|Ali Baba by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897.|
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
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|
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.