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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Aladdin’s window

(phr.) to finish Aladdin’s window, to be tasked with completing something left unfinished by a superior; to attempt or be compelled to attempt completing something beyond your capabilities

If you have ever worked for a boss who sees no issue in dropping their to-do lists onto their juniors at the last moment, or somewhere where piles of unwanted work are passed from person to person (before typically landing on the desk of whoever is least equipped to deal with them) then this is the phrase for you. To finish Aladdin’s window is to attempt to complete a superior’s unfinished work, or be tasked with completing something that proves beyond your capabilities.

As well as apparently having a window, this is the same Aladdin who had a lamp, a cave, a genie, and a pantomime.

His rags-to-riches tale was introduced to western readers in the eighteenth century by Antoine Galland, a French writer and orientalist whose twelve-volume translation of the Arabian Nights stories, Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704–17), was the first edition of the tales published in Europe.

Despite its popularity, Aladdin’s tale was not actually part of the original Arabian text, and was instead one of a number of so-called ‘orphan’ tales Galland heard first hand and added to the collection himself. The Story of Aladdin, Or the Wonderful Lamp, as he called it, came from a Syrian merchant and storyteller named Hanna Diyab, who travelled across Europe and north Africa in the early 1700s and contributed to Galland’s work whilst staying in Paris in 1708.

Though not part of the original canon, Aladdin’s story is still one of the most popular in the Arabian Nights collection, and Galland’s early version of it has much in common with the tale we know today. It begins with Aladdin being recruited by a wicked sorcerer to recover an apparently nondescript oil lamp from an enchanted cave. But when he becomes trapped inside, Aladdin discovers the genie of the lamp himself, escapes the cave, and with the genie’s assistance restyles himself as a grand prince, intent on winning the heart of the sultan’s daughter.

For all of these similarities, however, there are a number of subtle differences here too. Galland’s version is set in China, not Arabia, and Aladdin is not an orphan, but has a loving (though somewhat overprotective) mother. There are also two genies at work in this version—one confined to the lamp, and a second less powerful spirit confined to a magic ring. And it is also from a curious chapter in Galland’s version of the story that the expression finish Aladdin’s window derives.

To prove both his affluence and suitability for marrying the princess, Galland’s Aladdin has the genie construct him a grand palace, gaudier and even more impressive than the sultan’s. Inside there is a magnificent pavilion, set into the walls of which are twenty-four ornate window-niches—all but one of which are decorated with innumerable emeralds, diamonds, and other precious stones.

As the sultan inspects Aladdin’s palace, he struggles to find a single imperfection until his eye finally falls on this one bare, undecorated corner:

“Alas!” he said, relieved to find a flaw. “This niche, at least, is imperfect!” Turning to Aladdin, he inquired the reason of it.
“Yes, my lord,” answered Aladdin, “woe unto it; it is indeed unfinished, for the workmen clamoured to be allowed to prepare themselves for our wedding festivities instead, and I had not the heart to tell them no. So they left it as thou seëst it.”
… The sultan stroked his beard in contemplation. “My son,” he said presently, “the thought has come to me to complete it myself!”
“Great king!” cried Aladdin. “If thou wilt honour me thus, it will be a fitting perpetuation of thy memory in the palace of thy daughter.”

The sultan enthusiastically sets about decorating this unfinished corner of Aladdin’s palace, calling upon his best jewellers and goldsmiths to carry out the work and emptying his treasury of its finest jewels. Despite of all their efforts, however, the sultan and his team cannot complete the job: even with his treasury exhausted, the niche is only half covered in gemstones, and even the craftsmanship of his most talented workmen cannot match the splendour of the other niches.

Ultimately, Aladdin has the sultan’s attempt dismantled, returns his jewels to him, and calls upon his genie to complete the niche instead. As Aladdin inspects the genie’s handiwork, the sultan, deflated and disappointed, returns to the palace:

“O, my son!” cried the sultan, as Aladdin greeted him. “Why didst thou not let my jewellers complete the niche? Wilt thou not have the palace whole?”
Aladdin answered him, “My lord, I left it unfinished in order to raise a doubt in thy mind, and then dispel it; for … a glance at the pavilion as it now stands will make the matter plain.”
He led the sultan to the pavilion and showed him the completed niche. The sultan’s astonishment was greater than ever, now that Aladdin had accomplished in so short a space that which he himself could command neither workmen nor jewels sufficient to accomplish in many months. It filled him with wonder. He embraced Aladdin and kissed him, saying there was none like him in all the world.

It is the sultan’s inability to complete what Aladdin had apparently started—despite his very best efforts and unlimited resources—that lies at the root of this expression. To finish Aladdin’s window is ultimately to attempt (or be asked to attempt) the unfinished, or the unfinishable.

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