This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission. See the original at http://muftah.org/when-you-wish-upon-a-star-a-story-of-facial-hair-disney-movies-and-my-childhood-wishes/
I’m happy to share a new article I published with Muftah.org! It’s been a while, but please check back here for more thoughts on the subject, and for links to more current projects. And check out Parts Unknown Episode 5: Tangier for a conversation I had with Anthony Bourdain over mint tea in Tangier! Now, onto the article!
Part I: Jiminy Cricket, It’s an Arab!
I’ve been experimenting with new facial hair patterns lately. It started last month when I was acting in a play for which I was asked to grow a beard. It took some time, but eventually I started to see results.
I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of an odd case among those of Arab descent—I’ve jokingly self-identified as “the non-hairy Arab” to those lucky enough to hear about my facial follicle follies.
Last year, while living in Morocco, my attempts at hair growth turned into a social experiment. I found that my experiences walking down the street varied depending on the length of my hair and the growth of my beard (or lack thereof).
With shoulder-length curly hair, I was often mistaken for a southern European tourist. Upon responding that I was Palestinian-American, I would inevitably be put to the test, as my interlocutor would set out to establish my authenticity with a barrage of questions and dialects.
When I responded in darija (Moroccan Arabic) however, the disbelief would grow. A Palestinian who spoke the Moroccan vernacular better than Palestinian dialect? And an American to boot? “No, not South America,” I would always confirm, “North America.”
Sometimes, the questions would get specific. “Where in America?” The complexities grew as I tried to explain, “Florida—well, I live in Chicago. Actually, I live in Tangier now, but I’ll be going back to Chicago.” Occasionally, we’d even get around to the Chicago connections—Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, and, without fail, Al Capone.
But that’s a different story. This story is about my facial hair—or at least it starts that way.
Eventually fed up with all of this mistaken identity, I would cut my hair short at the neighborhood barber. The barber would always snicker a bit at my minimal beard growth as he slapped cream on the straight razor. Within 15 minutes, my nose would be more prominent, and my heavy Arab brow more clear. At least, this way, I wouldn’t have to deal with any more misperceptions. I could walk down the street and be just as Arab as anyone else. Except, why should that make a difference? We’re talking about Morocco; a country with a diverse population, including many of Amazigh descent. The diverse ethnic origins of the Maghreb endow the region with many different looks, not all of which are stereotypically “Arab.”
It worked though. I became more stereotypically Arab. No one spoke to me in Italian anymore. Although why should that stop simply because of a haircut? Even as a kid, people assumed I was of Italian origin and sometimes I didn’t bother correcting them. I imagined using the alias Tony occasionally—Tony B, a good Sicilian name.
I thought the questions would cease when I came back to Chicago. Surely this was just a part of life in Tangier, a city packed with expatriates, tourists, and travelers from all over the world.
But the questions haven’t stopped. These days, and especially as violence flares up in America, there are quite a few cases of mistaken identity. It’s a sensitive topic, with lots of loaded and coded terminology.
While I was abroad I read about a woman in New York who pushed a man onto the subway tracks because she “hate[s] Hindus and Muslims and ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers [she’s] been beating them up. [sic]”
Since coming back, with short hair and a lengthening beard, I’ve been especially attentive in the subway. Though it’s probably silly, I can’t help but think that perhaps I should stand further away from that blue line marking the platform’s “danger zone.” And once I’m on the train, I start wondering “Are those people staring at me?” In fact, I’ve received a few comments on my Aladdin-esque appearance on the train—maybe it’s just one giant Disney conspiracy.
After the play closed (for which I’d grown that scraggly semblance of a beard), I decided to maintain some of the growth. I trimmed it neatly, but noticed it looked somewhat like what I’d call—perhaps insensitively—a Salafi beard.
One day, on my way home, I stopped in a corner store. As I was waiting to pay the man stocking the shelves called out to me, “Arabi!” I looked in his direction, brushed it off, and turned back to pay.
The man behind the counter tallied my items, but was interrupted once more by the same man calling out, “tkalem mahu b’arabi.” [speak with him in Arabic After exchanging salutations, the cashier stopped me. “inta yemeni?” [Are you Yemeni?] he asked. “No, I’m not from Yemen. I’m from Florida. Well, my grandparents are from Ramallah and I think somewhere in the 1500s they came there from Yemen. So yes, I guess I am maybe from Yemen.”
Again, the more I explained, the more complicated it became. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying. Do you by chance speak Moroccan?,” After a year and a half in Morocco, the Moroccan dialect was easier for me to understand. “Oh you do? Really? Oh, your wife is from Agadir. Wonderful, t’barak allah, your kids are really beautiful. Wallah, tasharafna, or mtsharafeen, or- you know what—nice to meet you.”
