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From 'Aladdin' to Galaxy's Edge, how Hollywood interprets Arab culture

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The city walls are scarred with bullet holes and burn marks. Tattered camouflage netting hangs like moss over defunct fighter posts and the Moorish archways of the marketplace. The cries of hungry children fill the bazaar, where merchants in flowing robes and headscarves hawk scarce, overpriced goods to desperate parents.

It's a war zone I recognize, or at least one I think I recognize as an Iraqi American and someone who has taken more family trips in combat-wrecked regions than poolside resorts.

But despite the multiple checkpoints, nomadic desert garb and food staples of hummus and pita, this is one Arabesque war zone where you won't hear Saudis flying American fighter jets overhead or see the black flags of Islamic State crumpled on the ground.

You may, however, spot a fairy princess or three smothered in layers of pink taffeta, adults wielding $200 toy lightsabers and "locals" addressing "travelers" with jargon that as many have pointed out sounds as if it were pulled straight out of a "Handmaid's Tale" episode. "Bright suns!"

"Under his eye" is not the correct response, I learn, but it won't get you kicked out of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Disneyland's new theme park inside a theme park.

The 14-acre immersive experience is designed to transport guests from the old-timey shops of Main Street to the Black Spire Outpost on the planet of Batuu, "a remote trading port for smugglers, traders, and adventurers traveling the Outer Rim and Wild Space."

 

Translation: It's a wonderland for fans of the film franchise, many of whom cried when they stepped foot in the "port" on opening day two weeks ago. But for those of us who know little about fictional resistance beyond that being waged in Gilead, it's a costly journey to an artfully distressed realm where the entry fee is equal to a transcontinental plane ticket and price-gouging has driven the cost of a small bottle of Coke to nearly $5 (just like Baghdad!).

Galaxy's Edge, like "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, was inspired by Islamic architecture, nomadic desert life and cultural markers throughout the Middle East. It borrows from the rugged terrain of Tunisia and Jordan, the chaos of war-torn areas stretching from Sanaa to Gaza and the romance of an exotic Arabia concocted in the backlots of old Hollywood.

In Magic Kingdom schematics, it's the mouse-ears version of the Persian Gulf, just as the American South is New Orleans Square, Europe is all over Fantasyland (a castle, the Matterhorn, lederhosen, turkey drumsticks fit for a king), the West is Frontierland and yesterday's idea of future is here today in Tomorrowland.

The world of sheiks, sand dunes and never-ending conflicts, however, is trickier to navigate than, say, rockets and submarine rides without running into the unpleasantries of the real world.

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