The real author of Aladdin?

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

A new translation of memoirs by the 18th-century Syrian traveller Hanna Diyab casts fresh light on well-known tales from the Arabian Nights, writes David Tresilian

The Book of Travels
The Book of Travels

Following the spectacular success of the French orientalist Antoine Galland’s translation of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights, the first volume of which appeared in Paris in 1704, readers across Europe were avid for more tales of mediaeval Baghdad, the court of the Abbasid caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and the genies (jinn) that shadowed the city’s merchants and travellers, among them the most famous of all, Sindbad.

However, the problem was that Galland’s stock of stories, drawn from a manuscript acquired in Syria where he had been French ambassador to the court of Ottoman sultan Mehmed IV and then a representative of the French Levant Company, was rapidly drying up. While there were enough stories to fill many volumes of French translations, eventually making Galland a famous author and a wealthy man, new ones were always welcome, particularly if they contained elements likely to appeal to European taste.

It was at this point that Galland had a remarkable stroke of luck, for on 25 March 1709 he wrote in his Journal that he had been introduced to a young Syrian called Hanna Diyab, the servant of fellow French orientalist Paul Lucas, who had told him of the existence of many more stories of similar type. Galland’s excitement can well be imagined when Diyab described tales almost outdoing Sindbad for their marvelous happenings, and many of them duly ended up in his translation of the Nights.

The additional stories, unknown in any Arabic manuscript, include some of the most famous of all the stories in the Nights such as “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banu.” The suspicion has always been that Diyab wrote the stories himself, or rather that he dictated them for Galland’s benefit with the latter then writing up French versions, since Galland’s Journal contains notes of many further meetings with Diyab.

Some 19th-century editors and translators of the Nights, among them the British Arabist Edward Lane, excluded the additional stories from their editions of the Nights on the grounds that they did not have Arabic originals, before they were reinstated by Sir Richard Burton in his translation of the Nights and by Stanley Lane-Poole in his revision of Lane’s translation. Burton and Lane-Poole must have felt, as editors and translators generally have done since, that the Nights without Aladdin and Ali Baba would be like Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the prince.

The decision to reinstate the stories despite questions regarding their provenance drew attention to the contributions made by Diyab to the genesis of the Nights, even if until recently very little was known about him aside from scattered comments in Galland’s Journal. Diyab is not mentioned in his employer Paul Lucas’s account of his Mediterranean travels, for example, which appeared in three installments between 1704 and 1719, despite the fact that it was Lucas who originally introduced Diyab to Galland, presumably knowing of the young man’s literary talents.

However, this situation changed forever in the 1990s when an account by Diyab of his travels across the Mediterranean with his French employer, his meeting with Galland, and even his presentation to French king Louis XIV at Versailles was found gathering dust in the Vatican Library in Rome. A French translation of this by scholars Paule Fahmé-Thiéry, Bernard Heyberger, and Jerome Lentin appeared in Paris in 2015 (reviewed in the Weekly in February 2016), and now a new English translation of Diyab’s Book of Travels has appeared in the New York University Press Library of Arabic Literature series, finally allowing English-speaking readers access to this remarkable addition to the literature on the Nights.

Impeccably produced to the high standards of the NYU series, the translation, by professor of Arabic Elias Muhanna, contains a facing Arabic text of the Vatican manuscript edited by Swiss Arabist Johannes Stephan who has also contributed a wide-ranging introduction. Eventually, the two hardbound volumes of the Book of Travels will doubtless reappear in a single English-language only paperback edition.

In the meantime, those already familiar with Diyab’s account of his work with Lucas and his meeting with Galland from the French translation will have the opportunity to see how it comes out in English in Muhanna’s lively and pleasingly colloquial version. Those not familiar with it, perhaps the majority of readers, will now also have the opportunity to read stories of Diyab’s travels in the early 18th-century Mediterranean, which, as Stephan points out in his introduction, almost outdo the stories of the Nights themselves for marvelous and unexpected events.

DIYAB’S TRAVELS: Diyab started out in life as a novice in a monastery near Tripoli in what today is Lebanon but left as a result of doubts about his vocation. Meeting Lucas, one of many French merchants trading in the Levant at the time, he agreed to act as the latter’s interpreter, eventually travelling with him to Egypt, Tunisia, and France.

One of the pair’s first destinations was Egypt, where the “khawajah Lucas” was interested in buying precious stones, old coins, and other curios. Arriving in Alexandria in June 1707 and welcomed by the French consul, they made their way by boat down the Nile to the port of Bulaq near Cairo where Lucas began his search of the commercial districts. Particularly valuable purchases were hidden in false-bottomed trunks “so that even if the trunks were opened, they would not attract the attention of the authorities,” Diyab writes in his memoir of these events.

