt to – it strikes me that there’s a time to chime in, and there’s a time to listen, and this is the latter, considering it’s coming from someone who faces a much different experience of living than I do. I did just want to compliment the thoughtfulness and quality of writing in this article, and to say how pleasantly surprised I am that the Rotoscopers are featuring articles addressing topics such as these written by people who personally understand the issue (not dissing the site as I love it, I just feel that for the most part it’s very ‘safe’, not rocking the boat, if that makes sense, so this was refreshing). I hope to see more content like this going forward!

    • Jordan Briskin

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post, even if you have nothing to contribute. I’m just glad that people of all tribes and creeds are interested in this conversation!

  • Marielle

    I love your article, that’s such an interesting topic! I’m very interested in how culture is represented in movies and I’m glad to hear from your point of view as someone who wants to direct animated movies and someone who has a mixed heritage.

    I love The Rabbi’s Cat, I’m so happy to see someone mention it! It’s one of my favorite animated movies because it’s so funny. Have you seen Window Horses? It’s about a Canadian girl whose father was Persian as she travels to Iran for the time!

    What do you think about these other animated movies set in the Middle East and North Africa: The Prince of Egypt, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Waltz with Bashir, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, The Star and Bilal: A New Breed of Hero?

    It would be so cool if they made historically accurate costumes for the live-action Aladdin.

    • Jordan Briskin

      I’m afraid I haven’t been able to watch WINDOW HORSES, for it’s not in my local library’s catalog…

      As for BILAL and TEHRAN TABOO, I hadn’t even heard of the latter, and I’m a little hesitant to see the former. And, as far as the live-action ALADDIN goes, I hope against hope that the filmmakers have opted to go the more culturally accurate route, though the chances are they’ve gone the fairy tale route…

  • This was such an interesting article to read!! We’ve certainly come a long way in terms the many ethnicities we portray in film especially animation and I look forward on the positive side on what’s next for all kinds of cultures including the portrayals of Middle Eastern culture 🙂

  • jessica

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