The first time I saw someone on television who seemed both remotely Middle Eastern and relatable was SNL’s Nasim Pedrad.
A 2018 study on MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) representation on American television found that 92% of scripted series had no MENA actors, and the majority of the time they appear as threats (mainly “terrorists and tyrants”) or out-of-place foreigners. They also found that 90% of shows with a MENA regular had only one, a token.
Frankly, I was pleased to finally reach the token status.
This report focused on television and missed that “terrorists and tyrants” are one facet of a larger trope appearing in movies, what I call the “Desert Person.”
Desert People exist onscreen in two forms and contexts: present-day war/terrorism plots or mythical desert stories. In other words, if a character is not a token for the sake of diversity, they are a terrorist or hang out with genies.
Contemporary Desert People are terrorists or war enemies hailing from the MENA region. We see them in action in movies like American Sniper or Beirut. Mystical Desert People often live in a nondescript but presumably ancient desert world that we’re expected to assume is somewhere in the Middle East (or wherever they have camels).
They appear most often in stories based on The Arabian Nights, like Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba. Whether or not the Desert Person has always counted as representation is debatable because until recently, the actors have been almost exclusively white.
(Yes, Prince of Persia is based on a video game, but the point that all Jake Gyllenhaal needed to become Middle Eastern was a tan, beard, and desert still stands.)
This is about to change, as Disney has nosedived into the nostalgia trend with a series of live-action remakes and added its 1992 classic Aladdin to the line-up, to be released on May 24. Disney has undertaken this at a time where media representation has become a public conversation. Box-office turnout for movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther have proved to Hollywood executives that not only does representation matter, it sells.
When the news of the Aladdin remake broke, a strong push for MENA representation followed.
Culture points to the Arabian Nights stories as MENA representation in the western world, although they originate from all over the Asian continent. After French author Antoine Galland translated and interpreted the stories from a Syrian version in 1701, the Arabian Nights exploded on the western literary scene, placing the fairy tale land of Arabia in the European imagination.
A few centuries later, the stories’ interpretations on international screens followed. In the same way that oral histories often lead to a natural evolution of stories, once written, the stories in the Arabian Nights have been repeated and transformed on such a level that they have no single owner. They now act as a collective myth using an imagined version of the Middle East as a magical unified location, one with a clear inspiration but no real perspective.
For a lot of people, the release of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians meant more than the ability to see someone who looks like them on screen. These movies showcased perspectives outside of Black or Asian stereotypes; it meant the acknowledgment of marginalized voices in mainstream cinema. This is unfortunately not the case with the Aladdin movie. While this movie certainly features more MENA actors not playing terrorists than any American movie released in the past two decades, representation in this context does not do anything other than fulfill an obligation, an extended tokenization.
Yes, MENA people will get to see characters who look like them in this Aladdin movie with names other than “terrorists 1 and 2”, but this will likely do little in the way of contributing to a larger conversation.
I am skeptical of casting mostly (though certainly not entirely) MENA actors without addressing what it means to make a movie supposedly set in the Middle East in this time and age.
I hope to be surprised but I have my doubts.
The Contemporary/Mystical Desert Person dichotomy clearly reflects the current American political climate. The United States have been at war with MENA and Muslim countries, which ones? Who even knows anymore? We have a policy known as the “Muslim Ban” and the terrorist plot is now a normalized television trope.
What do we do for positive representation?
We reach backward because anything in between a world set for magic and a world of threat would mandate a reconsideration of the political reality.