More than 25 years after he first introduced us to a whole new world, Disney’s beloved Aladdin returns to screens this month, this time as a live-action feature. While one can debate the merits and challenges of remaking a classic, one thing is for certain: audiences everywhere will be flocking to theatres to fall in love with Aladdin, Jasmine, and Arabian Nights all over again.
Why is Aladdin such a beloved story? Because it’s the ultimate tale of a diamond in the rough. The story of an unassuming street urchin whom everyone wrote off, forgot about, and even banished, yet even during the darkest days, kept true to their heart and followed their guiding light. Yes, Aladdin reminds us all that there is often so much more than what lies beneath the surface, and that it’s our duty to find these rough diamonds, polish them, and let them shine.
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting my own “diamond in the rough”. A man whose story moved me so immensely, I still think of him to this day. In fact, I am thinking of him right now as I stare down at the beautiful, hand-woven Persian rug in my office. Because this real-life Aladdin makes his own magic carpets, and he was generous enough to share this one with me…
It was April of 2018, and I had been asked to speak at TEDxAUK at the American University of Kuwait. Presenting fairly early in the program, I was fortunate enough to settle back into the auditorium to enjoy the second half of the event. After many wonderful speakers, we were eventually down to our last presenter: Mushtaq Hussain, a Middle Eastern man who came out on stage accompanied with a small weaving loom and full-size Persian rug.
As he began his speech, it was immediately clear that Mushtaq was not a polished speaker. In fact, he was far from polished. I actually got nervous for him. TED events are challenging for even the most skilled speakers; would he have what it takes to keep an audience engaged for a full 17 minutes?
Well, a few short minutes later, and the audience was absolutely captivated. Not with Mushtaq’s speaking skills, but with his incredible story. You see, Mushtaq was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. At the young age of two, Kabul was overtaken by the Soviet Army, and Mushtaq’s family was forced to flee to Northeastern Iran, where they lived as refugees for 9 years.
During this time in Iranian refugee camps, Mushtaq befriended the local tribe of carpet weavers. Every day after school, he and his friends would visit the elder weavers, and learn about the art, the history, and the tradition of handwoven carpets. Before long, Mushtaq was taking turns on the looms, learning the intricate rhythm of steps that goes into each stitch on a handwoven rug.
This immersive educational experience continued until 1989, when Mushtaq’s father decided it was time for the family to move in search of better opportunities. This time, they travelled to Kuwait. However, a mere two months into living their new home, there was yet another invasion, and Mushtaq’s family once again had everything they own stripped away from them. To survive, Mushtaq’s father got a job selling Persian rugs, and Mushtaq found himself lending a hand on nights and weekends.
This apprenticeship continued until 1997, when Mushtaq graduated high school, and was accepted into a prestigious University program in Sydney. His family was thrilled. Here was his chance to escape the wars and refugee camps, and experience a better life. But there was just one problem: Mushtaq had developed a love of carpets in his heart. And he wasn’t prepared to let this love go…
At an incredibly difficult crossroads, Mushtaq made a decision that would alter the course of his life forever. He decided to remain in the Middle East, and use his love and knowledge of carpets to help local Afghani artists overcome cultural and economic restrictions, and find an outlet for their beautiful art.
At this point in his presentation, the audience was hanging off every word. Here was a man who escaped invasion not once but twice. He had watched countless friends, neighbors, and family members lose everything – including their lives. And yet, even with all of that, he decided that the way he was best suited to serve the world was to forgo an incredible education and opt instead to return to his war-torn homeland and help a community of forgotten artists.
I was so moved by this story that the following day I traveled to the local Kuwait souk to visit Mushtaq and his brother Ali’s carpet shop. Stepping inside, I was immediately met with a menagerie of 2,000+ carpets – all neatly folded by size. While the selection of beautiful pieces was impressive, even more impressive was Mushtaq’s knowledge of each one. The origin, the artist’s background, the motivation and inspiration behind that individual rug – Mushtaq knew it all. He would walk me through the painstaking process of how that carpet was made, stich by stich, over the course of many months (or even years).
As Mushtaq continue to share the stories of the artists that were clearly close his heart, it dawned on me why he was able to make that difficult decision in his youth to give up a higher educational opportunity in Australia to return home to Afghanistan. It was the stories. Yes, these carpets were all objectively beautiful pieces of art, but to Mushtaq, they represented a greater story. Family. Struggle. Perseverance. All woven into a decorative tale to be enjoyed by people around the globe.
As we walked the shop some more, a particular piece eventually caught my eye. I asked how much it cost, and Mushtaq told me it was mine to take – free of charge. He even offered to give it a special cleaning before I took it home.
I was floored. Here is man I had known for barely 24 hours, welcoming me into his shop, and offering a beautiful, handwoven Persian carpet – one that retails for many thousands of dollars – for free. Why would he do this? Why would he give up an all but guaranteed sale, and let me walk away with this carpet without a single dollar paid?
Simple. Mushtaq cares most about telling the stories behind the carpet. It’s not about the money or the growth of his business – it’s about giving a voice to some of the world’s most vulnerable, forgotten artists. By sharing his story with me on the TEDx stage, and sharing the stories of the artists he serves in his shop, Mushtaq was clearly fulfilling his lifelong passion.
I eventually returned home, and now have this lovely Persian rug sitting in my office. As I stare at it today, it’s a reminder of that incredible 24 hours in Kuwait. A period that started with me terribly worried about an inexperienced speaker failing to deliver, and ended with me leaving with a lifelong appreciation for this man, his mission, and his art.
As we all flock to theaters this month to once again enjoy the story of a diamond in the rough, a lamp, a magic carpet, and an energetic genie, let’s remember to look around our own lives and seek out real-life Aladdin’s. Because quite often, they’re right there hiding just beneath the surface. Though a little rough around the edges, they may have the most incredible stories, ideas, purpose and passion. All we need to do is lift them up and let them shine.
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Want to see Mustaq’s full TEDx speech for yourself? Check it out here: