The Marvelous and Complicated Journey of Aladdin from Arabic Coffeehouses to NFTs
Excavating the Shadowy History of Aladdin Across the Centuries: Countries, Languages, Media & Technologies
“Well Ali Baba had them forty thieves,
Scheherazade had a thousand tales,
But master you’re in luck because up your sleeves
You got a brand of magic never fails…
I’m in the mood to help you dude
You ain’t never had a friend like me”
-Friend Like Me (Aladdin, 2019, lyrics by Alan Menken / Howard Ashman)
Just recently, in the midst of the recent hype around the metaverse (see my views here on why Facebook … err … I mean Meta … won’t end up controlling the metaverse) and NFTs, I found myself compelled to buy an Aladdin NFT (non-fungible token) which led me to think about how stories and ancient tales are always updated based upon the time and the technology of the present — whether it’s the printing press, film, interactive computer games, eBooks and audiobooks, and yes, now even blockchain tokens.
OK, what I bought wasn’t technically called an Aladdin NFT; rather, it was an NFT offered from Egyptian-born Mena Massoud, the actor best known as Aladdin in Disney’s most recent (2019) live action retelling of the classic tale. Massoud’s role was predictably overshadowed in the marketing of the film by Will Smith’s very colorful rendition of the Jinni from the classic tale. In case you haven’t seen , you can see a still from the NFT’s short video clip below, which shows someone who looks a lot like Aladdin and a magic lamp and signs for Theta, the token whose platform the NFT was offered on (note: I own stock in Theta Labs, the company that created this particular blockchain).
You might wonder about this embrace of a new medium like blockchain is an odd twist for the ancient tale of an ancient tale. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp one of the most famous tales from the Arabian Nights (the best known title in English), or as it’s known throughout the Muslim World, Alif Laila (The Thousand and One Nights). But this ability to morph and adopt to the latest technology is neither new or unexpected.
It turns out that this is just the latest phase in a long journey from oral storytelling traditions in the heart of the Arabic world, to Europe and then through multiple languages and editions, movies and books, before it ended up as the modern Aladdin tale that we now know and love in the West.
In this sense, the tale itself might be thought of as what academics call a boundary object, something that is able to travel and morph across different domains serving different roles for different audiences. In fact, the tale of Aladdin is emblematic of the journey of entire The Thousand and One Nights, a world-spanning journey that would be worthy of one of the other well-known protagonists in the famous book, and with whom Aladdin shares a shadowy history, Sindbad the Sailor (whose tales deserve a history lesson of their own).
Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Pizza Effect
For most of us in the West (and, in the east, judging by the name of China’s biggest eCommerce company) the two most famous and recognizable protagonists in the Arabian Nights are Aladdin and Ali Baba, who tussled with the forty thieves in his story (followed most likely by the just-mentioned Sindbad). Surprisingly, neither of these two heroes were part of the original Arabic version of Alif Laila (nor were Sindbad, though his tales were independently known about and translated even by then).
While many folktales are well-known, the tales of these two are so well-known that for most of us it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we first heard them. Unlike, say Rudolph the Reindeer, which I can tell you I first heard about when the Christmas TV special came on in the 1970s, I have no memory of when I first heard about Aladdin and the magical Jinni (often anglicized as Genie in the west) who gave him three wishes. It was definitely well before Disney’s first animated Aladdin movie in 1992 (where Robin Williams played the Genie). In fact, it may have even been before I moved to the USA at the age of four!
I asked my father recently about when he’d first read or heard the tales, and he distinctly remembered reading Urdu versions of Alif Laila when he was growing up in Pakistan in the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, his pronunciation of Aladdin (which was closer to the Arabic pronunciation Ala’a-ud-Deen) certainly led me to believe that the tale had travelled from Arabic lands directly to the Indian subcontinent. Yet scholars (in the West at least) tell us that these two tales, which are part of what they call the Orphan tales, were invented and/or first written down in Europe by aFrench translator, albeit via a Syrian traveler, and only then made their way to the rest of the world’s languages.
