Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mark Pagel, Grace McLeen and Paul Preston.

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel

For Robin McKie, Pagel provides an assured and illuminating account of the history of human evolution and its inextricable relationship to cooperative culture. Writing in the Observer, he is convinced by Pagel's theory, remarking that "There is nothing pre-ordained in our genes to account for the societies we have created". Rather than the innate selfishness of our genetic make-up dictating how we behave towards one another, Pagel posits that it is in fact our ability to forge and learn from meaningful relationships that leads to human advancement. McKie highlights Pagel's account of honour killings, and their acceptance in some cultures, as an extreme manifestation of the natural leaning to uphold a good reputation: "we hold open doors, stand aside for others, help the elderly, give to charity and even risk our lives to save animals. It is all done to build up our own reputations so that others will seek us out and co-operate with us".

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph takes a more measured approach, pointing out that Pagel's work makes for less of a stark distinction from Dawkins's seminal The Selfish Gene, and more of a complementary thesis that re-examines what appears to be co-operative behaviour. Though Pagel charts examples of the long history of cooperation between humans that has fuelled social and technological progression, this is tempered by an underlying selfishness to make advantageous alliances to safeguard our own genes: "our psychology ... is full of tensions between the need to advance the interests of culture, and the benefits of looking out for number one".

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen

"Deep, fantastical and powerful" is how Viv Groskop describes McLeen's debut novel in the Independent on Sunday. She notes how McLeen has brought her own experiences of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family to bear upon the novel, creating a strongly believable voice in the form of Judith, the book's ten-year-old narrator. Though the world into which Judith is drawn is often sinister, full of bullies, strikes and hatred, Groskop is charmed by the humour of the novel and the Land of Decoration in the title, a playtime paradise through which Judith attempts to alter real-life events to her advantage.

Writing in the Observer, Nicola Barr also testifies that the book lives up to the widespread hype, praising the "beautiful" way in which McLeen allows the language of Christian texts to infiltrate Judith's world. Burr observes that the book works on a wider, social level, despite it featuring an inward-looking narrator: "this young writer has done a bold, brave thing, writing what is effectively a religious allegory set in the mid-80's Welsh valleys".

Although Alexander Larman in the Spectator adds his plaudits to the chorus, he's left underwhelmed by the book's concluding stages, which don't seem to match the "strange, rich world" that McLeen so admirably crafts. Nevertheless, he comments on the "compelling, and at times, hideously tense narrative" and adds to the general consensus that this debut novelist "approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose".

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Giles Tremlett describes this as "an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history". Preston's work, he writes in the Guardian, sheds some much needed light on the abhorrent acts perpetrated by Franco's dictatorship, and in turn "destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a 'soft' dictator". The titular holocaust is bound to grab attention and is clearly intended to shock, but, says Tremlett, Preston adopts the word with good reason. Only until recently have Spaniards have been facing up to the extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, such was the lasting power of Franco's brainwashing campaign: "Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through".

In the Financial Times, although Victor Mallet concedes that "his sympathies indeed lie with the Republicans", he states that Preston nonetheless retains his focus on the "civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict". Similarly to Tremlett, he warns that the book is not for the faint of heart, as it provides in-depth accounts of the systematic slaughter of 200,000 men and women: "Piling horror upon horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate out humanity".

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Disney's failure to find an Arab Princess Jasmine for Aladdin shows the dire state of diversity in film

As a child in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. Yet no actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the cartoon.

Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”

The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there's the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.

In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.

This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”

As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.

In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”. 

Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film's (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.

No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.

Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.

*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.