Surprising Facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

The story of Aladdin is one of the most familiar narratives in all of literature, a classic ‘rags to riches’ tale featuring a young hero who has to learn an important lesson; an exotic setting; a good healthy dose of magic; a beautiful heroine; and an evil villain (or two, depending on which version of the story you follow).

arabian

There’s much about the Aladdin story that is universally known. The story is part of the Arabian Nights, or the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ told by Scheherazade, the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger: the story goes that she was one of the sultan’s concubines, and the sultan, after taking his pleasure with a woman, would have her killed. Scheherazade, in a cunning move devised to save her life, decided to start telling the sultan a story, but each night would break off in the middle of the narrative … so the sultan would keep her alive until the next night, when he would find out what happened at the end of the story. Hence the title, One Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Aladdin, along with the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most famous tales Scheherazade told.

Or is it? Is this true, or is this – as is so often the case here at Interesting Literature - actually only what we think is true?

For starters, where does Aladdin live? Not in the Middle East. In the earliest version of the story we have, Aladdin is a poor youth living on the streets of China. And he’s no foreigner abroad either: he’s a native Chinese boy, not an Arabian youth who’s ended up in China. Many people doubtless know this fact already – anyone who’s read the story of Aladdin will know it – but the point is worth making because the popular Disney animated film of 1992 makes no mention of Aladdin’s Chinese origins.

Okay, so where does Aladdin (that is, the story) come from? Not from the One Thousand and One Nights. Or at least, not really. We associate it with that collection because the story has been added to the Nights in translation as a sort of honorary extra tale (or ‘orphan tale’). The Aladdin story was added to the collection by a French translator, Antoine Galland, in the early eighteenth century. Although Galland heard the tale from an Arabian storyteller, the Aladdin story is firmly set in China (so not the Middle East at all, but the Far East). The tale had nothing to do with the original One Thousand and One Nights tales, and doesn’t appear in any of the manuscripts. But, since Galland added it to his version, it has become arguably the most famous story (not) in the Arabian Nights.

The reason we think of the story as one of the true-born Arabian Nights is that many of the characters in the tale of Aladdin are Arabian Muslims with Arabic names. But Aladdin is Chinese … at least, he is if you go back to the known origins of the story. Jasmine, Aladdin’s girlfriend, was an invention of the Disney film – at least, the name was. In the original story, Aladdin’s love-interest is called Badroulbadour (the name means ‘full moon of full moons’ in Arabic).

If you think that’s odd, then the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the story of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, are also not from the Arabian Nights, but were later additions by Galland, not found in the original manuscript. None of the three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights are actually, strictly speaking, from the Arabian Nights.

So, what stories were actually in the original One Thousand and One Nights? One notable tale is ‘The Three Apples’, which has been called one of the first detective stories – but, if anything, it’s more of an anti-detective story. In the tale, the body of a mutilated woman turns up in a wooden chest, and the sultan’s vizier is charged with solving the crime in three days, or he himself will be executed. The vizier fails to work out ‘whodunnit’, and makes little attempt to crack the case (hence the story’s status as an ‘anti-detective’ story), but the hapless vizier is saved from death when the real murderer shows up at the last minute and confesses.

The most famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – English translation of the Arabian Nights is undoubtedly that by Richard Burton – that is, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century explorer. Far from toning down the sexual suggestiveness of the Nights for his Victorian readers, Burton actually added information, including footnotes explaining Oriental sexual customs for his readers (fittingly, Burton also translated the Kama Sutra into English). As a result, his translation had to be privately printed for paying subscribers, rather than published in the conventional manner. Burton was also purportedly the inspiration for Dr Henry Jones Sr, played by Sean Connery, in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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86 thoughts on “Surprising Facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

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  3. Disney, like almost every movie adaptation – takes liberties with any book or story. Sometimes, to advance the narrative. Disney, as always, wisely tries to avoid controversy and politics. That was Walt Disney’s legacy. He wanted very much to spread joy and peace. His background dates back to silent films where the goal was to spread a universal language, where music married film. As Lillian Gish put it: Film is the universal language. No barriers with talking, or dialogue. So why should Disney interject Muslim, protestant, Catholic or anything else into good story telling. If you want that, READ the book. Since film began, anyone and everyone always agreed: The book is better than the movie. Think about War and Peace. How could that entire book be translated into a two hour movie. Film was created to entertain. It evolved into enlightenment, documentaries, etc. There is indeed, a rhyme to every reason.

  4. Very interesting–and I loved your description of Scheherazade as the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger!

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  8. It’s funny how people work so hard to make arabs have no culture.
    And they wants any small thing to destroy our image and even our culture and stories.
    My name is alaa i’m arab .. “Alaadin” is arabian name not indian or Chinese.
    On thousands night and one night is arabian tales all of its are arabian not persian or Chinese or Indian.
    India have it’s own stories and persia is the same.
    Don’t steal our stories just because they are better than the rest.
    Aladdin, Alibaba, Jasmine and Genes all are arabians stories and names.
    And this stories takes place in Baghdad in Abbasid era. Islamic Golden age.

    • Perhaps you are correct. However, there is an entire region in China called XinJiang, where the environment is much like the Middle East. Their script, names, architecture, appearance, language, culture and religion are very similar to the Arabs. People speculate that the character Aladdin might’ve come from this region of China. :)
      No one is trying to steal the story, no one said that the story is from China, they just meant the character “Aladdin” and the story is set in China. :D

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