The Origin Story Of Aladdin Is Far Wilder Than You Know

Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
It probably goes without saying that you know the story of Aladdin — or, at least, you know the version that the 1992 Disney movie, Aladdin, made common cultural lore.
You know: Self-professed "street rat" Aladdin finds a buried lamp and releases a blue genie who grants him three wishes, turning him a fake sultan and allowing him to win the heart of a princess.
The 2019 live-action Aladdin tells essentially the same story, but adds a frame narrative. Before he's the genie, Will Smith's character is a sailor spooling the story of Aladdin to his family. It's a fitting change. Since its inclusion in the 18th century, the story of Aladdin has been part of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales best known for its clever, high stakes frame narrative.
Here's how it goes: Shahryār is a bitter king. After discovering that his wife was unfaithful, he decides all women are the same. Each night, he takes a virgin bride; the following day, he executes her, before she has a chance to cheat on him. He's an all-around enemy.
Then, Scheherazade volunteers to be the monster's bride — something no one had done before. Their first (and supposedly last) wedding night, Scheherazade tells an entrancing story and stops on a cliffhanger. She says she'll continue the following night. So, he doesn't execute her. On and on it goes for 1001 nights.
Aladdin is one of the best known stories in Scheherazade's oeuvre — but it wasn't there originally. Aladdin, along with Ali Baba, is one of One Thousand and One Night's "orphan tales." They weren't a part of the initial Arabic text. Rather, they were added to a 1712 edition by the French translator Antoine Galland. Galland claimed he got the story from a Syrian man, Hanna Diyab.
Diyab's identity remained mysterious until 1993, when Diyab's memoirs were discovered in the Vatican library. According to cultural historian Arafat Razzaque, Diyab's rags-to-riches story actually may have resembled Aladdin's. Like Aladdin, Diyab wanted to own a market stall; like Aladdin, he longed to be a part of the upper echelons of society. And it happened for him. After meeting French explorer Paul Lucas, the young Diyab was pulled along on Lucas' quest for treasure (just like Aladdin was). Eventually, he ended up in France, where he met Galland and told him the "story of the lamp."
According to scholars, it's likely Diyab based the story from his own experiences as a Middle Eastern man experiencing France for the first time. “Diyab was ideally placed to embody the overlapping world of East and West, blending the storytelling traditions of his homeland with his youthful observations of the wonder of 18th-century France," Paulo Lemos Horta, author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, told Time.
The original Aladdin is surprisingly different from the Disney version we know today. For one, it's set in China. "In early Arabic usage, China was often just a symbol for a faraway land, as in the famous saying attributed to the Prophet: 'Seek knowledge even as far as China.' It is in this sense of an abstract, exotic place that China tends to appear in the Nights," Razzaque wrote in an article for Ajam Media Collection.
In early European adaptations of the story, Aladdin was depicted as being Chinese. Victorian illustrations gave Aladdin the long braided queue typical of the the Manchurian dynasty; British stage productions set the play in China. Disney, however, modeled its Aladdin from the movie The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and transplanted the story to a fictional Middle Eastern city. Though the 2000 mini-series Arabian Nights returned the Aladdin story to China.
Aside from the setting, the Galland tale is quite different from the cartoon (and live action remake). Aladdin — who, in this version, is described as being "careless and idle" — lives with his mother in one of China's biggest cities. His father, a tailor, literally died of shame because Aladdin wouldn't learn a trade and played with street urchins.
The discrepancies get weirder from there. Aladdin has two genies on his side — one from a lamp, one from a ring. He faces off against three villains, including one who whisks Jasmine away to Northern Africa; the sultan tries to behead Aladdin for not protecting her adequately. Aladdin also sabotages Jasmine's wedding to another man by kidnapping the groom and holding him in a dark cell until the marriage is annulled.
Now that's one rock and roll Aladdin. Leave it to Disney to get rid of the wild parts.

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