Labelling yourself is a hard thing to do. On paper I’m a 23-year-old female, 154 centimetres (short, I know), and of Lebanese descent.
When I look in the mirror I see another layer to me that isn’t communicated on paper. I have brown hair, green eyes, one nostril that’s obviously smaller than the other, and super small and veiny hands.
If someone had a conversation with me, they’d get even more information.
My point is that defining a human being is hard: we’ve all got multiple layers and unique nuances that make us US.
I understand people’s desire to see themselves represented in the media. Seeing yourself in the stories people love and are talking about is comforting and empowering. It lets you know that society sees you without having to explicitly say as much.
I understand the desire, but I’ve never related to it. Even though I am of Arabic descent, I consider myself to be Australian. I’ve never felt ostracised for my ethnicity or different from my friends, even with my bushy eyebrows. Maybe that makes me lucky, I don’t know. But it’s just my normal. So I’ve never been desperate to see myself or my culture represented on screen.
Until I watched Aladdin.
Right from the opening sequence, the film hit me deep in my core. I felt an unexpected pride spread through my chest as Arabic music began to play and beautiful shots of sand dunes and Middle Eastern market places filled the screen.
It was all so beautiful to me and realising it was part of my heritage made it even more beautiful.
It was also jarring. To relate to the things I was seeing felt weird. To recognise the instruments in the music and find comfort in the familiar Arabic accents of the actors was something I am definitely not used to when watching big Hollywood blockbusters. The Margot Robbies and Leonardo Di Caprios of the world favour big city lights to village candle sticks and magic carpets.
This isn’t to say I’m suddenly going to stop enjoying watching movies with white actors. The Avengers are all pure bred white people and I will forever love those movies.
But Aladdin did help me realise how much I need Middle Eastern representation in film.
Watching the credits and seeing names like Mena Massoud (who plays Aladdin) roll down the screen was comforting. It’s a reminder to me that despite belonging to a culture that most of the world doesn’t understand, and despite my parents strict rules, I am capable of big things.
More importantly, it also gives me joy for others. I know Aladdin will be a beacon of hope for the people who still live in Lebanon and Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The people who didn’t have a privileged upbringing like I have and the people who face daily discrimination. Aladdin gives them a little bit of magic, and I’m not just talking about flying carpets and genies.
The magic is seeing themselves and their loved ones and culture represented in a way that matters to the world. In a POSITIVE way. That’s the real magic.
Mena Massoud was born in Cairo. He moved to Canada when he was young, was raised as a Coptic Orthodox Christian and attended a Catholic school.
Naomi Scott (who plays Princess Jasmine) is of Gujarati Indian and English descent. She’s not Middle Eastern but that doesn’t matter- her dark skin and exotic beauty makes just as much of a statement.
Marwan Kenzari (Jafar) is of Dutch-Tunisian background. He grew up in The Netherlands and has a dutch accent when he speaks, but can grow a full beard and rocks a turban like it’s nobody’s business.
The entire movie is full of actors and extras just like them and just like you and me. The sons and daughters of Englishmen, immigrants and people who are even immigrants themselves. Aladdin is a melting pot of culture and that translates beautifully onto the screen.
Who would’ve thought a Disney movie could do so well what Hollywood has been failing to do for years? Diversity in film isn’t an easy feat but it isn’t an impossible one either.
Sometimes all it takes is some traditional costumes, some bushy eyebrows and luscious beards, and a culturally rich soundtrack to add important depth to a film. The kind of depth you just can’t get on paper.