Richard E Grant unravels origins of The Arabian Nights

Aladdin film poster

The Arabian Nights introduced readers the world over to a bewitching world of magic, genies, evil spirits and iconic heroes. Actor Richard E Grant investigates their origins and examines their enduring appeal.

The Arabian Nights story that most transfixed me as a boy was Ali Baba and The 40 Thieves.

It appealed because there were caves near the house where I grew up in Swaziland, so a story that featured a cave full of hidden treasure, that could be "opened and closed" with the magic words "Open Sesame" seemed more immediate than other fairy stories I had read.

Its horror content, specifically Aladdin's brother Cassim who forgot the magic words to get out of the cave - resulting in him being murdered by the returning thieves and his body being cut up into pieces - was monstrously pleasing and terrifying to me at that age.

It was also a good bogey-man image to conjure up when my father warned me about what would happen if I stole anything.

The story of the old tailor Baba Mustafa secretly sewing Cassim's body back together again for his funeral has haunted me ever since.

As has the servant girl Morgiana outwitting the villains by pouring hot oil over their heads while hidden in oil jars.

It was surprising to discover during the making of a documentary for the BBC, that the veracity of Ali Baba has been questioned.

When Antoine Galland, the much-feted French Orientalist translator of the Arabian Nights, charmed Parisian society in the 18th Century with his translation, Ali Baba was one of the most popular tales.

Antoine Galland claimed that he had heard the tale from a Middle Eastern storyteller from Aleppo, Syria.

Other academics have claimed that Galland invented the story, although the celebrated explorer and Orientalist Sir Richard Burton also confirmed that the story was part of the original Arabic manuscript (see box).

Galland's original manuscript is a small black book, kept under lock and key at the National Library in Paris.

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Media captionWatch: Richard Grant explores how the Arabian Nights burst onto the scene

The proprietorial curator wore surgical gloves to handle the book.

Unlike 18th Century English, it was easily readable in French, which does not seem to have changed much in the past three centuries.

She explained that there was academic controversy about the provenance of Ali Baba, but that whether it was an invention of Galland or not, it fitted within the canon of the tales.

Trying to pin down the origin of stories that have passed down orally is akin to juggling with water.

The tradition of oral storytelling and embellishment down the centuries makes perfect sense when you consider that tribes of nomadic people travelled across North Africa to the Middle East and beyond to India, putting storytelling centre stage around camp fires in the evenings.

Image caption Conservatives in Egypt tried to have the tales banned for being anti-Islamic

Anyone who has ever played that game where one person whispers the beginning of a story into someone else's ear and they then have to repeat and add to it, will know how a story evolves and expands very quickly.

Likewise, the oral tradition of repeating the stories that make up The Arabian Nights, told by different people over a period of 10 centuries, will be hugely variable.

Many stories involve poor people defying tyrants, genies, evil spirits and adverse physical conditions to win the hearts of their true love or monetary riches.

Spending any time in the Sahara desert makes it clear how the elements can conjure up sand or wind storms in an instant, and it does not take rocket science to work out how these acts of nature could be re-configured or interpreted as the actions of Djinns (genies).

Two years ago, religious conservatives in Egypt attempted to ban The Arabian Nights on the grounds that they were too sexually permissive and anti-Islamic.

Prompting public outcry and fierce opposition, especially from academics, the ban was overruled.

The Egyptian Attorney General ruled it was one of humanity's greatest treasures.

The more violent and sexual aspects of the stories were watered down in Galland's translation, and the panto versions we are so familiar with from childhood are testimony to this self-censorship.

However, the mixture of exotic locations, paupers and tyrants, magic and malarkey has proved to be a potent combination and accounts for the Nights' continuing popularity.

Secrets of The Arabian Nights is on BBC Four 21 April 2100 BST.

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