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Literature / Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

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Kasim is stumped.

"Open sesame!"

"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" is a story from the Arabian Nights originally composed by Syrian Maronite writer Hanna Diyab.

Ali Baba, a poor woodcutter, stumbles on the treasure cave of a band of robbers, which is magically sealed and must be opened by speaking the words "Open Sesame". He takes some of the treasure from the cave and becomes rich, but his brother Kasim, a greedy merchant, discovers this new wealth and demands to know the secret of the cave. Unfortunately, once inside he forgets the magic password to open the door, and subsequently, he is discovered by the robbers and killed. They cut his body into quarters and hang it up at the entrance to the cave. Ali Baba finds his brother's body, and buries him, doing what he can to disguise the cause of death, but the robbers realize that someone else has discovered their hiding place. Their attempts to identify Ali Baba and kill him are repeatedly foiled by a clever slave-girl named Morgiana, and all the thieves wind up dead. Morgiana marries Kasim's son, Ali Baba makes Kasim's widow his second wife, and the family lives happily ever after.

Although the story is best-known as one of the Arabian Nights and is probably the best-known one along with "Aladdin", they were not part of the earliest ancient Arabic versions. Since there are no Arabic sources for them predating the 1704 French translation The Thousand and One Nights, they were both most likely originally composed by Syrian Maronite writer Hanna Diyab in the early 18th century. Diyab had recounted these stories and a number of other ones upon request to Antoine Galland, the French translator of the 1704 edition, who went on to include them in his translation without crediting Diyab. This theft was exposed when Diyab's autobiography was found in 1993, and finally translated and published in full in 2015, and greatly expanded our understanding of some of the most popular tales from the collection.