But if Aladdin and Ali Baba weren’t part of the original Alif Laila, how would they have ended up in the Alif Laila in Urdu that my father read when he was a kid?
This would then have to be, if Western scholars are to be believed an example of the Pizza Effect. This would be a case where something comes to the west in one form, gets popularized and then makes its way back to the originating homeland and gets popular there, albeit in a form that may not be recognizable given all the changes. This happened with Pizza — if you go to Italy today you can get Pizza that looks a lot like our pizza, but this has very little to do with the origins of pizza in certain parts of Italy.
So what is the exact history of the Aladdin tale that we know and love in the West (and in the East)? Moreover, if you read the original western translations of Aladdin, the tale has many major differences from the modern retelling.
Some examples: the Jinni of the Lamp didn’t offer Aladdin three wishes, Aladdin wasn’t an orphan, there was no flying carpet, the tale took place in China, and there were actually two Jinn in the original tale! You can read a summary here of the original tale, retold in modern language.
So if Aladdin didn’t come from the Arabic Alif Layla, where exactly did it come from? In short, in this article I want to provide a high level history of how we arrived at the Aladdin that we know and love — as exemplified in the recent Disney movies. A related question, though which is hard for me to answer at this stage, is how did that (more modern version) of the tale, complete with three wishes, make it into Urdu for my father to have read it while he was a boy?
The Marvellous Thieves of Europe
I recently picked up the book, Marvellous Thieves: the Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, by Paulo Horta, who is a scholar that has traced the history of how at least some parts of this famous story came to the West. Although the book is written in academic language (it was published by Harvard University Press, a style of writing that I’m starting to get more comfortable with), and most likely goes into way too many details for the casual reader, the underlying story Horta presents is intricate and intriguing.
The fascinating history of these western translators of the Arabian Nights is a tale of colonialism and cultural appropriation, of uncredited translators, and a public that couldn’t get enough of medieval tales of the “Arabia” of long-long ago (which had, of course, even by that time, mostly disappeared into mythology) — of Jinn and Princesses, Sultans and Magic Lamps.
While Marvellous Thieves filled in some of the details of how Aladdin came to the West, I had to look around for other sources to truly understand all of the influences that resulted in our modern version of Aladdin with a Jinni in a lamp that gives three wishes and exhorts, like both Will Smith and Robin Williams did: “You ain’t never had a friend like me”.
According to Horta and other scholars, the first translation in the West was Les mille et une nuits, translated into French by Anthony Galland, one of the marvellous thieves profiled in the book. Galland translated a Syrian Arabic manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights (often called the Syrian Manuscript or the the Galland Manuscript) starting in 1704.
The three volumes of this manuscript only had 282 nights out of the full 1001 that the title implied. After Galland published the first volumes of Les mille et une nuits, by 1709 to great success, his publisher wanted to meet the insatiable demand for more tales and asked him to fill in as many extra tales as possible. Galland turned to a Syrian traveler, Hana Dayib, who “told him some tales”. These were the Orphan Tales, because they were never part of the original Arabic manuscripts. It was thought that Galland (from his own diaries) simply took Dayib’s outlines, translated them into French and invented most of the rich details that were part of the first written version of Aladdin in 1709. Dayib’s own role was reduced in the telling, and we didn’t know much about him, except that he went back to Syria after not finding fame and fortune in the West.
While it might seem like blasphemy to think of just “adding tales” to such a famous collection as Alif Laila, this was, and continues to be in a way, part of the peculiar history of the Arabian Nights. Of particular note is that Marvelous Thieves tells us that even the origin and definition of Alif Laila is not so straightforward and not all scholars agree exactly where the tales came from. Not only is the famous collection of tales author-less, there is no full agreement on which stories are genuine parts of the 1001 nights and which were added later. In fact, the translations in the West have come from several major manuscripts — including the Syrian manuscript, the Calcutta Manuscript, the Cairo Manuscript, etc. — and they all seem to have a different sets of tales! It seems the tales had some murky origin in Persia, came to the Arabic world and were told, modified, re-told all over the Islamic world (as many have pointed out, even names like Scheherazade, the bride who tells the tales to the Sultan Shahryar, and Sindbad, all seem more Persian than Arabic).
