The folk-tale origins of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about the Tale of Ali Baba originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 112 published on 7 March 1964.

Ali Baba playbill, picture, image, illustration

A Victorian playbill or poster for the popular stage version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

In the year A.D. 942, somewhere in Persia, there died a man called Abu Abdulla Ibn Abdus al-Jashyari. Abu, to shorten his name a little, was one of the world’s first journalists, even though there were no newspapers or magazines in those days.

During his life he set out to write down the one thousand and one stories that a beautiful woman named Scheherazade had once told King Shahyar to keep him interested and to stop him cutting off her pretty head.

Abu took this trouble, he told his friends, for these reasons: there were still people living in his lifetime who had heard the stories handed down since Scheherazade’s death; and because he believed many of the stories were either true, or based on truth.

“Women,” Abu is reported to have said, “even exquisitely beautiful women like Scheherazade, may be good liars, but they do not have the powers of invention necessary to enthral a king for a thousand-and-one nights.”

Abu’s friends saw the sense in this, and they encouraged him in his self-appointed task, for, they said: “Who but a woman would disagree?”

Abu, it seems, took great pains with his reporting, and travelled the length and breadth of the Middle East seeking the information he needed. But he died having completed only 480 of the stories, leaving the other 521 to be pieced together by less competent pens, some of which had the check to re-write what he had already written.

The collection became known as “The Thousand and One Nights,” or “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.”

By the time the Victorians, with their passion for concealing ugly truths, had finished translating the stories into English, they were hardly recognizable – including the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, one of the first Abu had recorded.

One thing is certain about the tale of Ali Baba – it is not as Abu wrote it. Careful reappraisal of the fragment of his original manuscript that still remains, shows that nobody ever said “Open Sesame.” What they did say was “Open up Simsim, you old thief” – Simsim being the name of a very unfortunate man, about whom more later.

Which brings us to the only really improbable point in the story of Ali Baba. “Open Sesame,” (or even “Open Simsim,”) is hardly likely to make a rock move. Try it yourself sometime. Rocks do not take any notice of what anyone says to them. But a very powerful man, whose name might well be Simsim, could roll a pretty big rock away from the mouth of a cave, and roll it back again too, if he had a mind to. . . .

Now here is what probably happened.

In the ninth and tenth century A.D. the whole of the Middle East was infested by gangs of well organized bandits. One of their problems was guarding their accumulated loot.

There were no banks, and honour among thieves was as rare then as it is now. Whom could they trust?

The bandits solved their problem by employing men without tongues and eyes – of which there was a plentiful supply. Gouging out eyes, and slitting tongues was – and in some places still is – a common punishment for felons.

Simsim was probably such a man.

He had nowhere to go, and nothing special to do. He could betray no one, but could push a heavy stone around better than most.

So it was he who was employed by a gang of forty thieves to let them in and out of their secret treasure house. In return, the bandits kept him supplied with food and drink, and the necessities of life.

And so to Ali Baba, whom we know was the second son of a not very successful merchant. Being a second son meant his financial prospects were poor, and that what little his father left when he died, would go to Ali’s elder brother Kassim.

It appears that when Ali’s father did die, Kassim pushed his brother out into the street. Kassim was following a well established tradition, and besides it was prudent, because it was not unknown for a younger son to claim the family inheritance – over his brother’s dead body.

Ali eked out a living gathering wood, and selling it in the narrow, twisting streets of the city.

It must have been on one of his wood-gathering forays that he came across the bandits’ hideout, and heard them calling to Simsim to let them in.

When they had gone, he tricked poor Simsim into letting him in. It would not have been difficult, but may have required some courage.

The rest of the story falls naturally into place.

Brother Kassim heard that Ali was doing remarkably well for himself, and came to see how and why. Ali may have given him just sufficient information to get Kassim caught and killed by the thieves.

Meanwhile, Ali, well able to control his grief, set himself up in a palace with the proceeds of the loot he had obtained from the thieves’ cave.

Now, a man who suddenly becomes fabulously wealthy attracts attention and it would not be long before the bandits guessed who had breached their security. But with a powerful man like Ali they would have had to use guile. It is quite possible they actually did smuggle themselves into his residence in big oil jars, and equally likely that they were discovered and boiled alive in them.

You don’t believe it?

Here then, is food for thought. The story of Ali Baba, thinly disguised, turns up in the legends of India, Africa, Estonia, Finland, Hungary and, believe it or not, Ireland. . . .

All these stories are about a man who became rich by learning a thieves password, and who almost came to grief when the thieves paid him a return visit hidden in oil jars.

A story that persistent, is likely to have some basis.

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