This story provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Morgiana is a borderline case. She personally kills 38 of the 40 thieves, and her last kill is up close and personal, with a knife.
  • Are We There Yet?: When the robbers are hiding in oil jars, on the order of their chief, they hear Morgiana approach, thinking she is the robber chief, and one of them asks "is it time?". She replies in a deep voice "Not now, soon." All the robbers do this in turn.
  • Asshole Victim: In some versions, Kasim bullies or blackmails Ali Baba into revealing the secret of the cave. You don't feel too sorry for him when he meets his fate.
  • Bad Boss: The leader of the thieves angrily kills two of the thieves after they leave a mark in some way to keep Ali Baba's house recognizable for them to return to kill Ali Baba, but Morgiana marks numerous houses in the same way to make the markers useless... in spite of how this clearly indicates their failures are due to someone else's intentional meddling rather any fault of their own.
  • Big Bad: The chief bandit of the 40 Thieves.
  • Blindfolded Trip: Morgiana does this with Baba Mustafa the tailor, leading him to Kasim's house so Mustafa can stitch Kasim's body back together. This precaution fails when the bandits arrive to seek Ali Baba — on three separate trips the blindfolded Mustafa successfully retraces his steps to lead the bandits to Kasim's house, where Ali Baba is now living.
  • Canon Immigrant: As noted above, this tale was not included in any of the ancient manuscripts that make up the Arabian Nights and in fact, there is no source for it before Antoine Galland included it in his early 18th-century translation of the Arabian Nights into French.
  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase
  • Dead Guy on Display: Poor Kasim is hung outside the door to the cave as a warning.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Ali Baba is the protagonist at first, but he pretty much stops being such after he recovers Kasim's body; at that point the story belongs to Morgiana, with Ali Baba now a supporting character.
  • Desert Bandits: The 40 thieves rob caravans then place the bounty in their magic cave.
  • Dismembering the Body: When Ali Baba went looking for his brother, Cassim, he went to the Forty Thieves' hideout where he last told of his brother of their wealth. He discovered his body quartered at the entrance, where he returned him home in pieces. He tried to keep his death a secret, recruiting his brother's slave, Morgiana, in helping him hide the body.
  • Due to the Dead: Ali Baba goes to a lot of trouble to give his brother a proper burial.
  • Faking the Dead: An odd case where the victim truly is dead but the manner of death needs to be faked. Kasim's household spends two or three days building the ruse that their master is desperately ill, so when he is finally pronounced 'dead' it raises no suspicion.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: In order to infiltrate Ali Baba's house the chief bandit poses as an oil merchant and hides his men in large oil jars. (One of the jars actually does contain oil, to keep up the ruse). When Morgiana discovers the hiding bandits, she dispatches them all with boiling oil.
  • Feminist Fantasy: Sure, Ali Baba's the one who finds the cave and retrieves Kasim's body, but everything else in the story, including killing the bandits, is performed by Morgiana the slave-girl.
  • Good Is Dumb: Ali Baba is so incredibly dutiful and virtuous that he completely misses several attempts on his life until Morgiana has already foiled them.
  • Greed: Kasim's Fatal Flaw. He apparently intends to loot the whole treasure cave in one take, lingers too long and forgets the password.
  • Guile Hero: Morgiana.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: The robbers cut Kasim's body into four parts.
  • He Knows Too Much: At first, the Bandit Chief merely wants to kill Ali Baba to protect the location of his hoard. When all his men are dead, however, it becomes a matter of self-preservation.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Ali Baba's slave girl Morgiana singlehandedly thwarts all the thieves' attempts on his life before he even realizes he's in danger.
  • Innocent Soprano: In the Soviet musical adaptation, Ali Baba's wife, The Ingenue Zainab, has a very high voice, in contrast to the contralto of Kasim's savvier and less scrupulous wife Fatima.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: One of the thieves learns the location of Ali Baba's house, and puts a mark on his door. Morgiana sees the mark and puts the same mark on every other door in the street. A second thief tries to mark the door more surreptitiously, but Morgana notices that one too. The leader of the thieves is smarter, however, and chooses to study the house and area until he memorizes the location.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Refusing to leave his brother corpse's defiled and wanting to bury him properly is what puts the bandits on Ali Baba's trail.
  • Open Sesame: The Trope Namer. It also requires a "Shut Sesame" upon leaving the cave.
  • Plunder: The titular thieves got their treasure from raiding caravans, but Ali Baba and his family get to be the ones to enjoy it.
  • Rags to Riches: Finding the bandits' hoard makes Ali Baba rich overnight, and he remains sensible enough (unlike his brother) to let the money last and keep his family and his son's family living in splendor for their entire lives. Morgiana also goes from Kasim's slave-girl to a daughter of the household, as the wife of either Kasim's son or Ali Baba's.
  • Rich Sibling, Poor Sibling: Ali Baba and Kassim are sons of a merchant but while Kassim grew up to be a greedy merchant with a wealthy wife, Ali Baba is a woodcutter and marries a poor wife. However, when Ali Baba struck luck of finding a thieves' hideout and took some of the wealth, Kassim demands the location of the hideout. This ended up getting him killed when the thieves found him in their hideout.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Everything about the story is pretty much entirely mundane aside from the cave that opens and closes only to the words "Open/Shut Sesame". Just how the cave does this is never brought up.
  • Sacred Hospitality: The bandit chief comes to dinner as Ali Baba's guest. To avoid sharing salt with his host (and being bound not to harm him by the rules of hospitality), he asks for no salt in his meal — which, unfortunately for him, rouses Morgiana's suspicions.
  • Slave Liberation: Ali Baba frees Morgiana after she saves his life multiple times.
  • Spanner in the Works: Ali Baba's cover is blown when Baba Mustafa, the tailor, brags to a stranger that he is so skilled he can sew a human body back together. Later, Kasim's son unwittingly brings the bandit chief into Ali Baba's home.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the original tale, Kasim is killed by the titular thieves after they discover him in their cave. The thieves themselves are all dead by the end of the tale. Kid-friendly adaptations typically spare Kasim by having him simply imprisoned by the thieves (and later rescued by Ali Baba), while the thieves end up in jail rather than dead.
  • Spell My Name With An S:
    • Depending on the version of the story, Ali Baba's brother is either spelled "Kasim", "Cassim", or "Kasym".
    • Morgiana's name also appears as "Morgana" or "Mardschana" in various versions.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Ali Baba marries either his son or his nephew to Morgiana as a reward for her heroism. Ali Baba doesn't exactly have a kingdom, but Morgiana gets to be part of the family and own a share in his wealth.
  • Stealing from Thieves: The eponymous character takes some treasures from the robbers' secret hoard. When his brother Cassim tries to do the same, the robbers catch and execute him, but the story shows it to be a punishment for his selfishness and greed, not for the act of stealing itself.
  • Stupid Evil: The Forty Thieves are obsessed with finding Ali Baba to silence him, and just don't know when to quit. They spend a fortune to find the place (as the tailor gets smart and charges a larger fee each time), two of them are killed by the leader for messing up, and when they finally do find his house, all of them but the leader are killed in the attempt. But the leader still doesn't give up, and his final attempt gets him killed. Relocating and setting up shop elsewhere may have been the smart thing, but they clearly lacked smarts.
  • Treasure Room: The thieves' cave. In the end, it's the sole property of Ali Baba and his children.
  • Try Everything: Ali Baba's brother Kasim attempts his own raid on the thieves' cave, but forgets the password, attempting several different kinds of grain without recalling the right one. "Open Barley?"
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Ali Baba and Kasim's wives end up sharing this role. When Ali Baba returns with a sack of gold from the robbers' cave, his wife borrows a scale from Kasim to weigh it. Kasim's wife, curious to know what they need the scale for, puts something sticky on it and thus discovers Ali Baba's new wealth when the scale comes back with a coin stuck to it.
  • Women Are Wiser: Kasim's wife discovers Ali Baba's new treasure; Morgiana foils all of the thieves' attempts to harm him. Meanwhile, Kasim forgets how to exit the cave, and neither Ali Baba nor his nephew realizes his life was in danger until Morgiana's already saved him.
  • You Have Failed Me: The bandit leader kills two of his men who volunteer to find the house and mess up. (See Needle in a Stack of Needles, above.) Then he wises up and decides to do it himself.

Alternative Title(s): Ali Baba