Mena Massoud is Aladdin and Will Smith is Genie in Disney’s live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie.
Photo Credit: Daniel Smith—Disney
By Olivia B. Waxman
May 23, 2019

When the new live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic, Aladdin, hits theaters on Friday, it will be just the latest step in the very long history of the tale — one with surprising origins. The rags-to-riches story of a street urchin named Aladdin who asks a genie in a lamp to make him a prince is a work of fantasy. And yet, some scholars say the central character could be partly inspired by a real person.

Here’s what we know and don’t know about the history of the story, according to scholars who have studied the origins the Aladdin story:

How old is the original story of Aladdin?

In the past, credit for telling the tale of Aladdin has often gone to Antoine Galland, a scholar and diplomat who served as a secretary to the French ambassador to Constantinople in the 17th century. He worked on Bibliothèque Orientale, a scholarly encyclopedia in French that would have been well known by anyone doing work related to the Middle East at the time. And, crucially, he was the first European translator of the Les mille et une nuits: Contes Arabes (“1001 Nights: Arabian tales”), sometimes known in English as One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights.

One Thousand and One Nights started as a series of translations of an incomplete manuscript of a medieval Arabic story collection that dated back to the late 14th century, says Muhsin J. al-Musawi, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Studies at Columbia University and an expert on Arabian Nights. Between 1704 and 1706, Galland published seven volumes, comprising about 40 tales spread over 282 nights of storytelling.

But, though those tales were of medieval origin, Aladdin may be a more recent invention. Scholars have not found a manuscript of the story that predates the version published in 1712 by Galland, who wrote in his diary that he first heard the tale from a Syrian storyteller from Aleppo named Hanna Diyab on May 8, 1709.

French orientalist and archaeologist Antoine Galland (1646 - 1715), circa 1675. Engraving by J. Cazon.
Kean Collection/Getty Images

By 1709, Galland had translated all of the stories in the original incomplete manuscript he’d been working with, and was trying to find the others. “When Galland ran out of stories in his Arabic manuscript of the Nights, his publisher inserted stories from a Turkish collection into the eighth volume [in 1709] to meet the public demand for more tales,” says Horta. “This angered Galland and prompted him to procure tales to fill out further volumes.”

Perhaps in search of more clues, Galland went to the apartment of his friend and rival Paul Lucas, a “tomb raider,” who traveled back and forth between Paris and the Middle East to satisfy Louis XIV’s taste for jewels and other precious objects from the region. Lucas’ apartment, full of his collections, had become a tourist destination in its own right, and it was there that Galland first met Diyab, who accompanied Lucas as a travel companion and interpreter, on Mar. 25, 1709.

When Galland asked the young Syrian if he knew any “Arabian Nights” stories, Diyab said he did. Over a series of one-on-one meetings, Diyab told Galland the story of Aladdin, in addition to other now-famous tales such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. These stories ended up in volumes nine through 12 of Galland’s translation of the One Thousand and One Nights, completed in 1717.

Scholars have long known that Diyab gave Galland the story of Aladdin, but they don’t know exactly where Diyab heard the story in the first place.

“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 — or whether he heard the whole story in this form and recorded it in a manuscript or whether he found a now lost manuscript of the story and passed it on to Galland,” says Paulo Lemos Horta, author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, who edited a translation of Galland’s Aladdin by Yasmine Seale that came out in 2018.

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Where does Aladdin take place?

Scholars have seen a mix of different places in the Aladdin story. In the newest film adaptation, the design of the Sultan’s palace is inspired by a Burmese temple. Galland’s Aladdin story is explicitly set in China, but the world it describes doesn’t seem to match up with the real place. “The characters live in a society defined by Muslim practices,” says Horta. “The very fact of a genie coming out of lamp means the story has been thoroughly Arabized.” (Genie, or jinni, mythology has its own long history.)

Arafat A. Razzaque, a research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, points out that early Arabic descriptions of an exotic, faraway land were often about China. Early British depictions of the Aladdin story in pantomime theater productions and Victorian illustrated texts depicted Chinese elements too, reflecting Brits’ fascination with the region around the time when the British were fighting opium wars there.

