Who “Wrote” Aladdin?

Arafat A. Razzaque writes for the Ajam Media Collective about the history of the Aladdin tale, familiar from the Thousand and One Nights but not originally a part of it. He begins with “arguably the Middle East’s greatest modern adaptation of the 1001 Nights“:

Written by the poet Tahir Abu Fasha (who also wrote songs for Umm Kulthum), the series lasted 26 years on the airwaves, with 820 episodes total. As a child, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh would sit “glued to the radio” waiting to hear the captivating Zouzou Nabil, who voiced Shahrazad.

I love that kind of local detail, which you’re unlikely to learn from Western accounts. He continues with a history of the Nights:

The 1001 Nights has a pretty remarkable genealogy. Our oldest documentation of it is an Arabic papyrus from Egypt, reused as scrap with inscriptions dated 879 CE. There was an earlier Persian book called Hazār afsāna (A Thousand Stories) that did not survive. But key elements of the frame story of Shahriyar and Shahrazad were already common in Pali and Sanskrit texts from ancient India, while another Arabic book called One Hundred and One Nights has an alternate version also found in a third-century Chinese Buddhist text of the Tripiṭaka.

The event that sparked the Nights into a modern European phenomenon was its translation by Antoine Galland from a fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript that still remains our principal source. First published in 1704, Galland’s Les Mille et une nuit: Contes Arabes (“1001 Nights: Arabian tales”) was an instant bestseller, mainly because it coincided with the rise of French fairy tales. […]

In Arabic, Alf layla was first printed in India. Known as the “Calcutta I” edition of 1814–18, it was prepared by Shaykh Aḥmad al-Shīrwānī, a teacher of Arabic at the Fort William College in Bengal, where East India Company officials were trained in South Asian languages, especially Persian. Subsequent Arabic editions were published in Breslau, in today’s Poland (by Habicht, 1824–43), in Bulaq, Cairo (1835) and again in India (“Calcutta II,” 1839-42). By the late-nineteenth century, the book was appearing everywhere—a fascinating example being the Judaeo-Arabic edition of 1888 printed in Bombay by Aharon Yaacov Shmuel Divekar, a native Jewish-Indian (“Bene Israel”) who also published prayer books for the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community.

Then he gets to the meat of his piece, the origin of the Aladdin tale:

After nearly a century of speculation, in 1887 the Prussian scholar Hermann Zotenberg who worked as a manuscript curator at the French national library, came across Galland’s archived diaries. There it was revealed that Galland had an oral source, “the Maronite Hanna of Aleppo.” Meeting Hanna Diyab in 1709 through a colleague in Paris was great luck for Galland, since he ran out of stories to translate from available manuscripts. […]

Galland wrote in his journal that he received “the Story of the Lamp” from Hanna Diyab on May 5, 1709. Every few days for the next month or so, Diyab told him fifteen more tales. Ten of these, including Ali Baba, were later published as the last four volumes of Galland’s Nights (1712–17). […] In 1993, a previously unknown autobiography/travelogue by Hanna Diyab was discovered at the Vatican Library. It has now been published in French as of 2015, and though of much broader historical interest, it also offers tantalizing glimpses into how Aladdin and Ali Baba came to be imagined.

I’ll let you discover the rest at the link; there’s all kinds of good stuff, like “A major classic of the Danish Golden Age happens to be an adaptation of Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger (1805), set in Isfahan rather than China because Persia was imagined to be the modern, cosmopolitan France of the East.” And I’d never heard of the One Hundred and One Nights; don’t miss the Bruce Fudge interview linked to it above. (We discussed a new, “complete” edition of the Arabian Nights back in 2009.)


  1. I’ve been a big fan of Ajam recently, in particular their podcasts (and the podcasts other contributors). One of particular interest has been ZamZaman which covers a variety of music genres from the Caucasus.

  2. Trond Engen says

    In other words, although Galland treated Hanna Diyab as a native informant, his stories do not necessarily reflect a pristine Arab tradition. Growing up in Syria, Diyab may well have heard and/or read European tales. This should be little surprise given the ebb and flow of cross-cultural currents across the medieval Mediterranean. How else to explain that the Italian writings of Sercambi (d. 1424) and Ariosto (d. 1533) seem to include a parallel to the tale of Shahriyar, long before Galland’s translation?

    They could all reflect Turkish/Ottoman rather than Arabic tradition? But it’s obvious that stories travel, and both the Silk Road and the Mediterranean have been mediating culture for thousands of years, so versions of the same motives should be found all around the Mediterranean basin, as well as further east. Which is why narrative folklorists are speaking of Eurasia as one region of shared narrative traditions.

    (Why doesn’t pc’s comment above turn up on JC’s list of Commented-On Langauge Hat Posts? Something with having gone right into moderation because of two links?)

  3. I had to rescue it from moderation, so I guess that’s why.

  4. Lars (the original one) says

    A nice corrected version with apparatus: Aladdin eller Den forunderlige Lampe.

    I never actually read the version of Aladdin from the 1001 nights, so this is how the tale is supposed to go.

  5. Note that the two places where “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” takes place are China and Morocco—in the ultimate East and ultimate West from the viewpoint of Middle-Eastern storytellers.

  6. John Cowan says

    JC’s list of Commented-On Langauge Hat Posts

    … is based on polling the “Recent Comments” section of the home page every minute. I don’t know exactly when things appear there.

  7. Savalonôs says

    Waitaminnit, there’s an account of the Scheherazade and Shahryar story in a 3rd century (very early for Chinese Buddhism) Chinese Tripiṭaka?


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