Last Monday while I was walking, I saw the big billboard in the middle of campus, and it caught my attention. It was advertising an event for Cedo Nulli called ‘Arabian Nights Party’ and showing a short video from the 2019 live-action remake of Aladdin. I had mixed feelings and my first reaction was: “This is funny.” But at the same time, it felt cringe, so I had to take a photo and share it with my friends. To be honest, I thought of contacting Cedo Nulli, but I decided not to as I am giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Cedo Nulli celebrates its 44th birthday during the Dies week from 22 to 25 May. One of the activities of the last day is throwing a big party at club Vibes and the theme of the party will be Arabian Nights. Dear reader, you could be saying: “C’mon, this is just a fun party!” But is it just that? As an Egyptian and Arab, it would make sense to me if this is a theme of a Halloween party. I do not personally find it offensive if someone wants to dress as an Aladdin character or as an ancient Egyptian.
My issue is that many Westerners confine the Arab culture and reduce it to this orientalist fantasy and ‘exotic’ vibe. In most of the big American films from the 1980s till arguably recently, whenever film makers showed an Arab country (post 1960), they would show you camels and desert as if at this time Arab countries did not have buildings, squares, transportation, restaurants, universities, etcetera. It is funny because some Arabs love to participate in costume parties, however, you will not see someone dressed like a knight or a lady from the Middle Ages.
It is baffling that in 2023 and in the age of social media, you still meet people who have this orientalist image. From my own experience, I have met many Dutch or European students who more or less know about some Arab countries due to traveling, watching videos or reading on the internet. On the other hand, I have also met people who think in extremities; it is either Dubai, a luxurious city, or they do not know anything. Although there are a lot of similarities, there is cultural variation within the Arab countries. There are 22 countries located across North and East Africa and West Asia so you can imagine the differences in culture and dialects.
I would assume that Cedo Nulli, as the study association of the faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, would be more aware of the representation of other cultures. I am not against partying and having fun, but if you want to have an Arabian theme it could have been approached differently. After doing some research, I found this entity TheShadow that organises events in Amsterdam and surroundings. They host Arabian Flavour Night every month and they have artists from all over the world. Their events include live music, dance performances, workshops, storytelling and food and drinks. They arguably share Arab culture in a substantive way.
One of the Erasmian values is being a world citizen and our student associations have this opportunity to actually apply that. EUR prides itself on having an international environment and being diverse. You can start by including students from other nationalities and cultures while organising events that target all students. As a non-Dutch student, I would prefer a Dutch-oriented event over an event that only considers other cultures for a party theme.
Mads Abcouwer, president of Cedo Nulli, responds to the opinion article:
“First of all, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to any student who has felt offended in any way by the name or theme of the party we are organising on Thursday. I understand the point that has been raised and as an association with people from all different backgrounds, we value everyone’s input on our work.
“The idea behind our party is in no way shape or form to portray Arabian culture (as described by the student) in “an orientalist fantasy” way. The theme refers to the song from the Aladdin movie called ‘Arabian Nights’ which is why our promotion also motivates students to dress like Aladdin or Jasmine.
“Although I fear that it is too late now to change anything as all our promotion has already been publicised, we will most definitely see this as a worthy lesson for the future. For now, the party and its theme are based around pure fun. We don’t only do themed outfits for Halloween parties, but we also like to offer the students who organise these parties the opportunity to let their creative minds run free so our parties never get stale.
“We already internally paid attention to the fact that this could be seen as cultural appropriation or used for it. Which is why we will be extra attentive to people’s behaviour and outfits at the party and anything that crosses the line will be met with fair consequences. The points that are brought up in the article will be taken with us for the future and will be important points to pass along to our successors, but also to be kept in our personal minds as the problem described is a problem that stretches way further than the theme party we organise on Thursday.”
Update Thursday afternoon: The Cedo Nulli board has decided to cancel the Arabian Nights theme. In an email to participants, the board called the theme not appropriate and apologised. The party will go ahead, but without the theme.