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Tales of Aladdin and Their Tellers, from Aleppo to Paris

By Paulo Lemos Horta

We're all familiar with the classic tale of Aladdin, which has been retold countless times since its first print publication in 1712 (most recently, in Disney's top-grossing 2019 film remake). Despite Aladdin's popularity, few people are aware of the story's origins, the encounters between cultures, languages, and storytellers that shaped it into the tale we know today. In this essay, Paulo Lemos Horta, author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights and editor of Aladdin: A New Translation (with Yasmine Seale), introduces us to a traveler from Aleppo whose key contribution to the story of Aladdin has only recently come to light.

“If there are only seven basic stories in the world of literature,” as the review of a new translation of “Aladdin” asserts, the rags-to-riches tale can rightly claim to be one of them. The tale is a simple one, but its popularity over three centuries of retellings indicates its power to capture the essential fears and longings of the passage from adolescence to maturity.

In the capital of a faraway kingdom, a poor tailor’s son, Aladdin, refuses to take up a productive trade, driving his father to an early grave and his mother to despair. Encountering the fifteen-year-old youth among his vagabond friends on the streets of the city, a Maghrebi magician enlists Aladdin in his quest for riches with the promise of an easy life as a wealthy merchant. Masquerading as the boy’s long-lost uncle, the magician leads Aladdin beyond the city to an underground vault from which he hopes Aladdin will retrieve a lamp of remarkable power. When Aladdin refuses to hand over the lamp and calls on the power of the jinn lodged within a magic ring, the unlikely young hero begins his own journey to fabulous riches. As he learns to marshal the power of the jinn, Aladdin gains, and loses, a palace and a princess before finally dispatching both the Maghrebi magician and his vengeful brother with the help of his clever bride.

After its first appearance in print in 1712, in Antoine Galland’s French translation of tales from the Arabic story collection The Thousand and One Nights, the story of Aladdin took on a life of its own. Leaping free from the confines of Galland’s collection, the tale was rewritten and republished in other fairy tale collections and as a standalone story, and later became the basis for a series of stage and film adaptations. The 2019 Disney offering of a live-action Aladdin movie is only the most recent in an exuberant flowering of retellings of the journey of this unlikely hero transformed by the possession of a magical object.

Despite the ability of Aladdin’s story to thrive within a multitude of cultural settings, its origins in the pages of the first European translation of The Thousand and One Nights is worth revisiting to capture the unique alchemy that produced this famous tale. The Arabic story collection, best known in English as The Arabian Nights, is the inherently mutable product of a rich storytelling tradition in the lands connected by the Arabic language and the religion of Islam. In the early Arabic manuscripts of The Thousand and One Nights, the essential frame of the story remains a constant. These are nocturnal stories told by the wise Shahrazad to save her own life and the lives of other women in the kingdom—an attempt to use the lure of “what happened next” to prevent her husband, Shahriyar, from having her killed the next morning. As the frame story explains, King Shahriyar responds to a dramatic betrayal by his queen by resolving to marry a virgin each evening to promptly execute her the next day, before she too could prove inconstant. When Shahrazad volunteers to be his next victim, the string of stories begins, each more marvelous and astounding than what came before.

The frame of The Thousand and One Nights has always invited storytellers to continue this sequence of tales in a potentially infinite demonstration of the possibilities of invention and recombination inherent to the art of storytelling. No authentic collection offers the mythical 1,001 nights of storytelling, but each offers new additions and variations that build on the central core of the tales’ oldest components. As the stories entered Western literature through French, this pattern continued. When Galland’s Arabic manuscript ran out of stories, his publisher, and then the translator himself, added new tales intended to continue the pattern of ever more wondrous stories to meet readers’ insatiable appetite for Shahrazad’s tales. The story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was one of the tales added for the first time in Galland’s French version of the Arabic stories. Like several other stories in this French collection that have no known Arabic manuscript source (including “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”), “Aladdin” was attributed in Galland’s private diary to a mysterious young storyteller from Aleppo named Hanna Dyab, whom the French translator met in Paris in 1709. In the absence of any information about this visitor other than the diary entries in which Galland recorded his notes on Dyab’s oral storytelling, Galland himself has been credited with shaping the story of Aladdin.

