An Actual Arab on Arabian Nights

Graphic by Rae Shuman

Graphic by Rae Shuman

by Leila Abdul Razzaq

This season, The Theatre School at DePaul University has brought colonialism, Western entitlement, and cultural appropriation—or, according to the play’s synopsis, “a dash of magic”—to The Healy Theatre with Dominic Cooke’s Arabian Nights. As one of the few actual Arab students at The Theatre School, I feel compelled to speak up about the script because it is racist, degrading, and Orientalist.

The term Orientalism was coined by Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to describe the Western phenomenon of mythologizing the Other. He argued that throughout history, Europe has asserted its own definition of Arabs and other non-Western people. This resulted in a sense of ownership, and by extension, a sense of entitlement to colonize our lands.

No piece of Middle Eastern literature has been more extensively ravaged by Orientalists than Arabian Nights.

In Arabic, the title is Kitaab Alf Leila wa Leila, or, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. When I encounter this story as an Arab, I recognize its relevance to my history, but do not see myself or my culture represented. After all, the tales are not only ancient, but also rooted in a broad range of times and places, from Persia, to South Asia, to the Arab world. For this reason, the stories represent a large swath of cultures.

When European scholars translated the Middle Eastern story Kitaab Alf Leila wa Leila, they created a Western version, and called it Arabian Nights. This act removed the cultural nuances from these stories and homogenized them before a western audience, creating an undefined conglomeration of cultures and continuing the European tradition of mythologizing the Other.

Cooke’s script is no exception to this rule. It draws heavily on outdated stereotypes and clichés. The result is a caricature of Middle Eastern culture and people as mysterious, fantastical, violent, exotic, animalistic, and highly sexual. The most offending example is Marjanah’s traditional sword dance, which Cooke transforms into a sensual and erotic one. The stage directions ask the actress to perform “a hugely energetic, mesmerizing, sensual, sometimes violent dance in which she alternates between thrusting the dagger outwards as if to stab someone, and inwards as if to stab herself.”

Such instances of blatant Orientalism are frequent in Western theatre. Time and time again, people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descet have brought up Orientalism with white directors and playwrights. Time and time again, we have been belittled and ignored.

As recently as this past June, Jamil Khoury of Silk Road Rising Theatre criticized Mary Zimmerman for Orientalism and racism in her work, and was met with a largely dismissive response. On the issue of racism in particular, Zimmerman produced this enthralling reply:

“I just refute it. That’s all I can say. I just disagree.”

Apparently, Zimmerman does not need an argument or defense. After all, how dare we bring forward concerns about cultural appropriation, entitlement, colonialism and oppression to stifle her creative genius?

Such is privilege.

Zimmerman responded in a way common to artists facing charges of Orientalism: With claims that the work is apolitical, by touting the supposed universality of the story, and waxing about an apparently profound love for our countries and traditions.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. As we proceed with our projects, every choice we make is specific, and has inevitable social and political implications. Failure to address and take responsibility for those implications is not a passive act, it is an intentional decision to ignore a major problem.

Likewise, it is irresponsible to claim that a particular story is universal. While themes can be universal, the vehicles we use to convey them are not. To argue that a story is universal is to de-contextualize it, to deny the history embedded in it and to thereby appropriate it. Furthermore, if the individuals who appropriate our stories, aesthetics, and traditions truly loved us, they’d respect our concerns. When the issues we bring to the table are ignored, it shows that what they love is not us, but their own fetishized idea of what we are.

Many well-intentioned members of the production team asked me how they should go about representing the Middle East. The fact is, there are a multitude of Arab and Middle Eastern experiences, and there is no one correct way to represent any culture. What I want is not an attempt to represent my people “correctly.” I want the Western world to stop trying to construct an image of my people, period. As part of a community that is misunderstood, whose history has been manipulated for the benefit of Western governments, whose culture is continually demonized in the media, and whose future everyone and their grandmother seems to have an opinion on, the last thing we need are more outsiders giving themselves the authority to define us. I want to see Arab and Middle Eastern people with agency to represent ourselves, as we are.

One needs a real sense of entitlement to appropriate the histories of others and represent them in whatever way one pleases. And in the end, entitlement is the crux of all of this. Art naturally reflects the current mindset. When a sense of entitlement exists in Western theatre, that means it exists in Western culture. The same sense of entitlement that led Western powers to carve out nation states on our lands at the turn of the 20th century also convinced the United States that it was on a humanitarian mission in Iraq, or that it has the right to send armed drones to assassinate people in Yemen and Pakistan. It has led to a terrifyingly global, modern-day manifest destiny.

We can do better than this. As students in a training institution, we have a responsibility to think critically about what we create. When we leave this school and go on to create artistic work, we will be in a unique position to influence culture and public discourse. We should not accept cultural stereotypes in our work. We should not perpetuate an unjust status quo. We cannot continue to tell each other and ourselves that these things are okay. If we want to see a change in the future, we need to start by changing the work we do here and now.


3 responses to “An Actual Arab on Arabian Nights

  1. Leila,

    As a white acting student, I love this piece. I’m currently in a production of Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights, with an essentially all white cast (we have one Southeast Asian girl). I am also the dramaturg for the show, trying to do my best to make sure it is accurate to the period and respectful of the culture, but I am extremely concerned about Orientalism being so built into the show that I can’t root it out.

    I am torn between wanting to get as much practice as I can for my craft, and being offended by the hypersexualization and blatant racism (which I point out as often as I can). I can’t convince them to change the show at this point, so I want to try to do my best with what I can do. I know I am white and Western, but I want to do right by the Muslim students at my school. I don’t want to assuage my white guilt, but I do want to figure out a way to fix this as best I can. Any suggestions?


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