Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The story of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ does not appear in the Calcutta II text. However, since it is one of the more famous tales from The Arabian Nights as popularised by Antoine Gallard, Penguin Classics have seen fit to include it too, at the end of Volume I.

Since there is no extant Arabic text for the story, the version presented here is a rendering of Gallard’s French tale, translated by Ursula Lyons (a distinguished academic who happens to be married to Malcolm Lyons).

Volume I of the Penguin Classics edition includes a short essay by Ursula Lyons on the challenges of translating Gallard, and the choices made. She notes that the flowery, seventeenth-century French of this story is very different from the Arabic of Calcutta II, but for readers who have already reached the end of Volume I, this is superfluous. After more than 900 pages and nearly 300 nights, this reader (at least) is very well attuned to the flow and timbre of the older stories. The difference in style is immediately noticeable, with phrases and descriptions that the Shahrazad of the core text simply would not think to say:

… she rushed to Ali Baba’s house and told him and his wife – more through tears than her words – what had brought her here.

There are also explanatory phrases that can only have been added by the Frenchman:

but no-one showed any alarm because such marriages are not unusual in our religion.

The skeleton of the story should be well known. Down-on-his-luck Ali Baba happens upon a band of thieves as they stow their ill-gotten treasure in a magical cave, opened by the (to modern ears) famous pass-phrase ‘open sesame’ — perhaps the most obvious and ostentatious contribution that The Arabian Nights has made to the English language. I wonder if it is such a pervasive idiom in other languages? In Arabic?

Reading the actual story brings two fundamental revelations. The first is that wicker baskets do not feature at all! I always thought that at some point, Ali Baba hid in a basket in order to escape the thieves, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, the thieves themselves hide in large oil jars, hoping to infiltrate Ali Baba’s house and avenge themselves on him for pinching some of their treasure. But the basket thing is a misapprehension. Home furnishing stores have been lying to us all this time.

The second revelation is that the hero of the story, the one who outsmarts the thieves, is not Ali Baba at all. It is his slave, Marjana, who saves her master’s skin on several occasions. First, she takes control of the disposal of Qasim’s body, after he is murdered and quartered by the thieves. Then she is observant enough to notice that the criminals have been marking Ali Baba’s house with chalk. When the thieves hide in their jars, it is Marjana who discovers the plot and pours boiling oil into each jar, killing each of the dastardly occupants. And finally, it is Marjana who realises that the merchant Khawaja is the chief of thieves in disguise. She stabs him before he can stab Ali Baba.

Marjana is intelligent and shrewd. She has a remarkable agency for a slave, and her unilateral decisions drive the narrative to its positive conclusion.

Marjana - Illustration by Rene Bull
Marjana – Illustration by Rene Bull

The eponymous hero, on the other hand, is a bit of a clod. Ali Baba is savvy enough to realise that the money he steals from the cave must be well hidden, but that seems to exhaust his mental energy. He is oblivious to multiple assassination attempts and twice invites the same villain into his home (and it’s not as if Khawaja’s disguise is all that effective—Marjana sees right through it). I’ve been racking my brains to think of an apt pop-cultural comparison for the sidekick being so much more competent than the ostensible leader, and only cartoon characters come to mind. I think of Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and Fred taking credit for Mystery Inc’s success when of course it’s Thelma who usually solves the mysteries. Homer Simpson winning fame and fortune when it is Marge or Lisa keeping him from going off the rails. Or maybe Gromit shaking his head in disbelief at Wallace in The Wrong Trousers, as the evil penguin is invited in as a lodger and offered tea.

I suppose we could award Ali Baba a quantum of credit for at least recognising the debt he owes his slave. After her first act of heroism with the oil jars, he grants Marjana her freedom. And when she dispatches the thief leader, Ali marries her off to his son. All of this is pretty regressive to modern eyes… but for medieval Arabia (and seventeenth-century France, for that matter) this is certainly a happy ending for one of the strongest female characters in The Arabian Nights.

Stray observations

  • “The thief quickly put a mark on the door with a piece of chalk.” I was chatting recently with a policeman who told me that modern burglary gangs do this!
  • Indeed, the story has a remarkable amount of information about how best to conceal the fact you have committed a crime. It details the considerations and concealments one must take when embezzling money and liquidating stolen goods (take your mules to market at different times), how best to fake an illness to disguise an unlawful death… and how to bury 37 bodies in your back garden.
  • I laughed at this:

    Placing another gold coin in his hand, Marjana went on: ‘god forbid that I should ask you to do anything which you couldn’t do in all honour!’

  • Abriza’s maidservant was also called Marjana.
Illustration by Maxfield Parrish
“Cassim … was so alarmed at the danger he was in that the more he endeavoured to remember the word Sesame the more his memory was confounded” Illustration by Maxfield Parrish

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