Genies and flying carpets may still be up for debate, but experts now believe that “Aladdin” could actually be based on a real person.
“A lot of new research being done about the man behind Aladdin,” says Arafat A. Razzaque, researcher at Cambridge University’s Centre of Islamic Studies, in an interview with Time magazine.
Disney’s 1992 animated classic, which is set to make it’s live-action debut on Friday, has long been thought of as a fictional tale — pulled from the pages of “One Thousand and One Nights,” also known as “Arabian Nights.”
The collection of Middle Eastern folk stories was famously translated by French scholar Antoine Galland, who served as a secretary to the ambassador to Constantinople in the 17th century. Experts believe his version to be the most authentic.
According to Galland’s diary, he began hearing the tales on May 8, 1709 while at a buddy’s apartment. A young Syrian traveler from Aleppo named Hanna Diyab was said to be the storyteller.
The two of them spoke over the course of several one-on-one meetings — with Diyab divulging numerous stories he heard throughout his travels, including other popular tales such as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Galland eventually completed his translation of “Arabian Nights” in 1717 and the tale remained shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years.
“We don’t know whether Diyab created the story by combining elements that he learned from hearing other storytellers — in Aleppo or on the journey through the Mediterranean to Paris,” author Paulo Lemos Horta tells Time.
Horta penned “Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights” and edited a translation of Galland’s Aladdin last year that was published by writer Yasmine Seale.
More than three centuries after the original’s release, he and other scholars now believe that they’ve found the man behind the myth — with all signs pointing to Diyab, himself.
“Aladdin might be the young Arab Maronite from Aleppo, marveling at the jewels and riches of Versailles,” Horta says. “Diyab himself came from a modest background, and hungered for the class ascension that occurred in story of Aladdin. He wanted to have a market stall, and in the Aladdin story, the magician, masquerading as Aladdin’s uncle, promises to set him up as a cloth merchant with a shop of his own so he might live as a gentleman.
“As a teenager, Diyab had been an apprentice with one the great merchant families of the Levant, but he had been dismissed, ending his hopes of achieving success in the profitable textile trade of Aleppo,” Horta adds. “[He] went back and made good.”
One of the biggest reasons experts believe they’ve found their Aladdin is due to the recent analysis of a travelogue that Diyab wrote in the mid-18th century, which is scheduled to be published in 2020. In it, Diyab describes a number of things that he had seen and experienced while living in France — including how he “marveled” at the jewels and riches of Versailles, Horta says.
“That’s a mind-blowing revision of our understanding of where the story came from — the recognition that Aladdin is not just the fantasy of a 60-year-old French scholar and translator, but that it was born through the narrative skills and distinctive experience of a 20-year-old traveler from Aleppo,” Horta tells 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.”
In one log, Diyab described how Galland’s buddy, Paul Lucas, had presented him to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles.
“Lucas insisted that Diyab dress in stereotypically Oriental Fashion,” says Horta.
The outfit included “a long tunic, baggy pantaloons, a headscarf of Damascene fabric, a precious belt, a silver dagger and a fur cap from Cairo.”
“There is little in the writings of Galland that would suggest that he was capable of developing a character like Aladdin with sympathy, but Diyab’s memoir reveals a narrator adept at capturing the distinctive psychology of a young protagonist, as well as recognizing the kinds of injustices and opportunities that can transform the path of any youthful adventurer,” Horta explains. “The day Diyab told the story of Aladdin to Galland, there were riots due to food shortages during the winter and spring of 1708 to 1709, and Diyab was sensitive to those people in a way that Galland is not. When you read this diary, you see this solidarity among the Arabs who were in Paris at the time.”