Aladdin and authenticity

Yet more on Aladdin:

Authenticity, however, has always been complicated where Aladdin is concerned. The stories of the Thousand and One Nights derive from Persian, Indian, Arabic, Turkish, and Egyptian folk tale and literary traditions that span several historical periods and were passed on orally for centuries within Islamic society and culture before being recorded.[1] Extant Arabic manuscripts fall into two main manuscript traditions, the one Syrian, the other Egyptian, which differ in which tales they include and in what order. The various manuscripts share a common core of stories, which include an Arabic cycle involving the 9th century caliph Harun al-Rashid and others from his era, including vizier Ja’far and Abu Nuwas, and another group involving 13th and 14th century figures from medieval Cairo. They also share a narrative framework for the collection, the story, from 7th century Persia, of Shahrazad (or, as she is better known, Scheherezade), the new bride who begins, without concluding a new story for her husband, King Shahriyar, each night to avoid execution the next morning, eventually, after a thousand nights, winning his pardon and her life.

The story of Aladdin, however, does not appear in versions of the Thousand and One Nights before Galland’s. The basis for his edition was his translation of a 14th century Syrian manuscript, which was later shown to be the oldest known existing manuscript of the Nights. Galland, however, also worked from other manuscripts, some of which are lost, and searched to add to the larger story collection he believed they only partially represented, including stories that were not part of the manuscript record—sometimes called the “orphan tales.” The stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Prince Ahmed and His Two Sisters were among several a Christian Maronite monk, Hanna Diab, who had accompanied the noted traveler Paul Lucas to Paris from Aleppo, recounted to Galland in 1709 and that he subsequently published as part of the Nights.[2]

This particular chronology has led some scholars to question the story’s authenticity and its inclusion in the larger work. Although Arabic manuscripts of the Nights that include the Aladdin story exist, they do not pre-date Galland’s edition and scholars suspect they may be re-translations from his French original. Most subsequent editions of the Thousand and One Nights, translated from original Arabic manuscripts, did not follow his example to include them—although their publishers, not wanting to lose out on sales, often published these popular stories in accompanying, supplemental volumes. Galland’s decision, and the success of his edition, created the Aladdin story’s association with the Thousand and One Nights.

In the late 19th century, Hermann Zotenberg, who first uncovered Hanna as Galland’s source for the orphan tales from Galland’s diary, published a version of the Aladdin story from an Arabic manuscript claiming to be a copy of an early 18th century Baghdad manuscript predating the publication of Galland’s edition of the Nights.[3] He claimed, moreover, that the Aladdin story was a mostly faithful portrait of Muslim culture and society from the period of the Nights, a claim reinforced by his position as curator of Eastern manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale and an Arabist who had undertaken the first comparative survey of the Nights’ various manuscripts.[4] Although his research complicated while leaving undetermined the status of the story’s origins, Zotenberg’s claims cemented its association with the larger collection. His Arabic version of the story, which resembled Galland’s French version but also differed in some of details, also proved influential. His version, Galland’s, and sometimes both, form the basis for most subsequent translations and tellings of the tale.

[1] Nabia Abbot, “A Ninth-Century Fragment of the ‘Thousand Nights’: New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights” in The Arabian Nights Reader, ed. Originally published in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8 (1949): 129-64.

[2] Robert Irwin, Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Tauris Parke, 2004), 15-18.

[3] Michael Cooperson, “The Monstrous Births of ‘Aladdin’” in The Arabian Nights Reader, ed. Ulrich Marzolph (Wayne State University Press, 2006) 267. In the introduction to his Arabian Nights II, Husain Haddawy explains that subsequent examination of the manuscript Zotenberg worked from was, in fact, an elaboration of a 1787 re-translation into Arabic of Galland’s French version. Haddawy, ed. and trans., The Arabian Nights II (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), introduction, xii

[4] Zotenberg states the manuscript “présente un tableaux assez fidèle des mœurs de l’Egypte sous la règne des dernier Sultan mamelouks, à la réserve pourtant, de la vie intime de la cour, dont évidemment, il n’avait qu’une idée fantasist.” M. H. Zotenberg, “Notice sur quelque manuscrits des Mille et une nuits et la transduction de Galland,” Notice et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale et autre bibliothèques 28 (1887): 234. Cooperson translates the passage to: “presents a fairly faithful portrait of Egyptian manners during the reign of the later Mamlūk sultans, with the exception of the private life at court, of which he obviously had only the most fantasticated conception,” Cooperson, 280.