On March 17, 1709, Antoine Galland, the French translator of The Thousand and One Nights, wrote in his diary of meeting in Paris a certain “Hanna,” “a Maronite from Aleppo,” who spoke French, Provençal, and Turkish in addition to his native Arabic. A week later Galland met “Monsieur Hanna” again and heard him tell “several very beautiful Arabic stories,” which he promised to write down and send to Galland. For the Frenchman, it was a lucky break. The seventh volume of his translation had been published in 1706, but at that point Galland essentially ran out of stories. He worked from a fifteenth-century Arabic manuscript, sent by a friend in Syria, but the original broke off many nights short of a thousand and one (a number Galland seems to have taken literally). In May and June 1709 Hanna gave Galland sixteen new stories, including some of the collection’s longest and most beloved tales, such as “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” Now Galland had all the nights he needed. Les Mille et Une Nuits swelled to twelve volumes and soon became one of the most celebrated texts in French literature.
Scholars have known for some time about the origin of these “orphan tales,” as they are often called, but the figure of the Maronite from Aleppo remained shadowy. Who was he, what was he doing in the Paris of Louis XIV, and where did he get the stories he told Galland? (In all but one case—that of “The Ebony Horse”—there are no written Arabic originals for them.) Also, what happened to him afterward? The last glimpse of him in Galland’s journal comes from the fall of 1709, where we learn that his family name is “Diab” and that he is now in Marseille, possibly waiting for a ship home. The chances of learning more about a solitary Syrian who passed through Paris and Marseille three hundred years ago may seem slim, but then scholars got a lucky break of their own.
In 1993 the Arabist Jérôme Lentin discovered a manuscript in the Vatican Library deposited by Paul Sbath, a priest from Aleppo, in 1928. Because the codex was missing its first folios, Sbath had cataloged his text as anonymous, but in fact the last page contained a note, dated 1766, identifying the author as “Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab.” The manuscript, written in a rough and ready Syrian vernacular—similar in many respects to the Arabic of the Nights—is Diyab’s own account, dictated at the end of his life, of his travels around the Mediterranean between 1706 and 1710, including an extended description of his stay in Paris as a young man. A French translation of Diyab’s memoir was published in 2015,1 and we now have The Book of Travels, a skillful English version translated by Elias Muhanna, along with a careful en face edition of the original Arabic.
Diyab’s account of his storytelling sessions with Galland is tantalizingly brief. He never calls the Frenchman by name, identifying him only as “an old man” with a position in the royal library, who was also translating The Thousand and One Nights:
He would ask me to help him with things he didn’t understand, and I’d explain them to him.
The book was missing some “Nights,” so I told him a few stories I knew and he used them to round out his work. He was very appreciative, and promised that if I ever needed anything, he would do his utmost to grant it.
Diyab doesn’t pretend that the stories he told Galland were actually tales from the Nights (a collection with rather porous boundaries, in any case), and he clearly had no idea, when he composed his memoir in 1766, that Galland’s translation had sparked a vogue for “Oriental tales” that transformed European letters.
Readers hoping to learn exactly what transpired between Galland and his Aleppan informant will be disappointed by Diyab’s casual report. He says nothing about the tales he recited, neither their contents nor their provenance. But The Book of Travels casts a strong albeit indirect light on these questions by showcasing Diyab’s peculiar talents as a storyteller. And it raises other, equally intriguing questions about the relation between autobiography and fiction, between real-life adventures and the marvels of make-believe. For Diyab’s meeting with Galland was only one in a sequence of improbable encounters. During his journey to Paris and back, Diyab was captured by pirates, slept in the Valley of Lions in Tunisia, survived the Great Frost of 1709, met the Sun King at Versailles, and passed himself off as a French doctor in the wilds of Anatolia. Scheherazade, storyteller of the Nights, ends each performance with the promise of even more amazing tales to come, and The Book of Travels measures up to her example.
Hanna Diyab was the youngest of three brothers from a Maronite family with links to the textile trade. Aleppo was home to several French and Venetian firms with agents across the region, and it was in this polyglot milieu that Diyab got his start. In 1706, while still in his late teens, he entered the monastery of St. Elisha in Lebanon’s remote Qadisha Valley. This is when his memoir begins. Though Diyab admired the monks’ piety, he decided he wasn’t meant to be an ascetic and soon returned to Aleppo. His old employer refused to take him back, however, and Diyab found himself “in dire straits.” A young Christian unfit for the church and rejected by the merchants didn’t have many good options. (Diyab never mentions a father; presumably his was dead.) He reluctantly decided to head back to St. Elisha.
