THE WEEKEND WARRIOR : The challenge for storytellers in the Middle East

If you’d been to the cinema this week, then you would definitely have noticed “Aladdin” — the live adaptation of one of Disney’s beloved classic children stories.
You would have noticed the polarising debate happening on social media too where people are conflicted over Will Smith’s portrayal of the genie, the backwards understanding of Hollywood about the Middle East and its culture (still), and the tone and direction director Guy Ritchie took the film to.
If there’s one thing the film got right which everyone will agree on is not “whitewashing” the film making sure that actors who portrayed the roles are as diverse as they can get.
Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud and English-Gujarati Indian Naomi Scott (Aladdin and Princess Jasmine respectively) were outstanding performers but Dutch Tunisian Marwan Kenzari as Jafar just brought the villain into a more hateful level and I personally loved it.
I like the film for its efforts to represent the Middle East in its muted splendour and mystifying landscapes. But just like everyone else, I feel like there was something hollow and missing about the film.
One of the happiest news I heard in the last two weeks is about Omani Jokha al Harthi winning the Man Booker International Prize. I celebrated with the region in this win because it’s a big deal and it should be a big deal because seldom will you find a writer with an authentic voice who comes from this part of the world to tell the story of its people.
Hollywood and much of western media and film production companies have a way of bastardizing cultures and origin stories different from what they are accustomed to. An AFP story which came out last week told the discoveries of Lebanese film buff Abboudi Abu Jawdeh who, for decades, has collected vintage film posters and has exhibited the narrow and shallow-minded interpretation of moviemakers about the Orient and the Middle East exposing how “a whole people was systematically dehumanised or vilified” where “female characters were largely belly dancers or enchantresses, silent ‘bundles of black’ or ‘terrorists’.
While it’s already 2019 and people are claiming to be “woke,” it is still easy to see that when you get out of Asia and the Middle East, many Westerners will still see this region as camel-riding, desert-conquering nomads who are stuck in the past and will brandish a knife when they don’t get what they want. That or blow you into pieces.
I can’t blame them though because much of the stories that one will hear and see today are already Westernized. The genie being blue and all-powerful in Aladdin has stuck with me for years and even that took a lot of will power to correct — genies aren’t blue and they don’t have that much power.
The challenge for storytellers in the Middle East is to raise their voice and up the ante and take charge of the narrative. People who don’t understand what the Middle East is all about had done so much damage that it needs a collective approach and spirit to paint the actual and correct reality of countries found in the region.
And it can be done. Perceptions can be changed. Belief systems can be rebooted but it will take double or triple the effort of the more established Western counterparts.
Jokha al Harthi is a prime example that the world is willing to listen to authentic voices — that it is interested to know about the story of the Middle East — its diversity, of how things are and were and how it is transforming so far away from the violent interpretation of its past.
She has to work with Marilyn Booth, a partner and translator, to bring her story to a much wider audience and together, they gave away some of the secrets to what makes Oman a country of tolerance and example of peace. And they succeeded — one step to so much more in order to bring the world to understand that people in this region have stories and it’s not exactly the ones they already know.