We now have a diagram like that shown in Figure 2. However, we aren’t really much closer in figuring out where Dayib got the tale from, and how it morphed into the current version of the Tale.
Hana Dayib and the history of Aleppo Coffeehouses
But if Galland invented most of the details of the story of Aladdin for his 1709 French edition based on details he got from Hana Dayib, then where did Dayib get the stories?
The questions around Dayib were mostly unanswered in the past few hundred year modern history of the Arabian Nights, but recently a manuscript of Dayib’s autobiography was discovered in the Vatican, and the first part of Marvellous Thieves tells us details about Dayib’s life from the Syrian city of Aleppo to France, accompanying another European Orientalist, Paul Lucas. It was in Lucas’ apartment in Paris, which was like a little museum of physical coins and artifacts that he had collected on behalf of the French crown, that Galland met Dayib.
While previously it was thought that Dayib only gave Galland short outlines, Horta’s conclusion in Marvellous Thieves is that, after reading Dayib’s autobiography of his life and travels, Dayib himself was a master storyteller and he must have given these tales wholesale to Galland, who only did smaller modifications while writing them. Since Dayib told the tales to Galland in French, there wasn’t much translation done by Galland himself.
Dayib grew up in Aleppo, which has a rich storytelling tradition that rivals those of anywhere in the Arabic world. The Alif Laila were for hundreds of years oral tales that were told by professional and amateur storytellers, no doubt changed, embellished with local elements and ad-libbed as necessary to make the stories exciting. In Aleppo, Horta tells us, the coffeeshops were the place to be for nightly entertainment that included the oral tales of stories about Jinn, sailors, princes and treasure — the very elements that Dayib combined into tales.
Moreover, Dayib travelled across the middle east with Lucas, a man with whom he had a complicated relationship, since Lucas was going to get him a position as a translator of Arabic at the French Royal Library. Lucas didn’t get him the position, and Dayib apparently returned to Aleppo and became a prosperous merchant and lived a full life.
So, while Horta wasn’t able to uncover the origin of Aladdin exactly, he does give us two specific examples of things that were in the original French Aladdin tales which may have been based on Dayib’s own life:
· The Cave of Wonders. Dayib travelled with Lucas, who was intent on finding buried treasures for the French king. In one incident in Egypt, Lucas was told about a cave and hired a local boy to submerge into this cave and find the treasures. When the boy only returned with two items, a ring and an old lamp, Lucas was disappointed. Dayib was there and it is no surprise that in the original Aladdin story, the Wizier (later transformed into Jafar — more on this later) gets the young body Aladdin to go into a cave and he ends up with a magic ring and a lamp (and some additional treasure).
· The Palace of Versailles. Dayib was invited to the palace at Versailles and he writes about it eloquently, describing the wonder of the palace and the gold and the jewels. The original Aladdin story also contains a new, magically created palace full of innumerable gold and jewels and splendor, which seems to match.
That Lucas influenced Dayib is apparent in the stories that he tells in his autobiography. Moreover, according to Marvellous Thieves, Lucas loved to hear tales of Jinn and magic and this probably encouraged Dayib to make up tales and add what in Arabic is known as ‘ajib (wonder-evoking or marvelous) and gharib (alien or strange).
In my own opinion, it’s very possible that Dayib took existing stories that he had heard from the Aleppo Coffeehouses of Aladdin and Ali Baba (there were numerous caves around Aleppo where thieves were said to live), and added elements of his own life into the tale that he spun for Galland in French, who embellished/changed them slightly for his French audience.
The Sun Never Sets on The English Versions
While we have filled in some of the pieces, there are still lots of missing pieces as the diagram shows.
For one thing, Disney’s movie adaptations, the 1992 animated feature as well as the live action of feature of 2019, are in English. And we still don’t have an answer for how my father read it in Urdu? Most likely, given the colonial history of India (which Pakistan was a part of) and Great Britain, it’s very possible that an English translation made it across the Empire to colonial India, and was then translated into English.
