Any Turban Will Do
A collection of thoughts on the reported casting of Aladdin
TW — Racial Slurs
Hi! I’m a non-binary Lebanese mixed race Canadian. Growing up people often called me an inside out Oreo when they found out about my Arab heritage. As a card carrying nerd, my complexion isn’t always the darkest; people always read me as just another white kid. Still, at the end of the day, I was raised by a white mom and an Arab dad, and my favourite Disney movie was Aladdin. I watched it ad nauseam and as we followed Aladdin’s adventure I felt an explosion of euphoric “it me”.
Hoo boy. So, I woke up today in a bit of a daze. I somehow slept through my alarm. Groggy, I slowly reached for my phone and looked at the time. It was 11 AM. Letting out a sigh, I rolled out of bed bumping into my nightstand as I fumbled for my glasses. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, the little bits of brown gunk falling like sand in an hourglass as I put on my glasses and became an awake person.
I started my morning ritual. It’s pretty standard as far as millennial morning rituals go. Crack a bottle of water, read twitter. Pretty much the same thing as having a cold one with the boys. Okay, that joke was forced. But honestly, I need this delay, this seemingly meaningless meandering in order to fully sort my emotions. Ostensibly I know this shouldn’t be as big of a deal as how any arabs are treated for our complexion, brown hair, and browner eyes. Because, all Arabs are Muslim Right? And all Brown people are Arab.
Spoilers. I don’t agree with those sentiments. But still, as I was slowly scrolling down my Tweetdeck feed I found this link. The article claims that Disney has cast Siddharth Gupta as Aladdin in the upcoming remake of my childhood obsession. I let out a heavy sigh and then sent off an angry tweet storm.
At the time I thought I was fucking done talking about this. There was nothing left to say. The casting had been done. I realized quickly though, (and through various circles) that there was still a lot of conversation to be had. A few people I know and have seen don’t see the big deal in the danger of this. A lot of me is still hoping that the reports are wrong. (Or perhaps in a case of delicious irony, Siddharth has been cast as Jafar … PLEASE).
I can’t speak for the struggles of people of Indian descent. But I do know I’m really tired of killing Arabs in video games. I do know I’m tired of all this post 9/11, post truth, attention economy bullshit. (Don’t stop selfies though, self love is A+)
When I was a child, my Dad told me about our Lebanese heritage. He bought me a flag that used to hang from one of my bed post for years and began feeding me a ton of hummus, baklava, and shawarma. He wasn’t much of a cook when it came to family recipes, but he made amazing hummus and amazing burgers (seriously, his burgers were so good I refuse to make my own because they just don’t compare). We talked at length about his grandmother not being able to speak English, and the family structure his house had. It was definitely very different from our own. We (Dad, my mom, brother, and I) didn’t interact with extended family much, but a bunch of his all lived under the same roof. While I now know it was probably cramped, it made me feel warm. Despite having an older brother, the age gap between us was so large I felt often lonely at home.
The idea of this cultural heritage inherently connecting me to a whole new host of people to love and be loved by was exactly what I needed.
My Lebanese pride continued into high school. Friends in middle school may have occasionally poked fun, but it was nothing ever malicious and more to do with creating social pecking order. “Why are you so obsessed with that” sort of sentiments would be hurled at me. An inability to understand, and my Dad never felt the need to equip me with the tools to explain. I remember many puffy faced yelling matches. But - perhaps thanks to fellow Arabs in my small K-8 school who were incredible athletes and sort of elementary school superstars, as well as its paltry population of only 250 kids, everything stayed typical kid stuff. High school though, high school changed things.
I vividly remember the day I decided I would hold my heritage tighter to my chest. I was sitting at a table, eating lunch, talking about vampires, dreaming about dying my hair a bright neon blue. That wouldn’t happen for another 6 years though.
We got on the topic of our family heritage and I mentioned I was Arab.
A tall, gangly German boy who had not quite yet figured out all his hormones chimed in with his typical racist epitaphs. He yelled out for the whole cafeteria to hear as I dropped my tuna fish sandwich onto the table, “You’re a filthy Sand Nigger! Of course you’re a Sand Nigger! Why else are you so hairy! And you need brown hair to blend in with all the sand, fuck. Do you know anyone in Isis?”
Silence. Not really. The table was covered in laughter. This was typical for the boy. No one was batting a eye, mine too transfixed in horror, everyone else too busy holding their side as they laughed at his completely normal outburst. I can still feel the thin layer of sweat that developed on my neck. Still I can taste the metallic tang of iron from biting my lip to prevent myself from cussing him out. For the next two years, he would constantly ask to hear my “battle cry”. I wish high school me had the strength to call him a Nazi to his face. Looking back, I do have to laugh slightly. Even his racist bullshit was conflating different people of colour. That doesn’t make it any better, but it does show that this is an old hat for me.
For years, it would take time for me to parade my Lebanese heritage around. I attended high school from 2005–2009. I rarely brought my heritage up to friends I made between 2009–2015 when I was completing my undergraduate studies. I did one night however as I sat half drunk in a friend’s basement apartment. We Screamed in joyous harmony as we realized we were both Lebanese. Despite seldom hanging out or talking, we always felt safe and comfortable with one another. It was that intrinsic connection of being born with the same blood coursing through our veins.
Representation matters. Full stop. Us vs. them narratives fronted by white supremacists lead to an uneven fight full of false equivalencies. Children know when they are or are not being shown on the screen, and this has an emotion affect. I was lucky. I got Aladdin to show me Arabs who could be heroes and who could do good. No white saviors needed. Just a boy prentending to be a prince to try to win the heart of the sultan’s daughter who along the way learned the lesson of paying attention to his loved ones. (It took him another movie and a TV show before he REALLY got it though).
And sure. At least I got a prince to look up to — Indian people have not even got that much. But in first promising a middle eastern hero, and then casting a different brown man, you send a much different message. Many people I know have questioned why I’m not just happy it hasn’t simply been white washed. Which, yes, I am happy for that, but it’s an insult to both the Arab population and the some billion people of Indian descent to conflate the disparate history of those two neighboring worlds.
Since Aladdin, I can’t think of a time I’ve seen someone on a television show or in a computer game who’s of Arabic descent have any fun. Everyone is self serious and full of anger at the world. We never see Arabic men stacking towers of animals with self-satisfied faces anymore. They’re too busy selling guns and fighting wars. Good guy or bad guy, Arabs aren’t written to smile and have fun. And god, we have SO MUCH FUN.
Just because some Arabs and some Indian people wear turbans doesn’t make them the same thing. It’s an antiquated expectation that you can replace one brown person for another and I’m tired of the simultaneous erasure of my heritage and theirs. Let us be more than suicide bombers and barbaric brutes who “will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. It isn’t actually barbaric where I come from, and we’re not barbarians. Let us sing and dance and show the world our ability to love and be heroes.
— — — — — UPDATE — — — — —
Aladdin and Jasmine have been cast officially as of D23! You can read my thoughts on that over here!