Disney’s 1992 animated musical version was originally supposed to be set in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, but current events prompted filmmakers to switch gears. As one of the directors of that film John Musker has explained: “We kept it Baghdad in our first treatment, and then the Gulf War happened — the first Gulf War. Roy Disney said, ‘This can’t be in Baghdad.’ So, I took letters and did a jumbled anagram and came up with Agrabah. We came up with a few alternates.” He also debunked rumors that Agrabah was “post-apocalyptic, futuristic or in some other time.”

Will Smith is the Genie and Mena Massoud is Aladdin in Disney’s live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie.
Photo Credit: Daniel Smith—Disney

Is the character of Aladdin based on a real person?

Despite the fantastical elements of the story, scholars now think the main character may actually be based on a real person’s real experiences. “Now a lot of new research being done about the man behind Aladdin,” says Razzaque.

Many scholars now think that that man could be Diyab himself.

Though Galland never credited Diyab in his published translations of the Arabian Nights stories, Diyab wrote something of his own: a travelogue penned in the mid-18th century. In it, he recalls telling Galland the story of Aladdin. Historian Jérôme Lentin found this document in the Vatican’s library in 1993, but it didn’t become more widely known until more recently. Lentin and fellow historian Bernard Heyberger published a French translation by Paule Fahmé-Thiéry, in 2015, and a new English translation of this travelogue and analysis of the text by Elias Muhanna and Johannes Stephan is expected to come out in 2020.

In that memoir, Diyab describes his own hard-knocks upbringing and the way he marveled at the extravagance of Versailles. The descriptions he uses were very similar to the descriptions of the lavish palace that ended up in Galland’s version of the Aladdin story. With that in mind, Horta believes that “Aladdin might be the young Arab Maronite from Aleppo, marveling at the jewels and riches of Versailles.”

This idea is hugely significant in the history of the story. For 300 years, scholars thought that the rags-to-riches story of Aladdin might have been inspired by the plots of French fairy tales that came out around the same time, or that the story was invented in that 18th century period as a byproduct of French Orientalism, a fascination with stereotypical exotic Middle Eastern luxuries that was prevalent then. The idea that Diyab might have based it on his own life — the experiences of a Middle Eastern man encountering the French, not vice-versa — flips the script.

“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,” says Horta. “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 the travelogue, Diyab describes how Lucas presented him in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles as a curiosity of sorts. “Lucas insisted that Diyab dress in stereotypically Oriental fashion — a long tunic, baggy pantaloons, a headscarf of Damascene fabric, a precious belt, a silver dagger and a fur cap from Cairo,” says Horta. “Diyab was also asked to carry a cage containing two jerboas [a desert rodent] for presentation to the ‘sultan of France.’

“Diyab himself came from a modest background, and hungered for the class ascension that occurred in story of Aladdin,” says Horta. “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.”

So Diyab ran away from home, and eventually met Lucas. Diyab eventually went back to Aleppo after Lucas reneged on his promise to get him a position at the French King’s library of Arabic manuscripts. Living in Aleppo appeared to be easier for Diyab as an adult than as an adolescent, as a census showed he had one of the bigger houses in the city. “[He] went back and made good,” Horta says.

Why has Aladdin been remade so many times?

To the scholars who study the tale, its narrative drama isn’t the only reason storytellers keep finding reason to return to Aladdin.

It reflects not only “a history of the French and the Middle East, but also [a story about] Middle Easterners coming to Paris and that speaks to our world today,” as Horta puts it. “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. You arrive with nothing and there’s a network of people helping each other out. 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.”

Razzaque adds, “What [Aladdin‘s origins story] shows is a history of more complex intercultural relations. Syrians were teaching Arabic in Paris, in Rome. Aleppo was a cosmopolitan world, the place where coffee houses come from — a lively story culture.”

And the fact that it was remade over the years is proof the story speaks to a timeless theme, not just one rooted in certain countries’ histories.

Aladdin is one of the folk tales “central to the postmodernist and also post-industrial and imperialist mind,” says al-Musawi. “Directors find some material there to cope with the New World Order, not necessarily to accept it, but to traverse it, parody it and also expose it.”

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

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