Since then, I’ve trimmed the facial hair down even more, to something like a tame version of the genie’s beard inAladdin. Much tamer. Maybe it’s a beginner’s goatee? In any case, it’s a new development. We’ll see what happens with it. I’m not sure where on the ethnically ambiguous palette I appear now, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon.
Part II: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend like Me
As a child I really imagined the Aladdin genie was talking to me. It wasn’t a hallucination—I just had a wild imagination.
I’ve already brought up Aladdin twice here, which deserves some explanation. Or rather some reflection on self-Orientalization and the importance of Aladdin when you grow up brown, and why I was afraid of The Return of Jafaruntil I was 12.
I recall sitting at home watching the latest escapades of my hero and, in the midst of the cartoon frantically ran to the VCR in search of the pause button. I couldn’t find it, and the remote wasn’t working. I stood on the bottom of the cabinet and groped until I located the TV’s power button. I was 6 years old, and not normally one to shy away from an adventure.
To me, the new Jafar was a power-hungry fiend. I was terrified. I didn’t think Aladdin, the once-formidable Prince Ali, could pull through. So I ejected the video and buried it behind my sister’s Reading Rainbow tapes. Every few years, I would come across The Return of Jafar, feeling torn. My fear of the film eventually turned into a fear of all horror movies, which is what I thought it was.
What was behind my panic and anxiety? After nearly two decades, I can finally furnish an answer. At the time, in the midst of the Gulf War, Arabic culture didn’t play a role in the life of the average American. There was no such thing as hookah bars, and hummus was just a fancy name for decomposed plants.
But then along came Aladdin. For me, the film signaled that mainstream American culture valued my heritage. Prince Ali and I had a connection. We were both brown. I had latched onto Peter Pan for his high-flying sense of mischief and Mowgli for his rough and tumble sense of jungle living, but here was something different – a Disney hero to whom I could actually relate—as much as any four year old could relate to a celebrity idol.
I had just moved to a new city and a new school, and Aladdin was my saving grace. Like him, I could be a scrappy rebel in the company of good-hearted bandits and renegades. Playing Squanto in the elementary school Thanksgiving Day celebration just wasn’t the same anymore.
Later, during my time at university, I came across post-structuralist critiques of movies like Aladdin. These critiques emphasized how Aladdin reduced a complex culture to simple stereotypes and cached Orientalist notions, not to mention some pretty horrific gender biases. I’ve even written such critiques myself.
As a kid, though, this hadn’t bothered me. I’ve struggled with this reality, wondering if I engaged in years of self-Orientalization, and if Arabic culture was eternally doomed to be showcased by flowing robes and magic carpets.
I still don’t know, but I have come to another conclusion. Aladdin gave me something to hold onto, a way to explain why my family ate hummus with our turkey on Thanksgiving, and a lush, full-color landscape to help envision my grandparents’ stories of the “Old Country.” Yes, designers at a Disney studio colored in this landscape, and, of course, it bore little resemblance to Ramallah. But, as CNN pioneered live wartime broadcasts of the Gulf and stark images of the region sailed into homes across the United States, I encountered something different in Aladdin—an idealized and essentialized world surely, but a whole new world nonetheless.
When The Return of Jafar appeared in 1994, one year after the attempted bombings of the World Trade Center in New York City, something had changed. Jafar looked different from the original movie. He was not the Captain Hook-style villain I remembered, but a real enemy: a scary figure I no longer wanted in my story. And so I cut him out.
For years I refused to watch Aladdin, moving onto Davy Crockett, back to Peter Pan, and eventually developing an affinity for rock n’ roll legend Joe Strummer.
But in the beginning there was Aladdin, and in the end it all comes back to him. Despite all the stereotyping, I am still grateful for Aladdin. It gave me something to hold onto, and a snappy retort for the “Osama yo mama?” taunts of middle school.
When I moved to Morocco, colleagues and friends from Morocco, America, and Europe would inevitably remark that I looked like Aladdin. The flying carpet questions returned, and I used them to my advantage while bargaining at carpet bazaars. I heard that Disney was coming to Morocco to do research for its next Broadway project, Aladdin, the Musical. I even entertained fantasies of guiding Disney executives through the medina of Fez and “dis-orienting” their perspectives on the Maghreb.
I look forward to the Broadway version of Aladdin. The horrible stereotypes and borderline racist lyrics notwithstanding, I’m glad it’s coming back to the mainstream. Some young Arab-American, with a slightly off-white skin tone and inventive imagination, will see it and maybe envision an identity beyond the name-calling and hate-mongering on the news and the bad guys on Homeland. And for me, well, it’s still a great conversation starter on the train.
*George Bajalia is a Chicago-based theatre artist and cultural critic, and a recently returned Fulbright Grantee to Morocco. Follow him on Twitter @ageorgeb or at www.georgebajalia.com.