the crossroads: prince ali, salman rushdie, and me

Aladdin was my Disney Prince. I had a crush on him for as long as I can remember; as a kid I watched the library's copy of Aladdin and the King of Thieves enough not only to internalize every scene and song, but to run the VHS tape beyond repair. He was my Prince because he was kind enough to offer his bread, because I had a penchant for rogues (or perhaps for this he and Peter Pan are together to blame?), and because he was painted familiar: Tanner skin, black hair, shalwar, and Robin Williams's suggestion that we "brush up [our] Sunday salaam for Prince Ali" while he rode on "Abu."

(Incidentally, my father's favorite way to annoy me was to pronounce my boy's name "Al ad-Din," to which I'd immediately stomp my foot and correct, "No, it's Aladdin." Embarrassing in retrospect.)

But while Aladdin was my Prince Jasmine wasn't my Princess—the honor belonged to Mulan—excepting in small, clear moments: Her tiger's name was "Raja." Her father was the sultan and swore by "Allah." One time, she hid her harem dress in a brown cloak and covered her hair, and that image—she—was familiar. Not to say that your Disney Prince or Princess must look or act like you, but it was nice and felt good to see these people who sort of looked like me fall in love, especially since the closest thing to me in Disney was actually Shere "Khan" from The Jungle Book, which was only fun to watch because I liked to hear them call the bear "Baloo" and the elephant "General Haati."

It was that familiarity that drew me to Aladdin and, I think, Mulan, a tomboy who feared being a disappointment as a daughter, who valued her family's honor, who was coded a bit foreign. These were the Disney classics that always felt like mine (and, I should note, in a way The Jungle Book didn't).

Then the truth hit when I was older, slowly, after a course in which I studied the origin of Aladdin and the summer after I finally read Ala ad-Din and the Magic Lamp: the "original" Ala ad-Din was kind of a dick. He was lazy and his story was racist and creepy and translated from and to Arabic by men called Orientalists, and Disney's Aladdin, in some ways a welcome departure from its source material, had nothing to do with me. I'm not Disney's target audience. "Raja" and "salaam" and "abu," "Jafaar" (a name I'd come to associate with evil),"Prince Ali" and "by Allah" are flavor text, not so much for authenticity as for a hint of spice.

And, years later, the original flavor of Prince Ali has gone from adoration to something more complicated, something just shy of betrayal. Because in a way I am the American child it was written for, and in a way I'm not. Because I am a crossroads.


It was in the same course as The Arabian Nights that my professor had us finish off the semester with Salman Rushdie, whose given name I still read like the fish instead of al-Farsi. I didn't know much about Rushdie except that he was a subject to be avoided; something about slander, something about a fatwa. Our class, meanwhile, was subtitled "Storytelling in the 'Muslim World,'" and just before we cracked open our final novel, she challenged our notion of the quoted sphere with the question of whether writing in English from an Indian man in the United Kingdom, who had both offended and cast-off mainstream Islam, could count under the banner.

With that in mind, we plunged in.

I had to read Haroun and the Sea of Stories carefully at home. Years later, my cousin would mail the book back to me having borrowed it, and my parents would be upset for the second time at its presence in our house.

The verdict?

I told my professor after our first discussion that I loved the book and that I wished I'd read it as a kid. Here was the land of "Kahani," and it was called that because that's what you call Storybrooke for a kid named Haroun. Here there were "Guppees" who talked too much and "Chupwallas" who never spoke, and the antagonist was "Khatam-Shud," the end. Here the protagonist rode a hoopoe, not a phoenix, and his father was the "Shah of Blah," a title that's magic on its own, being a rhyme of two languages, and I got it. My professor was Egyptian and she assumed Princess "Batcheat" was a pun on "batshit" but I understood her name immediately to come from "batjeet," from "conversation," and God, how I was breathless. Even the things that I didn't know—this time from the other end of the spectrum, such as the mythology of the hoopoe—felt familiar, puzzle pieces I didn't realize were missing and for which I was eager to find a place.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of my favorite books. It sits next to Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Wein, and J. K. Rowling, all of whom have brought changes to my writing and excitement to my writer's heart.

But I can't actually put it on my shelf. And that's not because I have to hide it from my parents—it's because I'm not really sure if I myself am okay with how much I like it. Rushdie is a talented storyteller and we tick off similar boxes and I'm intimidated by his skill and respect his bank of knowledge, but I am a proud Muslim and I'm not okay with some of the things for which he stands.

Does his novel "count" as a story from the "Muslim world"? Is Haroun and the Sea of Stories written for someone like me? It's intimately entwined with the corresponding mythology from a man who lived and clearly studied it. It's not a translation or an adaptation of anything; it sits at a crossroads and makes the most of it.

All I can say is I want more. I want more of this, of writers who don't translate or adapt but intertwine. No footnotes, no glossary, this is what it is and spices are added not for additional flavor but because they're intrinsic to the recipe. One of my protagonists divides her day into seven pieces: fajr time, morning, dhur time, 'asr time, maghrib time, isha'a time, dear-god-I-should-be-asleep-my-parents-will-kill-me. It's a personal and synaptic rule of which she's scarcely aware; it always has been and will be, whether she is going through the mundane routines of adulthood or tempering a crisis of faith or saving the world with a talking bird on her shoulder and sword in hand. She won't be explaining it to anyone, but if her readers find it familiar, or eventually internalize and understand, that is success.

A crossroads is, after all, a meeting of roads, not their terminus. A hub for rich activity; teeming with knowledge and creativity, exchanged and the best exalted.

There are a lot of roads in North America. I'll be in my car.