It was at this point in early 1707 that Diyab met Paul Lucas, a Frenchman carrying a royal edict that authorized him to purchase old coins and manuscripts on behalf of Louis XIV. Lucas was impressed by Diyab’s abilities as a translator—the dragoman was another traditional Levantine profession, of course—and asked where he was headed. “I was too embarrassed to tell him the real story,” Diyab writes,
so I merely said I was on a voyage to explore the world. This was a ruse meant to throw him off the scent, but as a result, he was convinced that I was indeed setting off on a voyage. Such was God’s plan!
This first meeting, with its mixture of bluffing and providence, set the tone for their future relationship. Diyab and Lucas spent the next two and a half years together, crisscrossing the Mediterranean with visits to Cyprus, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, and finally France.
At the turn of the eighteenth century, French Orientalism was in its infancy. The institutionalized study of the Near East—the imperial moment analyzed in Edward Said’s Orientalism—was still a century or so away. During the reign of Louis XIV, and especially under the watch of his powerful minister of state, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, royal patronage helped found schools for language training and encouraged the collection of Eastern manuscripts and medallions for the Bibliotèque du roi (predecessor of today’s Bibliotèque nationale). But the main imperative was to gather items that would magnify the splendor of the king. There was little attempt to establish independent institutions of learning, and personal connections trumped scholarly merit.
The work was often carried out by royal collectors—glorified treasure-hunters, really—who purchased (or stole) books, coins, inscriptions, and even animals on behalf of the court. Galland performed such services for the king before settling in Paris, and Lucas, a protégé of the royal librarian Abbé Bignon, was in the same line of work. The missions required subterfuge of various kinds. Lucas posed as a doctor in search of rare herbs, since being recognized as a coin collector—or a mummy smuggler, which he was also—might have raised prices. Lucas’s relation to Diyab was hardly more transparent. At their first meeting, Lucas promised to obtain a sinecure for him in the royal library; in return, Diyab negotiated deals with coin sellers and served as a middleman with local rulers. But it isn’t clear that Lucas ever intended to fulfill his end of the bargain.
Diyab’s memoir of his Mediterranean adventures is a mixture of clear-eyed observation and wide-eyed innocence, nicely captured by Muhanna’s lucid yet folksy English version. Diyab’s accounts of the consuls’ dealings with beys and walis show a shrewd appreciation for diplomacy, and his story of smuggling tobacco into Corsica is a plausible piece of derring-do (he stuffed the packs inside a mattress). But the most memorable episodes are his evocations of wondrous sights—a Tower of Skulls and the inside of the Bardo palace in Tunis, an opera in Paris—and especially his hairsbreadth escapes from waterspouts, shipwreck, and angry peasants. Throughout The Book of Travels, realistic details are suffused with a sense of the marvelous.
The greatest wonder is Versailles itself, “a palace unequaled in any part of the world,” Diyab writes in remembrance, “decorated…with all sorts of indescribable gardens, parks, and promenades.” For their audience with the Sun King, Lucas instructs Diyab to put on his most colorful Eastern costume: a long tunic, baggy pants, silver-plated dagger, and a calpac, or hat, made of marten fur. To complete the tableau, Diyab was presented along with a caged pair of jerboas—high-jumping desert rodents brought from Egypt—fit for the royal menagerie. Diyab and the jerboas were then served up for the private delectation of princes and princesses, who peeked under his tunic and fingered his dagger.
Lucas’s stage-managing of Diyab’s appearance at court casts doubt on his promise of a royal position; one doesn’t introduce a possible future librarian as a curio. The winter of 1708–1709, which Diyab spent in Lucas’s Parisian apartments, was the coldest in five hundred years. Priests had to thaw the sacramental wine, and the ice of the Seine was thick enough for carriage rides. Diyab nearly froze to death going to the barbershop. In the spring, he met Galland and helped him “round out his work.” According to Diyab, the translator then pledged to help get him appointed as a royal collector abroad—possibly a ruse to clear the way for Galland’s own advancement at court. Whatever the truth, Diyab finally grew weary of waiting for Frenchmen to fulfill their promises. He took a stagecoach to Marseille and caught a boat back east.
Diyab’s travelogue includes many episodes that echo the stories he told Galland—a fact that tends to confirm his authorship while raising additional questions. As scholars have noted, the discovery of the magic ring and lamp in “Aladdin” repeats a scene from The Book of Travels in which Lucas pays a goatherd to enter a tomb and the man emerges with “a large, plain ring” as well as a lamp “similar to those used by the butter merchants.” The splendor of Aladdin’s palace, studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, recalls Diyab’s descriptions of the princesses’ quarters at Versailles. And the genie’s magic trick of transporting the whole palace from China to North Africa seems very like the scene changes Diyab saw at the opera (possibly a production of Marin Marais’s Sémélé):
Everything else that had been onstage flew up too, and vanished in the blink of an eye! In its place appeared a palace as splendid as the palace of the king of France, complete with towering columns, pavilions, salons, crystal windows, and other beautiful features.
