The theater is packed with children, munching popcorn, hungry for Walt Disney's "Aladdin" to begin. For many, this is the second or third time they've seen the film. As the opening credits roll, they watch a Bedouin riding his camel through the desert and listen to these lyrics from a song called "Arabian Nights":
"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."
Barbaric? Chopping off ears? In the first minute of a children's film?
Millions of children and adults are streaming to theaters to watch Disney's retelling of the classic tale in which poor Aladdin finds a magic lamp and is granted three wishes by the genie who lives inside. There is talk of Oscar nominations, and the film made critics' 10-best lists, and was one of the top 10 grossing movies of 1992 ($115 million) and the top-grossing animated feature ever. What's more, "Aladdin" has been hailed as politically correct: Its heroes are not white.
But for many Arab Americans and Muslims, the film is not innocent, funny or particularly triumphant. Many of its characters are portrayed as grotesque, with huge noses and sinister eyes. And they are violent: willing to chop off the hand of a woman who steals an apple for a hungry child.
Such caricatures exemplify the negative stereotyping with which Hollywood and the media have stamped Arabs and Muslims for nearly a century, these critics say. Almost politically voiceless in this country, they argue, Arabs and Muslims are maligned everywhere, through movies, editorial cartoons, comic strips, Saturday morning cartoons, TV sitcoms, and hideous, hook-nosed "Arab" masks that children wear on Halloween.
"Aladdin" is decried as emblematic of U.S. prejudices. And its sting is particularly intense because it is a high-profile Disney release, playing to massive audiences, including impressionable children.
"It's gratuitous Arab-bashing," says Casey Kasem, a nationally syndicated Top 40 disc jockey in Los Angeles, of Lebanese ancestry, who is particularly bothered by the film's opening song. "It just drives another nail into the casket of what has been a bad image for decades. If you were to replace the word `Arab' with `black,' `Jew,' `Italian' or `Irishman,' it just wouldn't float because everyone would be up in arms."
Complaints like Kasem's are coalescing into a public debate that seems to have taken Disney by surprise.
Howard Green, a spokesman for Disney, rebuts the criticisms: "It's certainly coming from a small minority," he says, "because most people are very happy with it. All the characters are Arabs, the good guys and the bad guys, and the accents don't really connote anything, I don't think. . . . As for the song, it's talking about a different time and a different place. It's a certain license that they're taking, but it's certainly not meant to reflect on the culture of today. It's a fictitious place. This seems kind of nit-picky."
Studio executives see the film as simple entertainment, yet many Arabs and Muslims view it in a political context. They see it as part of a trend that reflects the U.S. government's support of Israel and the influence, some say, of Jews in the film industry and other media.
The arguments go on endlessly, and "Aladdin" sits in the middle of this political debate about Zionism and Palestinian rights.
"If there were equal numbers of Arabs and Jews in Hollywood, I'm sure we'd get a much more balanced viewpoint," says Nabil Al-Hadithy of Berkeley, Calif., a director of the Committee for Fair Representation, a group that monitors how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in the media. He says that Jewish studio executives are "absolutely responsible" for negative image-making and that the stereotypes have grown more frequent and virulent in recent years.
But David Lehrer, director of the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, says to blame Jews for Hollywood stereotypes is false and simplistic.
"American films tend to portray other cultures as different," he says. "It's a Hollywood view of the world, whether it's Walt Disney, who wasn't Jewish, or it's Sony, which owns Columbia, or its Matsushita, which owns MCA. And it's not a matter of where a particular studio executive worships on Saturday or Sunday. It's mega-corporations making decisions on what's going to sell on the basis of the bottom line.
"Are they suggesting that Jewish executives get together on Monday morning and decide, `We're going to have negative portrayals of Arabs?' "
The earliest Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims arose during the Crusades almost a millennium ago, says Charles E. Butterworth, a visiting professor of Middle East politics at Harvard University.
"These are the terrible people who captured Jerusalem and who had to be thrown out of the Holy City," he says. The image of Muslims as uncivilized and barbaric gradually crept into Western art and literature, he says, citing Shakespeare.
Today's media caricatures reflect similar fears and ignorance - many people don't even know that fewer than 20 percent of the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world are Arabs. The two groups are lumped and smeared together.
"There's the Bedouin bandit," says Jack G. Shaheen, professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and author of "The TV Arab." He ticks off other film and media stereotypes: "There's the billionaire - the Arab oil sheik. And there's the bomber, which more often than not is associated with a Palestinian. Those are the main images associated with men. And with women, they're primarily belly dancers or bundles of black, covered head to toe. And generally they don't speak."
Shaheen is one of many who say negative stereotyping has reached new proportions in the two years since the Persian Gulf War against Iraq: "There have been 16 Hollywood films produced since then that have denigrated Arabs - and in particular, our allies in the war, the Saudis," he says.
"Since cameras started cranking, there's been a negative image of the Arab people," Shaheen says. "And in most of the films they fabricate this `Ay-rab-land' by plopping down a castle or a military fortress in the desert. And then there are tents and camels and an oasis, and around the palace there's a dungeon, dancing girls and intrigue; somebody's trying to kill the king. And outside, you have the masses, the people in the marketplace. They're unscrupulous; they charge you too much; they're not clean shaven; they're not helpful. They're the opposite of the reality. If you go to the market in Damascus (Syria) or Cairo (Egypt), they're very friendly. They offer you coffee or a cup of tea.
"But if you look at the people in the marketplace in `Aladdin' and you look at the friendly creatures who populate the underworld kingdom in `The Little Mermaid' - what a difference!"