Lucas had heard that interesting items were to be found in Sinai and Upper Egypt, but having been persuaded that both were dangerous, he decided to head for Fayoum instead.

“Khawajah, you can’t travel through those parts,” he is told by Cairo residents, according to Diyab. “The natives are nasty brutes who cast spells, the trip is dangerous, and there is no guarantee that you’d return alive.” In Fayoum, Lucas and Diyab meet the sanjak (governor) of the region, explaining that they want to buy “old coins… idols made of silver and copper, books written on parchment,” and other items.

There is a dodgy moment when, having ridden out to view “a black column on which were engraved ancient designs” (identified as the Begig Obelisk), the pair are surrounded by 200 villagers who demand “the gold that’s under the column, or else we will kill you.” Fortunately, a representative of the sanjak arrives in time to save them, but it is a narrow escape, according to Diyab.

Following the trip to Fayoum, Lucas decides the time has come to leave Egypt with his purchases on the way to similar errands elsewhere. Diyab writes that “in no time at all we arrived at Old Cairo, loaded up our things on donkeys, and went off to the consul’s house in the Mouski quarter where we’d previously stayed. A few days later, we traveled by boat to the port of Rosetta, and from there back to Alexandria, where we lodged at the consul’s house. We remained there a few days until a ship bound for Tripoli [in Libya] was ready to sail.”

The ship, leased by a French man, is loaded up “with coffee, Egyptian fabrics, and other commodities much in demand in the Maghreb.” Space is tight, and Lucas is told that he “wouldn’t be able to abide the company” of the other passengers. “But my master replied, ‘this is a time of war, and there are many pirates on the seas. If we travel with this ship, in the company of Muslims, we’ll have no reason to fear English pirates,’” Diyab writes.

One of Muhanna’s useful notes to his translation says that these “English pirates” were patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean as part of the War of the Spanish Succession between France and Britain and other countries from 1701 to 1714.

Arriving in France some time later after similarly colourful adventures in Tunisia, Diyab visits Paris in the company of Lucas where, dressed in oriental costume, he is presented to “the sultan of France, Louis the Fourteenth,” at the palace of Versailles. Perhaps even more importantly, he meets “an old man who was in charge of the library of Arabic books,” Antoine Galland, who quizzes him about “several points [in the Arabic] he didn’t understand” as well as additional stories for his translation of the Nights. “I told him some stories I knew,” Diyab remarks, “and he was very contented with me as a result.”

In his introduction, Stephan says that “it was common for Aleppan Christians [from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo] in the 17th and 18th centuries to work for (French) consuls, traders, missionaries, and travelers,” much in the way in which Diyab worked for Lucas. Few such people went on to travel with their employers to France, however, and even fewer later wrote up their experiences. Only one worked with Galland as a kind of co-translator and even co-author of the latter’s celebrated first foreign-language version of the Nights.

Even so, Diyab’s memoir, while unique, is perhaps best read not so much as an expression of its author’s lively personality, though this very much comes through, but rather as an important historical document from the time. It contains fascinating material on the early 18th-century Mediterranean, relations between western European traders and their interlocutors in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the origins and narrative form of one of the major works of world literature in the shape of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights.

As Stephan notes, much of what Diyab writes is rather like stories from the Nights. He “uses the classical Arabic categories of khabar (report) and hikayah (story) as generic frames,” for example, and in telling his traveler’s tales he “drew upon a repertoire of narratives he had probably acquired from collective reading sessions in coffeehouses and elsewhere, as well as spontaneous oral accounts,” linking these compositional devices to those also used in the stories of the Nights.

In sum, the Book of Travels, “resembling a performance by a public storyteller,” like the storyteller Scheherazade’s own famous performances of the stories of the Nights, “is no meticulous description of distant places… but rather has the character of an early-modern adventure novel with picaresque elements,” Stephan writes.

Like some other works from the period in which it was written, it “has been marginalised in the study of Arabic literary history,” he says, but with the developing interest in this period of Arabic literature and the perennial interest in material related to the Nights, it cannot be long before Galland’s name is forever linked with Diyab’s as the men who first introduced the wider world to the stories of the Thousand and One Nights.

Hanna Diyab, The Book of Travels, Arabic text edited by Johannes Stephan, English translation by Elias Muhanna, New York & Abu Dhabi: NY University Press, 2021.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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