“And what if Hanna is Aladdin?” The question, posed by Bernard Heyberger in his superb introduction to the French edition of Diyab’s memoir, is worth pondering. Both begin as fatherless young men at loose ends. Aladdin has failed to learn any trade (his mother calls him “lazy”) and spends his days carousing with neighborhood ruffians. Then a mysterious foreigner shows up—an evil wizard, in the case of “Aladdin,” who pretends to be the young man’s uncle—and promises great things in exchange for a little help hunting for treasure. With the aid of the genie of the lamp, Aladdin installs himself in a fabulous palace and marries the sultan’s daughter. Both “Aladdin” and The Book of Travels are effectively coming-of-age stories, but the fairy tale transforms the frustrations of the travelogue into a series of wish fulfillments.
In an afterword to the new English edition, Paulo Lemos Horta, a scholar of the Nights, writes:
The tales Diyāb gave Galland are not “orphan tales,” as defined by the absence of an Arabic manuscript source, but rather “Diyāb’s tales,” the work of a gifted and curious young man who continued to exercise his narrative skills throughout his life.
There can be little doubt at this point that Diyab should be credited as the author of “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba,” and the other stories Galland translated (without ever publicly acknowledging their source). Diyab is likely to have heard versions of “Aladdin” from the café storytellers of Aleppo, but this takes nothing away from his achievement: storytelling is an inherently collaborative art. Especially in view of the tales’ later influence, recognizing Diyab as their creator is a significant act of historical reparation.
It would be a shame, however, if Diyab’s place in history were dependent on his encounter with Galland. And one shouldn’t overstate the attractiveness of “Aladdin” simply because of its global fame. Is it too late to suggest that the story is wildly overrated? It is marred by anti-Semitism (Aladdin is cheated several times by a greedy Jewish merchant, a trope that also crops up in The Book of Travels), and it isn’t nearly as sophisticated, in its use of narrative or its representation of human psychology, as Nights stories such as “The Hunchback’s Tale” or “The Tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies.” Its success, which dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century, is at least partly owing to its obsession with spectacles of wealth and its rags-to-riches narrative—both nicely suited to the tastes of industrial capitalism.
Diyab’s meeting with Galland and his audience with Louis XIV are set pieces that stage an encounter between East and West, with all its stylized self-presentations and tragicomic misunderstandings. But these scenes are not typical of The Book of Travels. The cultural and geographical categories of Diyab’s memoir are usually much less rigid. For most of his travelogue, Diyab doesn’t convey a sense of being in truly foreign territory. In Cyprus, Corsica, Marseille, and Paris, he meets fellow Maronites and Aleppans, some very well placed, engaged in trade and administration. The sharper divisions are between urban and nonurban people—it is among the Bedouin of North Africa that Diyab feels most deeply estranged—and also between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sects. In France, it’s only during his stay at Versailles that Diyab is made to feel culturally other. Exoticism is an elite taste.
In any case, Diyab expresses no resentment at being treated as a curiosity. He too is curious: when the princesses peer at him, he peers back. Some of the things he sees abroad strike him as obviously superior to things back home. Diyab is impressed by the orderly spectacle of military parades in Livorno and the efficiency of Parisian hospitals. (This stress on “organization”—Diyab’s word is nizam—is a commonplace of later Arab travel writing on Europe.) But there is no sense of cultural inferiority—or indeed of “culture” as a coherent category at all. Diyab’s Mediterranean is full of people living far from home, speaking many languages, trying on identities for size, then discarding them and trying on new ones as the occasion (or emergency) requires. Diyab’s first encounter with Lucas is exemplary in just this sense: he becomes a world traveler by pretending that he already is one.
Most Arab travelogues of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were written by diplomats, scholars, or pilgrims. These authors were representative figures in various ways—they often belonged to prominent families—and almost always wrote in an erudite register of Arabic, studded with well-chosen citations of classical poetry. Their accounts were written for educated peers or for the patrons who funded their travels. Diyab was not on a mission, he didn’t come from a notable family, and he doesn’t address his readers in formal tones. But he clearly felt that his personal story was worth telling.
This doesn’t mean that Diyab is an individualist in the usual sense of the term: he doesn’t believe in the dignity of the common person or the inherent interest of anyone’s inner life. Instead, he composed a memoir because he was clearly singled out by God for an amazing life, full of astonishing events. The only explanation for how he survived his many trials—from pirates and bandits to waterspouts and the Great Frost—is that God was looking after him in particular. In retrospect, we can see that Diyab’s failure to become a monk, his apparently accidental meeting with Lucas, and even the unfulfilled promises of Galland were all signs of Providence. Each of Diyab’s escapes, detours, and setbacks were, as he says, part of “God’s plan.”
