Spoiler alert: Aladdin was French

JUNE 2 — Like millions of other nostalgic 80/90s kids, last week I trotted off to watch Aladdin.

I was worried this would be an exercise in Disney cashing in on nostalgia, laying waste to wonderful memories of the 1992 original in the quest for more revenue. 

The film was enjoyable really. I guess you can’t go wrong with that material and I must give them some kudos for (spoiler alert) updating things so Jasmine can become ruler in her own right without just marrying the man who would become Sultan.

Curious about the tale in general and its origins — how much did Disney depart from the original legend to make its classic — I did some digging to find the original version of the tale and that’s when things got interesting. 

It turns out that the ancient Arabic folk tale taken from the classic 1001 Nights... well, isn’t so ancient after all.

In fact, just about all research about the tale indicates the story of Aladdin was incorporated into translations of 1001 Nights by 18th century French translator Antoine Galland.

A Lebanese storyteller is supposed to have invented the tale basing aspects of it on his own life and recounted the tale to Galland.

So, Aladdin isn’t a piece of ancient Arabian folklore but rather a relatively modern footnote originally authored in French.

It was passed off by Galland as an ancient tale and even translated back into Arabic from the French to complete the ruse but the bottomline is that it was created more in France than in Arabia.

This is rather startling, and it turns out Galland in his translations also fabricated/authored the tales of Ali Baba and Sinbad the sailor which he also passed off as ancient Arabian legends from the 1001 Nights

The reality is so that many of the traditions, stories and customs we believe to be ancient are often not. 

The proud Scottish kilt and the Tartan patterns we learn distinguish each Scottish clan actually came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Indian sherwani is a variant of the English frockcoat.

The sari blouse which seems so Indian was promoted by colonial rulers who wanted Indian women to cover up; before that, saris were largely worn blouse-less! 

The list goes on: Mother’s Day was invented by an American woman in 1908 and she would go on to hate the tradition she created because of its commercialisation. 

Outside of festivals and dress, we have fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements from Wahhabism to Brexiteers harking back to olden days when things were more glorious and pure.

Like the tale of Aladdin, often these yearned-for golden eras have no basis in historical reality. 

Culture is never pure. Rather cultures borrow from each other constantly and they evolve more rapidly than you think.

Something that first took place a 100 years ago can be hugely influential and appear like it’s been a tradition forever.

Working out actual practices and conditions from thousands of years ago — in the timelines many fundamentalists and nationalists like to express themselves — is nearly impossible. 

And even if you look back 1,000 years, things were probably much more mixed up than you’d expect.

In that way the tale of Aladdin is a great expression of the constant movement and borrowing of ideas that define all cultures.

The tale takes the imagery and fundamentals of Arabian myths — genies, cruel viziers and flying carpets — and weaves them into a modern (for the 18th century) fairy tale format with a clear beginning, crisis and resolution. In fact, early tellings have the story set in China.

This is something that should be encouraged; fusions, fluxes and flows are everything.

This is what underlies modern Malaysia, Singapore and beyond. From laksa to teh tarik, Singlish and the sarong kebaya — so much is shared, mixed and borrowed that no one culture or tradition can claim purity or exclusive ownership — and that is actually a good thing.

It’s how things were in the old days and how things will continue to be.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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