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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open sesame...

Ali Baba by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897.
For the magical opening of secret passages, a must for everyone, we have the command, "Open sesame."  We all remember as kids the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.  What we probably don't know is how dark it is.  Very violent.  The version we heard as children had been bowdlerized.  This story is from the medieval Arabic collection, One Thousand and One Nights.  How we came to know it is a story in itself.

Antoine Galland
Antoine Galland was an 18th century French orientalist, famous as the author of  Les Mille et Une Nuits, or The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights in English).  Galland was the first translator of these stories, and his books, twelve volumes published between 1704 and 1717, were a huge success.  Years earlier, in the 1690s, his friend Charles Perrault had published fairy tales.  These were so successful that they influenced Galland’s style, as he wished to conform to the new vogue.  So he left out the erotic passages and poetry, and made them more palatable to current literary tastes.

Some of his stories, seven of them including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, have led critics to believe that Galland added tales to The One Thousand and One Nights because they are not found in any traditional sources.  Sir Richard Burton, who also published a version that was more flamboyant and sumptuous, not to mention erotic – definitely not the one we heard as kids - claimed that the Ali Baba story was part of the original.  That being so, there are no Arabic manuscripts of the Ali Baba story that predate Galland’s.  Galland claimed to have met a Maronite monk, Danna Diab from Aleppo in Syria, who recited fourteen tales from memory, which Galland wrote down.  Ali Baba was one of these.

Sir Richard Francis Burton by Lock & Whitfield
Woodburytype, 1876, National Portrait Gallery, London
So we have a story that is not attested to in any written form prior to Galland’s writings, which may or may not have been his own invention.  The "cave of Ali Baba" is an expression in Arabic meaning a place where there is a lot of wealth.  From what I've read it's been around for a long time, which could mean the story did actually predate Galland, even if it isn't found in any extant manuscripts.  We may never know, unless a manuscript that is unknown, perhaps in some family library, comes to the attention of scholars.

The question remains, where did the phrase open sesame come from?  The term is thought by some scholars to be an Anglicized form of open simsim, simsim being the Arabic word for sesame.  However there is no “p” sound in Arabic.  Some have even suggested that Simsim was the name of one of the thieves, but somehow that just doesn’t fly, to my mind. 

Other scholars claim the phrase "iftaH ya simsim", the correct Arabic term, has been mispronounced as open sesame.  The late professor Jonas C. Greenfield in an article in the Journal of the American Oriental Society mentions that simsim can mean “gate” in Arabic, although it’s rarely used.  This makes the most sense to me.

Ali Baba by Maxfield Parrish, 1909
Probably what has cemented “open sesame” in our minds happened when we were kids.  It came from one of the best episodes of Popeye the Sailor.  As often happens, especially when referencing the non-Western world, this episode combines the Ali Baba story with another one, that of Sinbad the Sailor (Sindebad albaHrii in Arabic).  Popeye is Sinbad and Bluto is the leader of the thieves (of course).  Olive Oyl, as you would guess, is a harem woman that they fight over.  Popeye roasts the Roc, a monstrous bird, in the end, whose name is from the Arabic rukhkh and is also from the Sinbad story.

Therefore, what some of us know of Arabic literature comes to us from a bowdlerized version of a tale, that may or may not be authentic, further filtered through a mish-mash of combined tales by cartoon characters.  Thus we become misinformed from childhood about Arab culture.

All images except as noted from Wikipedia.


  1. The Hebrew word shibboleth (stream, rivulet; ear of corn) was borrowed into English with the meaning "password" based on a biblical story in which the shin was pronounced S by one tribe and SH by another (Judges 12:5-6).

    The Hebrew word for sesame (seed) is SuMSuM or SHuMSHuM. That explains why the Talmudic Hebrew word SiSMa means "sign, signal", why the same word in modern Hebrew means "password", and why the password in "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" was translated as Open Sesame. The TV program Sesame Street was translated into Hebrew as RekHoV SuMSuM.

    Israel "izzy" Cohen
    Petah Tikva

  2. Fascinating! Thanks, Izzy, for your time and input.