Inserting the tales of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” into the frame of The Thousand and One Nights, Galland extended the chain of stories spun by Shahrazad in her bid to stem the murderous rage of Shahriyar. As part of Shahrazad’s mythical repertoire of fabulous tales, Aladdin could keep company with other young protagonists who experience unexpected, and sometimes undeserved, good fortune in narrative worlds where jinn and magical objects are familiar elements. Read within the universe of Shahrazad’s narration, where many of the stories are infused with the threat of violence, “Aladdin” reveals its darker hues. When, in their quest for the lamp, the terrified Aladdin tries to flee the Maghrebi magician as the earth trembles around him, the magician strikes him “so hard across the cheek that he fell to the earth” and “it seemed that his front teeth had been knocked clean out of his mouth.” Later in the story, when the magician’s brother infiltrates Aladdin’s palace by pretending to be the holy woman Fatima, the bloody stakes of such a ruse are clear. The brother tricks Fatima into giving him her clothes and painting his face like hers, but then violates his promise to reward her cooperation by strangling her, “not wanting to shed blood by killing her with his dagger.” If the happy ending of Aladdin’s quest for princess and position is arguably the key to its broad appeal, the undercurrent of violence and the unpredictable workings of fate within it link it to other elements of The Arabian Nights.

If the insertion of Aladdin into the realm of Shahrazad’s tales brought the story into the repertoires of European storytellers, it also represented the erasure of the agency of the storyteller who offered the tale to Galland in Paris in 1709—Hanna Dyab. The young Syrian traveler seemed to be doomed to a shadowy existence in the footnotes of literary history until an Arabic manuscript was unearthed in the Vatican Library. Despite its missing first pages, it was ultimately identified as the memoir of a certain Hanna Dyab, composed approximately half a century after his meetings with Galland in Paris. In a lucky turn of events worthy of an Arabian Nights tale, we now have the chance to examine the life of the original source of Aladdin’s story—a young adventurer in a world defined by the twists and turns of fate, the possibility of miracles, and the dangers of false friends. Might not the longstanding appeal of “Aladdin” rest in part in the restless curiosity and imaginative storytelling of a young man who documented his own fascinating journey from the marketplaces of Aleppo to the palace of the French king in Versailles?

Dyab’s Book of Travels (dated to the 1760s by scholars) is a mixture of memoir and travelogue that focuses on the author’s journey from Aleppo to Paris in the service of Paul Lucas, a shady procurer of curiosities for the court of Louis XIV. Dyab acknowledges that in Paris he met with an old man, recognizably Galland, who worked on the Nights, and that he told him some stories so that he could finish the collection. There is no evidence that Dyab offered stories that he thought belonged to The Thousand and One Nights. Like the storytellers who plied their trade in the coffee shops of Aleppo, Dyab offered the tales he knew to the French translator—little knowing the impact that these stories would have. The emergence of Dyab’s Arabic text, now also published in French, German, and English, affords the opportunity to explore how the storytelling prowess of this Maronite traveler shaped “Aladdin” and other famous tales that Galland slipped into his French version of Shahrazad’s tales. If one thinks of Dyab rather than Shahrazad narrating the stories, that is, if one sets Dyab’s Book of Travels alongside “Aladdin” and other tales he told Galland, a new set of resonances and questions arises.

I explore the tantalizing possibility that life may have inspired fiction in “Aladdin” in Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, along with the equally plausible contention that Dyab’s memoir was shaped by the stories he had heard and crafted during his life’s journeys. Both “Aladdin” and Book of Travels relate a tale of youthful adventure and feature a young man bred in the streets of a capital of mercantile trade. Unwilling to follow the family trade, each finds an unexpected path to success. If Aladdin is too lazy to learn the tailor’s trade, Dyab refuses to accept the lot of the youngest brother in his family. Both young men are shaped by an absent father (dead in Aladdin and presumed dead in Book of Travels) and a melancholic mother. In both stories the youth falls under the sway of a mysterious father figure, a man possessing magic potions. When Dyab stumbles across a caravan leaving Aleppo, he links his fate to Paul Lucas, a notorious treasure hunter who claims to wield the power of magic amulets and the philosopher’s stone. In both texts, the first expedition with these mentors involves an underground vault and the gain of a ring and a lamp. In both texts, the youth will venture outside the city and beyond fabulous gardens and fountains to encounter a princess and a palace of unparalleled beauty. The palace in “Aladdin” may well have been informed by Dyab’s visit to Versailles to be presented to King Louis XIV. Both youths will contemplate the gain, and then the loss, of thrilling opportunities for advancement unimaginable at the tale’s outset.

