September 19, 2012 | by Joshua Cohen
A writer stands outside a story yelling, “Open Sesame!” and the story, as if a seed, opens. And treasure is found inside. That treasure, of course, is just another story, and it all begins again…
Or else, say the writer is no different from any other of his tribe—say he’s actually a thief. And the story is no story, but really a mountain. “Open Sesame!” (this writer continues)—the mountain opens and my meaning is revealed.
A version of this nonsense—this magician’s stage business—occurs in the tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” popularly known from the One Thousand and One Nights.
But Ali’s tale is not to be found in the oldest manuscripts of that collection. Some scholars believe it to be the invention of one Youhenna Diab, known as Hanna of Aleppo, an Arab Christian storyteller said to have communicated it to Antoine Galland, the first translator of the Nights into French. Others argue for a purely Western source, and believe that Ali is the incorrupt fiction of Galland himself (though Richard Burton, the first translator of an unexpurgated Nights into English, claimed that Ali was to be found in an Arabic original, a mythical manuscript often forged but never found).
Indeed Galland (1646–1715) is the earliest source for this famous exclamation: “Sésame,” he has his Baba say, “ouvre toi!” The ponderous Burton (1821–90), on the other hand, has given us not “sesame” but “Open, O Simsim!”
In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the brothers Grimm collected what would seem to be a German variant under the title “Simeliberg.” In their telling a mountain somewhere in the Reich opens to disclose its myriad riches when addressed with the word Semsi: “Berg Semsi, Berg Semsi, thu dich auf.” The Grimms, who were, we should remember, philologists and compilers of a dictionary, explain this Semsi—given in subsequent editions of their work as Simsi and Semeli—as an archaic German term, or name, for “mountain.”
Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the brothers and the better writer, notes, “This name for a mountain is, according to a document in Pistorius, very ancient in Germany. A mountain in Grabfeld is called Similes and in a Swiss song a Simeliberg is again mentioned. This makes us think of the Swiss word ‘Sinel’ for ‘sinbel,’ round.”
Was Ali Baba Galland’s creation or only a character adapted from European folklore? Should we think that Galland, that forty-first thief, in an ostensible translation of Arabic into French, gave us, instead, an immemorial German children’s story in Oriental guise? Thus far we have an errant Arab original, a French sésame from the seventeenth century, a German Semsi collected in the early nineteenth century, and an English Simsim from later that same century. Our understanding is further complicated when we think that Burton, whose English is the latest of the revisions discussed here, has left us with seemingly the most authentic salutation: his Simsim is nothing but the Arabic word for “sesame,” Sesamum orientale.
Which came first, Simsim or Semsi? Sésame or a more germinating seed? As our tale’s setting is “the Middle East” (a British fantasy), opinions and arguments support every agenda, obliterating synthesis. While Sesamum orientale was prized by Babylon for its ability to repel curses, Simsim has been alternatively interpreted as a derivation from Arabic’s shems, meaning “sun,” and even as a corruption of the pacific Salaam (Şemsi is also a Turkish name, originally an honorific, meaning “the illuminated”). Word wealthy we might be, but still wedged between cave walls and protective boulder admitting no light. Information rich but still greedy, as scholars have been greedy for two centuries, for an Arabic source for a German folktale/French art story that, in our Englished day, has become the quintessential narrative of Arabia.
The mountain opens for the voice, the voice rolls away the sepulchral stone—reveals the truest treasure: emptiness, proverbial silver, metaphor’s gold, echo gleaming unisonous. The most valuable coin has always been with us, within us: the word, the call, whether shared, lent, borrowed, or stolen. There is no cavern more mysterious than the mouth, bound by air and bony ignorance.
I first heard Ali Baba’s cry not as a reader of Scheherazade’s crepuscular, mortal, entertainment, but as a pajamafied fanatic of weekend TV. In loony cartoons come Sundays, with even the scrambled Sinbads and Aladdins and genies and Harun al-Rashids addressing the rock face in gumptious New York immigrantese, “Close, seza me!” (after botching the opening act, with hapless “Open Sarsaparillas” and “Open Saddle Soaps”).
I write this in the winter of the eighth and, Insha’Allah, last year of an American presence in Iraq—birthplace of the Nights (and of writing itself). In Iraq, Ali Baba served as U.S. military slang to characterize “the natives,” much as Vietnam’s Charlie was used to dehumanize the enemy of that previous lost war. In time, however, many Iraqis themselves began using the epithet to describe the GIs who looted Iraqi museum property, businesses, and homes; soldiers who need demonstrate no causality, nor do they need any magic formula to burst down doors—just force.
Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto.