In a previous post I briefly (ha) discussed Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Fire Temple music and the so-called controversy surrounding its original music, which resembles Muslim prayer. I wanted to return to the subject, sort of, but this time to talk about the issue of race in the game. Part of the reason for coming back to it now is because I read a thoroughly stupid and ridiculous article posted at Salon.com about a month ago on this topic. I refuse to link to it here as a matter of principle because it is unadulterated click-baiting dirge. Seek it out if you dare – the article is titled ‘”The Legend of Zelda” is Classist, Sexist and Racist’. I warn you now that as well as “uncovering” the “hidden” classism, sexism and racism it also “reveals” the “truth” about Ocarina of Time’s “anti-animal” agenda. Pure bollocks. You have been warned. Still, it’s made me want to come back to the matter of race in Ocarina of Time, only partly because the Salon article handles the issue about as deftly as a small parakeet might handle the job of a school bus driver, which is to say not altogether well.
Let me just say quickly as a disclaimer that all of these points that follow are all based on subtext. Certainly they don’t in any sense (for me at least) ruin or spoil the game. And I refuse to do what the Salon article does, which is throw out these controversial words – racist, sexist, classist – seemingly at random. It’s not helpful as far as discussion goes, since it unfairly implies that if you enjoy Ocarina of Time it makes you, the player racist, sexist and so on, which is just stupid. Also, as much as I am being critical of Ocarina of Time here, clearly I recognise that there is a need for the story to have a good guy and a bad guy. Ultimately my feeling is that the makers probably drew on stereotypes that are in some sense unavoidable when trying to create this kind of story, a quest narrative of good versus evil. I’m just interested in the ways certain tropes of evil tend to be circulated and reused over others, and in this case I’m talking about how evil is associated with race.
During my most recent playthrough of Ocarina of Time I registered much more clearly the racialised features of the game’s own fantasy “races”. Many of these stereotypical features are on the surface, and are easily identifiable, even to myself as a child playing the game for the first time. The connections between Gorons and Africa are clear for example: besides the obvious dark skin, the Goron chief, Darunia – unique as a tribal chief among the kings of Hyrule – is fixated on music and dancing, with emphasis on the drum beat, and he also initiates Link by becoming his “brother”. The Gorons are really interesting to think about, but for length reasons here I’m going to discuss just the Gerudos.
Another reason for leaving the Gorons out of the discussion is that the Gerudos are the most villainous race in the game. Evil as many of them are, there are good Gerudos like Nabooru, who turns out to be the Spirit Sage. In Ocarina of Time, where Link’s task is to assist and ultimately unite all of Hyrule’s many races and clans, how and why are the Gerudos singled out as the most resistant and therefore most complex group of all?
In order to unpick the stereotypes around Arabs present in Ocarina of Time we need to take a look back at some of the sources for the stereotypes. I do not know and won’t speculate about Japan’s history in all of this, but it certainly seems like the representation of Arabs in Ocarina of Time has come from images of Arabs that have been filtered through a European lens, so to speak. Although there were many tropes about Arabs and Islam circulated in Europe prior to the 1700s, the Arab world became extremely fashionable with the publication in France and England of 1001 Nights, or as it’s more commonly known, The Arabian Nights.
(Incidentally, the common title is mostly misleading, given that the stories come from a mixture of Arab and non-Arab sources – portions of the text are believed to be from Persia originally for instance. Furthermore, the most famous stories such as the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba were commissioned by the original French translator Galland. It’s rumoured that these stories were produced by a Syrian storyteller but no one knows with any certainty – Galland may have written them himself.)
Regardless of the sources, The Arabian Nights became a huge publishing phenomenon in Europe. The fantastical stories of genies and magic carpets, cheating wives and bloodthirsty tyrants in the Middle East had an immediate impact on the European imagination – despite the fact that in the Middle East the same text seems to have been relatively obscure. As enjoyable as the text is, there has always been something dodgy about its reception in Europe. Specifically, the book was always read as if it were somehow realistic, or a guidebook to the Middle East. So Sir Richard Burton, one of the early translators wrote in his preface of The Arabian Nights’ great ‘anthropological and ethnographical interest and importance’.
Another telling example is Lady Mary Montagu, an Englishwoman who traveled to Turkey with her diplomat husband. In her famous collection of letters, published in 1762, she wrote in a letter to her sister:
This is but too like (says you) the Arabian tales; these embroidered Napkins, and a jewel as large as a Turkey’s egg! – You forget, dear Sister, those very tales were writ by an Author of this Country and (excepting the Enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here.
The “Country” she refers to here is not in fact Turkey, which as far as I know has nothing to do with The Arabian Nights. Instead Lady Montagu means the East, or perhaps more specifically the Near East. The riches of the East, the harems, the Muslim veils, the random violence, the cruel tyrants (and their many wives), the strict laws and cruel punishments, the religion, all of these are described and thoroughly romanticised by Lady Montagu in her letters. The only thing Lady Montagu leaves out is the desert, for obvious reasons perhaps given she was in Turkey. As her letters show, she sees the fiction of The Arabian Nights and the reality of Turkey, or in her eyes the Near East, as essentially identical. As such, the people she meets in Turkey do not seem real to her. Everything they do or say, everything she sees, is strange, petty, and removed from her, even while at the same time she finds it all completely fascinating. There are a whole batch of stereotypes from around this period that make up what I’ve been calling the European lens of the Middle East. The stereotypes that help make up that lens are not just innocent or meaningless, but they have informed European views on the real Middle East since the time they were first circulated, and many of them are still present in our culture and society.
Now let’s skip forward a few centuries to a modern film which taps into all of the same cliches around the Middle East, just to prove the point. This is Disney’s Aladdin, of course. I don’t want to bore anyone with a lengthy analysis, there are just a few points to make here, all of which relate to Zelda. There are plenty more detailed attempts out there on Aladdin – Google is your friend.
Here we go: Aladdin dips into the same well of cliches as Ocarina of Time, although if Ocarina of Time is dipping its toes in, Aladdin stripped off its clothes and dive-bombed in before delivering a floater. Aladdin is also doubly contentious given its an American film released in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1992. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but they really took the biscuit in a way that later Disney films didn’t – Mulan and Pocahontas are much more sympathetic to the cultures represented. For starts, in Aladdin, the heroine Princess Jasmine dresses like a belly dancer, and not like something more suitable, such as, oh I don’t know, how about a princess. And I thought this was supposed to be a kids film??
The villain, Jafar, is darker skinned than the pale good guys, and he has a large, hooked nose. He speaks without an American accent, also unlike the heroes of the tale. The Middle Eastern society in the film is shown to be broken, filled with arbitrary and cruel laws that make Aladdin a poor beggar, barely able to survive. Finally, at one point when Aladdin encounters a demonic monster trying to kill him, the monster recites lines from the English translation of the Qur’an. Kids film, anyone? I could go on but that’s enough, you get the picture and a right shady one at that.
Aladdin’s all well and good but what does this have to do with Ocarina of Time then? There are a number of comparisons. First let’s properly introduce the Gerudos. Gerudos appear in both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Of course, Ganondorf, the big baddie from Ocarina of Time is a Gerudo. He is in fact the only Gerudo male – all the rest are female due to…well I don’t know. Genetics perhaps. They’re described as thieves in Ocarina of Time, and in Majora’s Mask they become sea-faring pirates. The women wear face veils, and like Princess Jasmine in Aladdin they dress like belly dancers. Again, why are they sexualised in this way? (Don’t mention the Great Fairies!!!) All Gerudos, men and women, have large noses and dark skin, although not as dark as the Gorons. They live in the desert.
In case it wasn’t obvious enough from this scant info that the Gerudos represent Arabs, this juicy tidbit from one of the Gossip Stones in the game should dismiss any lingering uncertainty (it certainly did for me):
They say that the horse Ganondorf rides is a solid black Gerudo stallion.
Given the reputation Arabian horses have for being the strongest and fastest horses in the world, it doesn’t take a genius to make the connection with Ganondorf’s “Gerudo stallion”.
More on Ganondorf, from a speech by Nabooru, the Spirit Sage:
A kid like you may not know this, but the Gerudo race consists only of women. Only one man is born every hundred years… Even though our laws say that lone male Gerudo must become King of the Gerudo, I’ll never bow to such an evil man!
Firstly, Nabooru implies that Ganondorf is abusing his position as the ruler of the Gerudos, leading his people morally astray. The rules are seemingly sexist and arbitrary, since the man is king automatically, regardless of his personality or temperament (by contrast, the game doesn’t question how or why the kings and chiefs of Hyrule are rulers). Second, although Ocarina of Time is pretty clean in the way of sexual matters, the idea of the lone male Gerudo ruling over a group of women conjures up the imagery of the Arabian Nights: a decadent polygamous marriage, a Middle Eastern sultan and many scantily-clad wives doing his bidding in his protective fortress, the harem. Outsiders can only watch in voyeuristic fashion and imagine what goes on inside the harem. A mandatory section in Majora’s Mask nods to this idea, when Link is asked to take a photo of a Gerudo woman for a pervy shopkeeper in exchange for an item.
The Gerudo society is profoundly immoral. The Gerudos respect traits of power and strength, with little or no regard for morality. As one Gerudo woman tells Link:
I’ve seen your fine work. To get past the guards here, you must have good thieving skills. I used to think that all men, besides the great Ganondorf, were useless…but now that I’ve seen you, I don’t think so anymore!
By displaying his own strength Link is able to impress the Gerudo women, to the point where Nabooru lends Link her own power. But even Nabooru, the “good” Arab, is still no better than a thief.
First of all, let me introduce myself. I’m Nabooru of the Gerudo. I’m a lone wolf thief. But don’t get me wrong! Though we’re both thieves, I’m completely different from Ganondorf.
Tied up in all of this is the menacing spectre of Islam, which lurks in the background. The flag of the Gerudos, which shows a moon crescent and a star is a direct reference to one of the most common symbols of Islam. Islam in the European imagination has always called to mind fears of a possible invasion of Europe, and its subjugation to Muslim rule. Hence in a slightly eerie fashion the Gossip Stones warn of the danger posed by Ganondorf.
They say that Ganondorf is not satisfied with ruling only the Gerudo and aims to conquer all of Hyrule!
There is also the danger of Ganondorf’s followers for their zealous devotion.
They say that Gerudos worship Ganondorf almost like a god.
Here the reference to worship calls to mind Muslims, who presumably are also obsessed with power and are zealously plotting to conquer the world. Another odd stereotype that has been around for donkeys years that appears here is the damning depiction of Islam as a uniquely Arab/Middle Eastern religion. Aside from conveniently ignoring that Islam is practiced far beyond the Middle East, this stereotype perpetuated by European Christians also seemingly forgets the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity and Judaism.
Finally, I think it is also interesting that as the only Gerudo who opposes Ganondorf and sides with Link, Nabooru is one of the few Gerudos who do not wear a face veil. The real life equivalents such as the hijab and the niqab, are frequently seen by European eyes as a Muslim woman’s unpleasant, slave-like devotion to God – either that or they’re forced by their bearded husbands. Nuns on the other hand don’t seem to have the same image problem despite similar coverings. Here in the UK it is sometimes seen as a sign that Muslims don’t want to “mix” or “integrate”.
So what about Link in all this? Link is the saviour right, a force for good? You might say that. He’s also the white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed world police, trying to save the brown women from the brown man. With all of the other races Link assists, he acts to reinforce that monarch or chief’s power. Link does not threaten the political powers of the Zoras, or the Gorons, or the Hylians, instead he serves them and reinforces the authority of the kings and chiefs by working for them and acting on their behalf. However in the case of the Gerudos as we have seen it is necessary for Link to intervene and destroy their political systems and traditions, which are seen as uniquely different and dangerous. There is something a bit hypocritical about the celebration of Link though to my mind. Nabooru, the Spirit Sage criticises Ganondorf, claiming ‘he stole from women and children, and he even killed people’. Surely Link would never do those things? I mean, he walks into people’s houses without asking and breaks their pots and steals their hard-earned rupees all the time. And he did stab Ganondorf’s mutated body in the head at the end of the game. But it’s OK isn’t it? I mean come on, Ganondorf was a baddie after all.