Beyond these tantalizing parallels of plot and detail, Dyab’s Book of Travels shares with “Aladdin” the sense of freedom afforded by venturing outside known borders and established identities. Dyab’s journey from Aleppo to Paris is the seminal experience of his life, and it takes up most of his Book of Travels. Having grown up in a trading center and among brothers who apprenticed with a prominent French mercantile family, he seems to relish this opportunity to explore new environments and remake himself in the process. In both texts, disguise is a prominent motif. When Dyab first meets his mentor, Lucas is traveling in his favored guise of a physician, and when Dyab returns to Aleppo on his own, he easily slips into the same disguise to establish his authority. If Aladdin is engaged in an elaborate masquerade as he slowly becomes the man that he imagines he could be, Dyab finds himself adopting the trappings of other identities at critical moments in his own journey—the robes of a initiate monk at the beginning of his tale, the elaborate robes of the Oriental visitor on his visit to Versailles. During the journey across the Mediterranean and back, Dyab has many opportunities to refashion himself for the eyes of different viewers. As in the stories he offers to Galland for his collection of The Arabian Nights, lying and deception are both tolerated and encouraged in lands traveled in the service of the consummate con man, Paul Lucas.

Mobility and the culture of commerce were already at the core of the original cycle of The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic. Aboubakr Chraïbi has gone so far as to dub the story collection “a mirror for merchants.” Travel and transformation are recurring motifs in the story sequence as a whole—from the first embedded story cycle of “The Merchant and the Jinni” to the tales of the caliph Harun al Rashid wandering the city in disguise and the familiar adventures of Sindbad, a merchant facing the prospect of gaining and losing a fortune on every sea journey. Aladdin’s tale fits within this mercantile framework in the same way that Hanna Dyab’s own story might. The possibility of refashioning oneself in a foreign land or in the anonymity of a burgeoning city offers the youthful protagonist the chance of a lifetime. The storyteller’s embrace of the fluidity and freedom of this journey remains an essential part of the appeal of both stories.

“Aladdin” famously appealed to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European readers as a tale of social ascension. Cities like Paris and London were developing into places where the fluidity characteristic of Aladdin’s tale and Dyab’s own journeys were increasingly present. While these stories may have had particular appeal in this new era, European storytellers did not invent narratives of social mobility. They are present in other tales from The Thousand and One Nights, and Dyab would have had access to these story elements and perhaps a personal interest in knitting them into a story like “Aladdin.” Stories of mobility and reinvention are characteristic of urban societies interconnected by the growth of commercial classes. In this respect, tales like “Aladdin” served a as a bridge from lively cities like Aleppo and the Mediterranean ports Dyab traveled through, to European cities entering a period of economic and social transformation.

The remarkable impact of The Thousand and One Nights on world literature has long been attributed to the collection’s capacity to reflect the urban world created by the merchant classes of cities like Aleppo, Baghdad, and Cairo. As novelist and historian Robert Irwin has rightly emphasized, the real revolution afforded by the story collection was embodied in its wide swath of protagonists, ranging from tradesmen to merchants, which presaged a literary swerve into the realism of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. This impact is easy to overlook when considered alongside the more conspicuous debts to the magic of jinn evident in the realms of romanticism, the gothic, and fantasy from Coleridge to H. G. Wells. Acknowledging this link between the Nights and new European narratives that included the ordinary denizens of shops and street corners in the growing cities of the Western world gives increased weight to the contribution of a storyteller such as Dyab, whose memoir reflects a consistent interest in and sympathy with precisely these kinds of protagonists.

“Aladdin” shares with Dyab’s Book of Travels motifs and themes but also a manner of telling, and it is here that the unearthing of the travelogue allows for the recognition of Dyab’s creative agency as a storyteller. In his memoir, Dyab displays the same skill in embedding stories and mixing elements from other sources to fashion his own narratives that can be seen in the tales he gave Galland. In Marvellous Thieves, I analyzed these techniques in Dyab’s story of Ali Baba. Each of the component parts of the popular story—the magic cave, the troupe of thieves, the “clever slave girl”— existed in another form prior to Dyab’s intervention, but the young man’s telling of this tale to Galland, a performance recorded in a handful of pages of notes in his Parisian diary, was the first instance in which these elements were brought together to fashion a new tale.

The notes Galland jotted down in 1709 during Dyab’s performance of “beautiful” tales provide evidence of the Syrian storyteller’s gift for combining old elements to form new tales half a century before he displayed this skill in Book of Travels. Three centuries later, literary historians are finally beginning to understand that the tales gifted by Dyab to Galland are not “orphan tales” defined by their lack of an Arabic manuscript source but rather “Dyab’s tales,” the product of a gifted and curious young man who continued to exercise his narrative skills throughout his life. To grasp the significance of this achievement, consider that Ulrich Marzolph, the eminent historian of fairy tales, has found no fewer than four international tale types whose first appearance can be traced to the stories told by Dyab to Galland. No other known storyteller has been credited with the introduction of so many tale types to the narrative repertoire of the Western world. If these now strike us as some of the basic plots in world literature, then perhaps  it is time to acknowledge that this is in great part Dyab’s doing.

Published Apr 16, 2020   Copyright 2020 Paulo Lemos Horta

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