Although it has the shape of a travelogue, The Book of Travels is more deeply structured by the Arabic genre of al-faraj ba‘d al-shidda, or “deliverance after distress.” In this type of tale, release from hardship is understood as a sign of God’s favor or forgiveness.2 The narrative pattern is common to hagiographic literature, a genre familiar to Diyab, as well as the Nights. Deliverance is a leitmotif in the story of Sinbad, for example, whose serial shipwrecks always turn out for the best: “I escaped from drowning only by the grace of God,” the inveterate traveler says in his fifth voyage, “for he provided me with a plank of wood on which I floated and saved myself.” When Aladdin finds himself buried alive in a cave, wearing a ring whose power he doesn’t yet know, he offers up a prayer…and inadvertently rubs the metal, which brings forth the jinn.
In Diyab’s case, as in Aladdin’s, the hero does precious little to deserve his lucky break. Neither are models of piety or even hard work. But unmerited salvation is also the measure of grace (as well as its inscrutability). Even ordinary people can have amazing stories to tell.
The final chapter of Diyab’s memoir, an account of his trip back home through Izmir, Istanbul, and Anatolia, has the feel of a backpacker’s ramble, where one never knows what might happen next. Diyab works odd jobs, sponges off wealthier or better-connected travelers, stays at cheap guest houses, and gets into a knife fight. He pretends to be “a Frankish doctor,” hoping the disguise will ease his travels through rough country. (Europeans didn’t have to pay the usual Ottoman tolls levied on Christians.) He speaks French, after all, and learned a few tricks from his years on the road with Lucas.
All goes well until Diyab’s caravan runs into the entourage of an imperial chamberlain; they ask “the doctor” to see a young man in his charge, the nephew of a powerful pasha, suffering from a high fever. Diyab’s improvised cure of mashed-up pears and tamarinds seems to work—another lucky break—but when the chamberlain asks him to share a pipe, the risks of role-playing become real. Learning that Diyab is from Aleppo, the chamberlain marvels at the coincidence. He used to be a customs officer there, and he knew all the local merchant families:
“My best friend of all was a fellow named khawājah Rimbaud, who used to speak Turkish. I used to visit him often, and sample some of his flavored liqueur. As I recall, he had a warehouseman named Anṭūn who’d fetch it for me.”
At this, my blood ran cold. For I thought he’d recognized me and seen through my lie, as khawājah Rimbaud had been my master and that of my brother Anṭūn. And it was I who used to bring him the aromatic liqueur and put myself at his service! It seemed, however, that he didn’t recognize me after all, as I was a twelve-year-old boy at the time.
It is a scene worthy of the Nights: a traveler in disguise, an amazing coincidence—foreshadowed by Diyab’s previous encounters with Aleppans abroad—and then an equally amazing escape. The chamberlain’s failure to recognize Diyab is yet another case of deliverance from distress, but it also suggests, more subtly, that Diyab has changed: he’s no longer the servant boy he once was. The Book of Travels is indeed a coming-of-age tale, and it evokes, with peculiar charm, that time of life when one’s identity is still (dangerously) up for grabs.
For Diyab, that time ended when he returned to Aleppo. One of his older brothers found him a place at their uncle’s shop, and Diyab spent the next twenty-two years as a cloth merchant. A 1740 census of Maronites living in Aleppo registers him as the head of a twelve-person household, six males and six females. Diyab seems to have enjoyed his new life. Although he once planned to become a monk, “It’s perfectly evident to me now that God Most High—may He be praised—had called me to a life of marriage.”
The coda to Diyab’s memoir drives this point home with a satisfying flourish. A year after his return to Aleppo, Diyab learns that Lucas is staying with the French consul. He has managed to secure for himself the appointment that was promised to Diyab and is back to his usual tricks, handing out medical advice and looking for old coins. Diyab bears him no ill will, however. He even accompanies Lucas to explore a local cave. But Diyab’s heart isn’t in treasure hunting. He seems at last to know who he is and closes his account, once and for all, with the wily Frenchman:
Climbing up to the vineyard known as al-Qulayʿah, we had lunch and spent the rest of the day there. When evening came, each went on his way. This is the end of my story, and of my wanderings.
Hanna Dyâb, D’Alep à Paris: Les pérégrinations d’un jeune Syrien au temps de Louis XIV (Arles: Actes Sud, 2015). ↩
The most important text of this kind in the Arabic tradition is al-Muhassin ibn ‘Ali al-Tanukhi’s al-Faraj ba‘d al-shidda. An excellent English translation of the initial chapters, with the promise of more to come, is Stories of Piety and Prayer: Deliverance Follows Adversity, edited and translated by Julia Bray (New York University Press, 2019). ↩