Most people remember the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves by the key elements: Ali Baba, the 4o thieves, a cave of treasure, and sometimes a greedy brother, and the fact the thieves were killed by being boiled in jars of oil. When reading the older variants, you realize that Ali Baba isn’t really the hero, or not the only hero.
Ali Baba’s brother Kassim’s slave girl is the one who recognizes the danger of the thieves and protects the household through her cleverness. She even discovers and dispatches the majority of the thieves by pouring boiling oil into the jars where they hid. In fact, I had once heard the story referred to as “Clever Morgiana.” With that in mind, it was easy to build upon the role of Morgiana and give her the place she deserves in our “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.”
Initially, my co-author wanted Ali to name our character Morgiana as a reference to a Western deity. Absolutely not. Morgiana is a character, a woman, and a hero within this Middle Eastern tale. She had already been erased from the tale as far as most Westerners were concerned, to take away her name as well seemed a travesty. I just hope that in our variant readers will truly see her as the powerful woman we are trying to make her.
On a positive note, after a little poking about on the internet, I discovered that perhaps not everyone has forgotten her. Fans of the Magi – Labyrinth of Magic series by Shinobu Ohtaka (a 1001 Nights-themed manga, and now anime) will recognize the name Morgiana.
Tutankhamun’s pectoral with large scarab from Libyan Desert Glass
All right. I’ll admit it. This bit of research was so awesome I had to include desert glass in the book even though I know that geographically this phenomenon does not occur in the Arabian desert where my novel takes place. Also of note was that this form of desert glass wasn’t even discovered until 1932. Of course, the nice thing about Steampunk is that this is re-written history, so at the very least, from a time perspective, I think I’m off the hook.
What I am talking about is generally known as Libyan Desert Glass (LDG). It is something of a geological mystery. In 1932, a desert survey expedition travelling in the corridors between the dunes (saifs) in the Sand Sea on the frontier between Egypt and Libya discovered, scattered about on sand, transparent to translucent pieces of a pale yellow-green glass. It was dated at over 28.5 million years old.
So what is so strange about LDG that it excites so much intellectual curiosity? LDG is an amorphous glass of silicon dioxide, more commonly found in its crystalline form as quartz. Small pieces of silica glass are often found associated with lava flows which cool suddenly as they pour into the sea. The silicon in the lava freezes, forming an amorphous mass that resembles broken glass. These materials are about 75% silica, the rest being made up of crystals of quartz and oxides of aluminium and iron. Desert glass, by contrast, is 98% pure silica, the purest natural glass in the world.
How LDG was formed in the first place is a mystery. Why did it form here and nowhere else? The composition and structure of the glass is consistent with the scenario that is was formed from melted dune sand, and then cooled over a period greater than 24 hours in an earth atmosphere.
Ali is on an aerostat and headed to Jerusalem. But what does the Holy City look like in the 1800s?
Jerusalem in 1800s Oil Painting
And, as our reluctant hero will be travelling through the city, this 1883 map should come in handy for knowing the different quadrants of the city, the various gates, and the general layout. It’s a start. 🙂
So, I’m in the middle of writing a steampunk version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. That sounds simple enough, yes? Read the original, consider what points to keep and then build it into a steampunk frame. The question becomes which Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves? Over the years, there have been several versions of Kitab Alf Layla wa Layla (Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night), seven of them in English, and they all vary significantly. And then, several of the English translations came from earlier French translations. And of course, there is also the question of which “Arabian Nights” to translate from. There are in fact, two “original” written versions:
On the one hand, there’s the 14th-century Syrian Ms. Galland, which the Frenchman Antoine Galland used for his pioneering multi-volumed translation of 1704-1717. This was the form in which the collection first reached Europe, and the choices Galland made in making his rather free adaptation of the materials available to him have had a huge influence ever since. It was he, for example, who chose to incorporate Sinbad the Sailor (originally from a quite different text) into the Thousand and One Nights. It was he who, forced to supply the insatiable demand of his public for more volumes of stories (rather like an eighteenth-century J. K. Rowling), collected “Ali Baba,” “Aladdin” and various other stories from the oral recitations of a visiting Lebanese Christian (the Arabic texts of the stories discovered later turned out to have been adapted from Galland’s French, rather than the other way round).
On the other hand, there’s Z.E.R. [Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension – named for the French scholar who first identified this separate manuscript tradition in the late 1880s]. This forms the basis of most of the “complete” versions of the Nights – i.e. containing 1001 actual nights of storytelling. It was once thought to be the original from which Galland’s incomplete version was extracted, but unfortunately it turns out that the traffic was actually the other way. ZER arose in Egypt largely as a result of the demands of Westerners, brought up on Galland’s elegant fairy-tale version of the Arabic tales, for a fuller and more comprehensively “Oriental” version of the whole collection. The 1835 Bulaq edition (printed in Cairo), and the 1839-42 Macnaghten edition (printed in Calcutta by the British East India Company) are the two essential versions of this text. Opinions differ greatly on which of the two is preferable – Macnaghten is fuller, but also contains a lot more editorial interference (though probably not by William Hay Macnaghten himself, who was killed in the British retreat from Kabul in 1841).
Lots more great information like the above is available from Dr. Jack Ross’ page: http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-translation-of-arabian-nights.html. He highlights the many definitive (if any one can be considered definitive) publications of 1001 Nights that are available as well as provides commentary on the translations and translators. I particularly loved the quote: “Galland for the nursery; Lane for the library; Payne for the study; and Burton for the gutter.”
Just digging through my own collection, I found a Payne, two Burtons, and a Dawood (the Penguin 2-volume version). The Lyon’s edition is going on my Amazon Wishlist.