Study Guide

Aladdin Setting

Setting

The Fictional Arabian Kingdom of Agrabah

Aladdin doesn't waste any time introducing us to its setting. In fact, you might say it's the first character we meet. It even gets its own song:

PEDDLER: Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where it's flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

Ah, those good old Arabian nights. We then getting a sweeping view of the city we're about to visit. Ooo, pretty. The peddler lets us know exactly where we are. It's "Agrabah. City of mystery, of enchantment, and the finest merchandise this side of the river Jordan."

We're interested in the Dead Sea Tupperware already.

The Kingdom of Agrabah

So, what's up with Agrabah? Well, it's a fictional city somewhere in the Arab world. The characters may or may not be Muslim. The Sultan says, "Praise Allah" and "Allah forbid," but "Allah" is just the Arabic word for God, so, technically, he could be talking about any God. Either way, religion isn't something the movie touches on.

Agrabah is also a monarchy ruled by the Sultan. The Sultan's only daughter cannot inherit his throne, so she has to marry a prince so that a dude can one day become sultan. Guess there's a law against female rulers in Agrabah.

Agrabah also has a vibrant marketplace where a percentage of the population lives far below the poverty line—and where stealing is punishable by…amputation. Yikes.

Okay, so there's a few things the Sultan might need to work on.

Agrabah in Real Life

In an early draft of the movie, Aladdin was supposed to be set in Baghdad, Iraq. Some of the characters and plot elements are loosely based off the 1940 movie Thief of Baghdad, so that made sense. Then, war broke out in Iraq, so Disney decided that setting their movie in the place where Saddam Hussein was chilling might not go over so well with American audiences. Rearrange the letters in Baghdad a little, and you get something like Agrabah.

Problem solved.

But that's not the only real-life inspiration behind Aladdin. The design for the Sultan's palace was roughly based on the Taj Mahal, which is in India (which, we'll point out, is in Asia and is not an Arab country). Aladdin's layout supervisor, Rasoul Azadani, also took inspiration from his childhood memories of Iran. Again, that's technically not an Arab country, but it's right next door, so we'll give him a pass.

One Thousand and One Inspirations

Like most Disney movies, Aladdin is based on a folk tale. This one comes from the book One Thousand and One Nights. You might also know that book by the name Arabian Nights, though that's a bit of a misnomer, since the stories come from all over the Middle East, including non-Arab areas like Iran.

Anyway, you've probably heard of this book, but you might not have read it. We'll give you a quick recap.

There's a king named Shahryār whose wife cheats on him. So he has her killed. Since he's not done overreacting, he decides to marry a series of virgins and then have them each killed the morning after the wedding, before they can break his heart again. Geez. This guy needs a divorce lawyer and some therapy.

Meanwhile, the kingdom is running out of virgins, so the vizier's daughter, Shahrāzād (or Scheherazade), steps forward and volunteers to marry the brutal Shahryār. The night they're married, Shahrāzād starts telling a story, and the king gets super engrossed—but his new bride doesn't have time to finish the tale. Eh, looks like he won't be able to kill her if he wants to figure out how the story ends. Clever girl.

Shahrāzād finishes the story the next night and then starts another but stops right before she gets to the good part. She does this for 1,001 nights, until she finally runs out of stories. By then, she and the king have a couple kids together, too. He's also fallen in love with her, so he's like, "Eh, I guess I won't kill you, after all. By the way, what's for dinner, honey?"

One of the stories Shahrāzād tells her murderous husband is called "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp." Though Aladdin's tale is probably the best-known one from One Thousand and One Nights these days, it actually doesn't appear in any of the original Arabic versions of the text. The earliest written form of the story is from an 18th-century French collection by Antoine Galland. The author claimed to have heard it from a storyteller in Syria, so he just added it to the book. The rest was history.

Oddly enough, Galland's Aladdin isn't even Arab: he's Chinese. He also runs into two genies—a genie of the ring, and a genie of the lamp. He does get to marry a princess though. And slay an evil sorcerer.

All in a day's work for Aladdin.

Cultural Sensitivity 101

Aladdin was Disney's first stab at a non-white prince and princess. And the movie was produced during a period of growing tensions in the Middle East, so it's pretty cool to see Arab heroes and heroines depicted on screen for everyone to see.

So, let's uncork the champagne and celebrate. Diversity and tolerance win, right? Huzzah?

Well, kind of, but not everyone was super psyched about Aladdin. Though the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee appreciated that the film was "one of the few American films to feature an Arab hero or heroine," they also had some issues with it. They didn't much care for the opening lyrics of "Arabian Nights," for example, which originally were sung as:

PEDDLER: Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

Geez. We thought there were a lot of mentions of hands being chopped off for a kid's movie. The ADC felt the film perpetuated "the tired stereotype of the Arab world as a place of deserts and camels, of arbitrary cruelty and barbarism." We kind of agree with them.

Disney changed the lyrics, but the movie had already been released, so they couldn't change anything else people found offensive—like the fact that the good guys look more Anglo, and the bad guys (like the guards or merchants) are dark-skinned with Arabic accents. And let's not forget the idea that Princess Jasmine might have lost her hand on the spot for stealing an apple. Even in places with the strictest, most brutal forms of Sharia law, that's not how it works.

So, yeah, Aladdin's a mixed bag at times. You can add it the pile of other Disney movies that haven't been as culturally sensitive as they could have been. The crows in Dumbo? The Indians in Peter Pan? The Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp? All problematic. And let's not even start with Song of the South. That one's so bad that Disney locked it in a vault and is never letting it out.

Compared to some of those movies, Aladdin could teach diversity courses.