It Looks Like Aladdin May Have Actually Been a Real Person

Source: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The first release of a live action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” is opening in wide release Friday — one of the most anticipated Disney movies of the year — just in time to provide parents who aren’t traveling with their children something to do over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. It may also be a good time to get the kids wondering if Aladdin could, in fact, have been a real boy.

Aladdin’s story, first published in 1717 by French orientalist Antoine Galland, who was told the story by Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab, whom Galland first met in 1709. Galland had published the first seven translated volumes of the One Thousand and One Nights (aka, Arabian Nights) between 1704 and 1706. The volumes contained 40 stores covering 282 nights, not quite what the title advertised.

When Galland’s publisher tried to kick the story count up by publishing an eighth volume of Turkish stories, Galland made a fuss and decided to go searching for more stories. In addition to the Aladdin story, Hanna told Galland the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, along with enough other tales to issued four more volumes of the Arabian Nights.

While all of this may be news to you, it is not news to scholars. What is news is that Aladdin’s story may, in fact, be based on Hanna’s own life. He was about 17 or 18 at the time he told Galland the Aladdin story, according to a report in Time.

Paulo Lemos Horta, an associate professor of world literature at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, told the North Shore (Vancouver, British Columbia) News that many Middle East specialists want to dump the stories Galland added to the original 40 because they were added in–O Mon Dieu–in French. Horta thinks the stories should stay because they were based on the Syrian Hanna’s tales which in turn are based on a memoir by Hanna that Horta discovered at the Vatican library.

In the memoir, Hanna’s description of Aladdin’s palace resembles the French palace of Versailles, completed by Louis XIV in 1710 but his official residence since 1661. Horta says, “For 300 years we’ve imagined that the source of the Orientalism of these stories, like the palace of Aladdin, has to be some kind of Oriental palace that the French translator Gallan[d] must have seen in his travels in the Middle East. … The palace in Aladdin is much more like Versailles. I don’t think we need to imagine that all the imagination came from the French traveller in the Middle East. I think some of that came from the Arab traveller who visited Paris and Versailles.”

Now, all that’s left to find out is whether the genie was real. And if it is, maybe the movie about it will end up being among the 50 best movies based on true events — or worst.

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