How Aladdin's story was forged in Aleppo and Versailles

Evidence that its first teller was a Syrian dazzled by the court of Louis XIV inspires a new translation of this magical tale

Aladdin opens in the capital of “one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms”, but according to its latest translator, the story’s Syrian roots make it “an artefact from a destroyed world”.

The French-Syrian translator Yasmine Seale is the first woman to translate the whole of One Thousand and One Nights from its French and Arabic sources, and the first to produce an Aladdin since researchers have cleared up the mystery of the much-loved tale’s origins.

Published for the first time in 1712 as part of Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits, the extravagant riches and abundant magic of the tale left scholars questioning for centuries whether the French orientalist had invented it himself. The phenomenal success of his translations from a manuscript dating to the 14th or 15th century found Galland’s publisher begging for more, leading some to doubt whether all his “Arabic tales” came from the east. But recent scholarship has confirmed that the mysterious “young Syrian”, Hanna Diyab, cited by Galland as his source for Aladdin as well as the story of Ali Baba, was no figment of the orientalist’s imagination. According to Seale, this makes Aladdin “a product of Aleppo and its rich ecosystem of trade and learning at a time when it was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the Ottoman empire. The story is an artefact from a destroyed world.”

Aladdin rides on the jinni’s back in this Victorian magic lantern slide
‘An artefact from a destroyed world’ ... Aladdin rides on the jinni’s back in this Victorian magic lantern slide. Photograph: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

For Paulo Lemos Horta, whose study Marvellous Thieves examines the cross-cultural encounters that shaped One Thousand and One Nights, Diyab’s contribution reflects not only his Syrian heritage but also his vivid impressions of the French court. It was in Paris where the Syrian traveller met Galland in 1709, after travelling around the Mediterranean with a French collector.

“Diyab related these stories to Galland at the end of a journey defined by the pursuit of treasure and his appearance at the French court of Louis XIV,” Horta explains, citing a memoir in which Diyab describes the magnificence of the monarch and his courtiers. “As impressed as Diyab was by the magnificently dressed inhabitants of Versailles, he seems to have been even more struck by the palace. Diyab claims that as he approached the palace, he was dazzled by the light emanating from it, which could be seen a half-hour’s travel away.”

His breathless account of Versailles and its construction mirrors Aladdin’s orders to the jinni for a palace that is “the only wonder of the world, for nothing so grand, so rich, so magnificent has ever been seen before or since”, Horta continued. “When the sultan rises in the morning, he is astounded to see a spectacular palace surmounted by a dome made of layers of solid silver and gold and embellished by 24 windows with lattice screens of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Like Diyab viewing the glimmering, gilded roof of the palace of Versailles, the sultan is amazed to see a palace shining in the light of dawn.”

According to Robert Irwin, recent scholarship has eliminated the doubts over Diyab’s role in the telling of Aladdin, particularly after the discovery of a related story in Arabic that predates Galland’s version.

“What Diyab narrated was essentially a traditional Arab story,” Irwin says, “though it is clear that either Galland or Diyab, or most probably both, Frenchified the story in all sorts of ways – dialogue, architecture, court ritual and so on.”

The “China” of the tale’s setting “stands for a faraway place for fictional adventures to happen and in all respects the story takes place in an entirely Arab setting”, he added, but “Galland and/or Diyab put more work into the psychology, motivation and dialogue of the protagonists than traditional Arab storytellers were accustomed to do”.

‘The Nights have flowed freely across the borders of language and genre’ … Disney’s 1992 version of Aladdin.
‘The Nights have flowed freely across the borders of language and genre’ … Disney’s 1992 version of Aladdin. Photograph: Allstar/Disney

Seale admits the recent discoveries have little effect on her translation, since “the only text we have is Galland’s, and that is what I have to work with”. But knowing the story of the tale’s construction makes Aladdin “a document of exchange, of translation on several levels, a product of both the Arabic and French literary traditions”.

“I’m less interested in what ‘a Frenchman’ or ‘a Syrian’ might have invented than in the particular voices of these two men,” she says. “Both came from learned, cosmopolitan cities. They were complex products of their knowledge and experience – who isn’t? Each was familiar with and fascinated by the other’s culture and language.”

Before she started translating One Thousand and One Nights, she was “more familiar with the stories’ wake – their presence in popular culture, modern fiction, visual art – than with the texts themselves”. As with many, her first experience of Aladdin was the 1992 Disney film, she continues. “The Nights are part of the bloodstream of world literature. They’re furniture, like the great myths. Because of their endless, slippery nature (a sea of stories without an author) they have flowed freely across borders of language and genre.”

More than 300 years after Galland first wrote it down, Seale suggests the story of Aladdin raises questions that very much concern us today: “the parent-child relationship, the ethics of getting rich quick, seduction and consent”. But perhaps the secret of the tale’s enduring appeal is rooted not only in its cosmopolitan heritage, but also in the radical transformation at its heart – the ordinary boy to whom something extraordinary happens. As Seale says: “Everyone loves an everyman.”


Richard Lea

The GuardianTramp

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