Among the myriad characters that people The Thousand and One Nights’ fantastical tales, Aladdin is still the most recognizable, at least in pop culture. With a hugely anticipated live-action remake of the animated 1992 Disney classic on the way, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. But from a literary perspective, the irony is palpable. While the story of a pauper-turned-prince has long appeared in Western editions of Nights, it—like those of Ali Baba and Sindbad—isn’t an original. The tale was a later addition. The first Aladdin has been all but forgotten, even in its original context, and it’s far racier than the one most know.
With roots predominantly in Iran and India, The Thousand and One Nights—derived from the Middle Persian text Hezar Afsan (A Thousand Tales)—is a compendium of stories from various cultures in the Middle East and the surrounding region. The stories, narrated nightly by the Persian noblewoman Scheherazade to King Shahryar to delay her impending death, are humorous, replete with danger and derring-do. In many cases, they are deliciously erotic. Considering the volume’s frame story, in which the king and his brother Shahzaman are cuckolded, the bawdiness is to be expected. Alas, ever since the introduction of Nights to European audiences in the early 18th century by Antoine Galland, it has been censored and bowdlerized, earning its reputation in some quarters as little more than a collection of children’s stories.
As Marina Warner wrote in her book Stranger Magic, “Galland transformed his sources, his fluent prose adding politesse and polish. … He expurgated the eroticism that heightens many passages in the original.” In the case of “Aladdin,” Galland removed the tale completely from his French translation, replacing it with one far more wholesome that became the basis for Disney’s loose 1992 adaptation. As with “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Sindbad the Sailor,” “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp” had not appeared in any extant Nights manuscripts. Known by scholars as “orphan” tales, they were recited to Galland by a Syrian woman and added to the original (albeit redacted) set of stories.
Galland was not alone in his prudishness or in pandering to foreign sensibilities. More than a century after his translation sparked Night fever in Europe, a similar English one by Edward William Lane appeared circa 1840, which included Galland’s “Aladdin.” As Deborah Philips noted in her book Fairground Attractions, “it was [Lane’s] translations that popularised the stories and laid the basis for Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba as characters in children’s stories.”
In this respect, the adventurer and Orientalist Richard Francis Burton was an exception. Unlike the others, the English translator of Kama Sutra and the far steamier Perfumed Garden understood and valued the eroticism of Nights. Accordingly, he included the original Aladdin—“Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles”—in his late-19th-century version of Nights, which he described as “a plain and literal translation.” He relegated “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp” to an ancillary volume, The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night.
The Aladdin of Galland and Lane smacks of modesty. At the baths, Aladdin only sees Princess Badr al-Budur remove the veil on her face and, despite finding himself on numerous occasions beside her in bed—thanks to the assistance of a genie in his service—he “[does] no villain deed,” even placing a scimitar between themselves to anticlimactic effect. It’s enough that his rival, the vizier’s son, cannot “abate her maidenhead” before she and Aladdin are lawfully wed.
Not so Burton’s translated Aladdin— the “true” one, according to Warner. In this version, entirely different from “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp,” we read of sexual stimulants, dirty old men, lusty divorcées, and princesses with “unpierced pearls” in passages that are at times downright pornographic. The plot involves Aladdin—here the son of a wealthy merchant, not a beggar—setting out as a young man and seeking fortune in trade. He gets involved in many sticky situations (with bandits and the like) and has several amorous episodes before eventually returning home to great fanfare.
The sexuality along the way isn’t subtle. At the beginning of the story, Aladdin’s father, finding himself impotent, ingests an opium-based electuary “wherewith to thicken [his] semen.” Later, at a banquet held by his father, the wondrously handsome Aladdin catches the eye of Mahmud of Balkh—“a man of lewd and mischievous life who loved boys”—who repeatedly contrives to have his way with him. He is blunt: “I brought thee hither,” he says to the lad, “that I might take my pleasure with thee. … Canst not [thou] come to us … and bear whatso thou wilt, without mislike, of spanling, fistling, or a span-long thing?”
But such erotic episodes pale in comparison to one involving Aladdin and Zubaydah, a princess he marries to help a man in need. Having previously divorced Zubaydah, the man wants her back, but in order to marry her again she, in accordance with Islamic law, must first consummate a marriage with another. Enter Aladdin. Upon hearing his melodious voice from afar, Zubaydah comes to him “swinging her haunches,” and the scene that follows leaves little to the imagination:
She took him and, lying down on her back, let down her petticoat trousers, and in an instant that which his father had left him rose up in rebellion against him and he said, “Go to it, O Shaykh Zachary of shaggery, O father of veins!” And putting both hands to her flanks, he set the sugar-stick to the mouth of the cleft and thrust on … and … he plied the box within its cover till he came to the end of it.
Given all this, it’s not hard to see why Disney’s 1992 film and forthcoming remake perpetuate the ongoing suppression of the original Aladdin. The company can hardly be blamed for the disappearance of the hero’s initial incarnation. After all, as Gillian Lathey notes in The Role of Translators in Children’s Literature, Galland paved the way for “a process of abridgement and censorship that took place from the appearance of the first children’s editions in the late eighteenth century.” While affable genies, talking parrots, and chaste love might be exactly what some are looking forward to in May, others might do better to discover the obscure and overlooked Aladdin—perhaps after the little ones have been kissed goodnight. It’s anything but an innocent fairy tale.