Movies and TV productions about the Middle East usually tend to be controversial, especially when made by Westerners. There is always the risk of wrongly portraying the region and the fear of recurring to the error of “orientalism,” as defined by Edward Said. According to the prominent Palestinian intellectual in his book Orientalism, the term describes a Western tool of oppression created to dominate and control the Middle East by misrepresenting its people and culture. One of the ways to accomplish this is through objectifying and stereotyping Arabs and Muslims in literature and the arts.
Many intellectuals point to the 1992 Disney film Aladdin as a clear case of orientalism. The lyrics of the movie’s opening song, for example, paint the Middle East as a barbaric place where tribal violence runs wild. Aware of these flaws, Disney tried its best to avoid this kind of criticism in its live-action remake of Aladdin, released last May. The enterprise selected a multiethnic cast including artists with Indian, Egyptian, Iranian, and Tunisian backgrounds. Besides this, Disney hired some cultural advisers to assist film production and even modified the original polemical lyrics. In its new version, the song “Arabian Nights” exchanges “barbaric” for “chaotic.”
Despite all Disney’s efforts, some accuse it, especially online, of orientalism and misrepresentation. Many complained that an Arab actress should have portrayed Jasmine, not the British-Indian Naomi Scott. Others accused the movie of imitating Indian Bollywood productions. In response to these controversies, Mena Massoud—the Egyptian-Canadian actor who plays Aladdin—defended the film’s producers. According to him, the movie’s main goal is to portray Aladdin as a classic fairy tale common not only to the Middle East but also to India and Asia. Mena also said that, as an Arab, he had never felt more represented in a Hollywood production. In his own word, the movie shows the Middle East and its culture in a “very beautiful way.”
Mena’s opinion is very important and should receive much more attention. The actor is an Orthodox Coptic Christian who grew up in Toronto. In a recent interview, he revealed his parents decided to immigrate to Canada when he was three years old because they felt “things were getting a little too dangerous.” His story resembles the trajectories of many other Middle Eastern Christians who now live in the West. It represents one of the most neglected realities of the modern Middle East: the plight of Christian minorities.
Events of the so-called Arab Spring, initiated in 2011, led to a rise of anti-Christian acts in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. A report commissioned by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt states the persecution of Christians in the region is on the way to becoming a genocide. The document highlights that the persecution assumes a variety of forms, ranging from routine discrimination and unemployment to murder and other violent attacks. All these factors have generated a meaningful exodus of Christian communities from the region since the turn of the century. It is believed that in the twentieth century Christians comprised about 20 percent of the Middle East and North Africa’s population. Nowadays, they are approximately 4 percent. This forced migration threatens the very existence of Christianity in its own birthplace.
Recently, violence increased due to the actions of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. In 2017 alone, extremist groups killed almost 100 Christians in Egypt. Nonetheless, persecution and social discrimination in the country dates back many years ago, as Mena’s story attests. The Copts are approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population but are subjected to various forms of harassment and mistreatment. This is clearly seen in the country’s sports. Despite the popularity of soccer in Egypt and the ascension of Mohammed Salah as a true national hero, many Coptic Christians have been denied opportunities to play, just because of their faith. Last year during the World Cup, the Philos Project even launched a social campaign called #LetCoptsPlay. The goal was to raise awareness about this situation and urge national and international sports authorities to intervene. But, until now, little has been done to change the situation. Unfortunately, soccer is just one of the many areas of society from which Christians have been systematically excluded.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has demonstrated some attempts to improve the lives of Christians. He was the first president to attend Christian services, and he gave permits for the construction of new churches, with the Coptic Cathedral of the Nativity near Cairo being the most notorious one. These efforts, however, are not enough. Egyptian society needs to experience a cultural change and see Christians differently. They should not be perceived as second-citizens in need of protection and should be affirmed as full citizens who have made significant contributions to Egypt for centuries, since the time of the Apostles.
In this regard, Mena Massoud’s performance as Aladdin could make a huge impact. A study conducted by the University of Stanford shows that since Mohammed Salah started playing in Liverpool, anti-Muslim hate crimes in Merseyside have dropped by 18.9 percent. The study concluded Salah’s friendly position in the club helped “humanize” the Muslim community in the UK. What if the same happened in Egypt due to Mena’s role in Aladdin? The movie, contrary to what some critics say, does not reinforce stereotypes of a barbaric Middle East. Rather, it portrays a future for the region in which tyranny will be overthrown and different communities will live in peace. The movie shows that the region is diverse and not restricted to Islam or Arab culture.
Maybe Mena won’t become popular in Egypt—especially in light of his recent positive commentaries about Israel. But he will certainly still be a great source of inspiration and encouragement to millions of Egyptian Christian kids who suffer because of their faith. Mena is not ashamed of being a Coptic Christian, which he has made quite clear on several occasions. This should be enough for those worried about representation and equality to celebrate him and not silence his voice. A great way to combat orientalism and portray the Middle East in a fair way is highlighting its ethnic and religious diversity. It means remembering the plight of Christians, Copts, Assyrians, Armenians, Arameans, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Kurds, Jews, and many others.
As the new lyrics of “Arabian Nights” say:
Oh, imagine a land, it’s a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where you wander among every culture and tongue
It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home
The Middle East has indeed been chaotic for last many years, especially for religious minorities like Mena. Nevertheless, the region still needs to be preserved as a place where people of different cultures and tongues can call it home. May Aladdin remind international society, and especially Christians, about their responsibility in the fight for a more plural and diverse Middle East.
Igor Sabino is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil and holds a BA and an MA in international relations, both from the State University of Paraíba. Igor is a Philos Leadership Institute alumnus and researches about religions international relations and forced migration in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @igorhsabino.
Photo Credit: Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019). Promotional photo by Daniel Smith for Disney, via IMDB.