Wednesday, October 21

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

retold and illustrated
by Emanuele Luzzati
Random House 1969

I don't remember when I first heard the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but I'm guessing it was originally from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Maybe it was a retelling with Popeye the Sailor. I know it wasn't the only place I heard it, because it was one of those stories that was sort of assumed with popular culture. Everyone knew the story of Ali Baba tricking the thieves out of all their loot, stored in a secret cave opened by the words "Open Sesame!"

But kids today don't know the story, not as far as I can tell. They know Aladdin but certainly not Alāʼ ad-Dīn of the "original" Arabian Nights tales. They might not even know The original Arabian Nights stories, or think Scheherazade (or more properly Shahryar) is a rapper, and there's some question as to whether or not Ali Baba even belongs with the other stories from ancient Persia. Still, some knowledge of these old tales no matter how bowdlerized or maimed would be better than nothing, yes?

Here we have an ancient example, circa the late 1960s, of a loose retelling of the tale. In it we have a lazy Ali Baba cut from the same cloth as Tom Sawyer in that he possesses smarts but would rather lay about. One day, from a secret vantage point, he spies the thieves entering their secret lair and once they've left, Ali avails himself to all their loot. Once home, he proceeds to practically give away the spoils of his adventure until the day the thieves come calling to Ali's town. They figure out he has their trinkets and gold and devise a couple of plans to get their money back.

They are armed cutthroats, why are they even messing around?

Anyway, Ali Baba tricks them and steals away to the life he once had, living carefree and poor.

From a modern day adult vantage point, after surviving the PC wars and all the other cultural baggage of the last 40 years, it is hard not to look at this depiction of Ali as a layabout and wonder if this isn't some form of racism, or cultural insensitivity at the very least. I suppose this happy-go-lucky demeanor offsets the generic evil of the thieves but it seems an unnecessary detail. Perhaps it also softens up the dubious morality of a story where stealing is viewed as okay, so long as you steal from thieves and then give it all away.

Should I cut Luzzati some slack because he was better known as an illustrator? I'm going to have to say no here because the choice to make Ali a sort of lazy trickster character was all in his retelling. He could have made Ali Baba more of a simpleton, but the core of the story is that he outwits the thieves and gets away with it. There are other details, fantastic details, that would have been just as interesting to expand on, if they didn't make the book longer than it is. Like the fact that Ali shows his brother Kassim the cave, where he later returns without Ali only to be hacked to bits. Now, I know that's not exactly picture book friendly but it's no less grim than some Grimm tales, especially when Ali has his brother sewn back together by a town tailor so they can give him a proper burial without making the town suspicious.

That would make for some fun explaining on a parent's part! There's also a slave girl in Kassim's house who helps Ali and who he later marries... this story has it all!

I did pick up the book for reasons other than story – more for the art by Luzzati, which has the thick, dark outlines and bold colors of a stained glass window – but unfortunately even they cannot blind me to the problems of the telling. Luzatti was also part of an animation team and a few years later made a short animated cartoon of this story. There are a number of Luzatti cartoons on YouTube, but unfortunately not Ali Baba. I'd be curious to see how it translated.

In the event that anyone from Random House is out there, if you still own this property you might want to consider having someone use these illustrations as the basis for another author's shot at retelling. Disney has recently been having contemporary writers retell their versions of classic fairy tales using concept art from the movie adaptations, this would be no different. A little more cultural sensitivity, some nicely rephotographed layouts, and I think you have a great little reissue.

I might even know a certain MFA candidate who would be willing to give the story a go. Just let me know.

As a final footnote, what is interesting here is how the term Ali Baba is being used today. According to the keeper of all knowledge, Wikipedia, US military forces in Iraq currently the term Ali Baba as derogatory slang to describe looters. Ironically, Iraqis also use the term for thieves as well. It is perhaps the one thing both sides can agree upon. It would be interesting to know just how much of the original story both sides really knew, or whether they received all their knowledge of Ali Baba from a cartoon or a badly retold picture book.

(I realize the cover shown above is slightly different than the US version. I couldn't get the copy I borrowed to fit on the scanner, and there weren't any other versions available in the Internet.)

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