The first English edition, renamed to the Arabian Nights, was published in 1706 and is called the Grub Street edition — it was translated from Galland’s French to capitalize on the immense popularity of the tale. The Grub Street edition apparently sold well enough that some English scholars and Orientalists decided to translate from the original Arabic, if a suitable manuscript could be found.
There was a an Arabic manuscript of Alif Laila(called the Calcutta II Manuscript) that surfaced in India that contained all of the thousand and one nights of stories. The first few volumes were published by the British Colonial Regime in Arabic in 1814, which might be the first published version on the Indian subcontinent. Given the closeness of Urdu and Farsi and Arabic, this may be the first versions that was translated into Urdu at some point as well. Colonial officer Henry Torrens attempted to translate the Arabic faithfully to English, but he gave it up when he heard the famous orientalist Nathan Lane was translating a similar manuscript in Cairo.
Importantly, though, neither of the Arabic sources of these two English translations (the Calcutta effort of Torrens or the Cairo work of Lane) had Aladdin in there. So it’s possible that the Grub Street edition, which was translated from Galland’s French edition was the first case of Aladdin in English.
Perhaps the best known translation from the nineteenth century was by Sir Richard Francis Burton, who published a ten volume set that was supposedly translated directly from one of the Arabic manuscripts, complete with the sexual content, which was often edited in European versions. Since this content wasn’t theoretically allowed to be published in Victorian times, Burton said that it was a “private printing” he had done, though his version was widely ready. Marvellous Thieves casts doubt on whether Burton (or in fact the other English translators) did much of the translations from Arabic themselves — rather they relied on Arabic sheiks, Indian munshis, and other previous translations to get the work done quickly.
Most importantly, Burton included the tales of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which he got from Galland’s French. Until recently, Burton’s translation was considered the most complete translation into English, so it’s very possible that his “authoritative edition” (whether he did the translation or not) is the source of most English versions of the tale and morphed over time into the modern tale of Aladdin we know today.
While we won’t track down the exact later Arabic printings that had Aladdin included, it’s clear they are probably either translating the French or the English versions of the orphan tales. So we can conclude that either the English or the Arabic versions of Aladdin could have been the source material for the Urdu versions.
As I mentioned earlier, Ali Baba is known all the way as far as China, which might have had a similar travel route, though it seems more likely it was the English version that travelled there.
If this diagram looks like it’s getting horribly complicated, you are right. Although I left out some of the details of the translations, it still it gives us a pretty good overall picture of the marvelous journey of Aladdin.
Filling in Details: Wishes, Flying Carpets, Princes and Princesses
You’ll notice there is still the original set of question marks about how the tale morphed into the elements we all know from the films. So where did all the changes come about?
Most of these elements were either already an integral part of the tale (or were invented) for the Disney 1992 animated version of Aladdin, which was written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. They have talked publicly about some of these changes and others I’m inferring from the history of the Aladdin tale and the quirks of making a movie directed at kids:
- The Three Wishes of the Jinni. Jinn are not new in Islamic storytelling. In fact, all the authentic manuscripts of Alif Laila had stories like The Fisherman and the Jinni, which might have been one of the first tales of a Jinn to be published in the west. In that story, the Jinni, who had been imprisoned by Solomon for four hundreds years, originally decided to give whoever freed him great riches, but no one freed him and 100 years had passed. Then for the next 100 years, he had vowed to give whoever freed him “the hoards of the earth”, then for the next 100 years, the Jinni would give him three wishes. Finally, the Jinni decided it would let whosoever freed him chose the method of their death.
- In the original Aladdin, the Jinni of the lamp (a type of jinn known as a Jann, known as the Slave of the Lamp, and the Jinni of the magic ring,a Marid similar to an an Ifrit, known as either the Familiar or the Slave of the Ring) simply proclaimed (at least in Burton’s translation which came from Galland) “to hear is to obey” and they would grant whatever wish the bearer had. There was no mention of the three wishes. The first example of three wishes (in the West anyways) was in another French fairy tale, The 3 Ridiculous Wishes by Charles Perrault in 1698, several years before Galland’s version. Perhaps some combination of these two tales (The 3 Ridiculous Wishes, the Fisherman and the Jinni) got conflated in later retellings of the tale of Aladdin, and now we all think of the Jinni as giving out 3 (and only 3) wishes to whoever rubs the wonderful lamp.
- Princess Jasmine. The original Aladdin tale did have a princess who was the daughter of the Sultan. Her name was the Lady Badr al-Budur, and she was originally engaged to the son of the Wizier before Aladdin uses his magic to disrupt their marriage by sweeping them up on their wedding night before they could consummate the marriage, resulting in her availability to marry Aladdin. Understandably, in the Disney versions, the salacious details of her original wedding night were excised for the kids version, and her name was changed to a name that could work in the west or the East.
- The orphan Aladdin. In the original story, Aladdin was not an orphan, though he was a lazy street urchin who stole things. His mother was still alive, and his father, who had been a tailor, had died years earlier. Throughout the story, Aladdin becomes more responsible and steps into
- Agrabah and the Flying Carpet. The original Disney animated movie was supposed to have taken place in Baghdad, but with the first Gulf War, Disney decided to set it somewhere else. Clements has told the story publicly of simply scrambling the letters of Baghdad to come up with Agrabah. Also, they said they were hugely inspired by the Thief of Bagdad, an iconic 1940 movie whose best known scene features a flying carpet. While flying carpets are no doubt more common in Arabic lore , it’s another one of those elements, like the three wishes, that were never part of the original Aladdin story.
- Prince Ali. While the original tale didn’t have Aladdin masquerading as Prince Ali Ababwa (one of my favorite parts of both movies!), he did have the Jinni make him into a prince-like figure with a new palace that outshone the Sultan’s palace. The Sultan, like the one in the movie, was a man who was impressed with Wealth, and accepted Aladdin as his son in law. We have already talked about how Hana Dayib might have been inspired by Versailles to create the magnificent palace in the story, complete with salves and an entourage, which no doubt inspired Prince Ali in the Disney movies.
- Jafar the Magician. Everyone’s favorite character to hate, Jafar, is actually based on two characters in the original story. There is the Wizier who influences the sultan, with the goal of his son (not himself) marrying the princess, and then there is main antognist, a Moroccan magician (“Maghrebi”) who leads Aladdin to the lamp. It’s not at all clear if the Wizier’s name was Jafar in the original story, however, elsewhere in the Arabian Nights, the first minister to the caliph Harun al Rashid, who features in many other stories in the collection, is named Jafar. This seems to be a storytelling decision to create a composite character, and it worked well enough in the movies.
While we don’t know which modern edition the Disney creators read of Aladdin to get their screenplay, I think we can be fairly certain it was one of the dozens of versions that have been published of the Arabian Nights in English in the twentieth century.
Conclusion — Tracing the Elusive History of Aladdin and the Jinni
So now we can draw a more complete picture of the inspiration for the modern version of Aladdin, as shown in Figure 8.
Like Indian Jones traveling in the ancient catacombs beneath various ancient European cities, there are layers upon layers of edifices and hidden history to the tales of Alif Laila, the Thousand and One Nights.
Like the sands that accumulated above the Cave of Wonders over the centuries, the origins of the tale of Aladdin are covered in layers of translations, borrowing, and creative inventions, obscuring it true genesis.
In that way, you might even say that the tale of Aladdin as we know it, unlike say The Hobbit, which had a single author, has been socially constructed starting with the oral storytelling traditions of the Arab world in general and the Aleppo coffeehouses specifically. With recent developments like the Disney adaptations and even the NFTs that I bought, the story is not even close to being over. I predict that there will be more NFTs and blockchain play to earn games that utilize this timeless tale.
The one thing we can be certain of is that the tale of Aladdin will evolve into new media, new formats, with new colorful settings in the years and decades (and perhaps centuries) to come.