After the spectacular success of the French Orientalist Antoine Galland’s translation of the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights, the first volume of which appeared in Paris in 1704, readers across Europe were eager for more tales of medieval Baghdad, the court of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and the genii (jinn) who overshadowed the merchants and travelers of the city, among them the most famous of all, Sindbad.
However, the problem was that Galland’s stock of stories, taken from a manuscript acquired in Syria where he had been French ambassador to the court of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV and then representative of the Compagnie française du Levant, was quickly drying up. While there were enough stories to fill many volumes with French translations, ultimately making Galland a famous author and a wealthy man, short stories were always welcome, especially if they contained material that might appeal to European taste.
It was at this moment that Galland had a remarkable stroke of luck, for on March 25, 1709, he wrote in his Diary that he had been introduced to a young Syrian called Hanna Diyab, the servant of his French orientalist compatriot Paul Lucas, who had told him of many other similar stories. One can well imagine Galland’s excitement when Diyab described tales almost surpassing Sindbad for their marvelous events, and many of them duly resulted in his translation of The Nights.
Additional stories, unknown in any Arabic manuscript, include some of the most famous of all Nights stories 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 dictated them for the benefit of Galland, the latter then writing the French versions, since Galland’s Journal contains notes of many other meetings with Diyab. .
Some editors and translators of the 19th century Nights, including the British Arabist Edward Lane, excluded the additional stories from their editions of The Nights on the grounds that they did not have originals in Arabic, before they were published. 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 thought, as editors and translators generally have since, that Nights without Aladdin and Ali Baba would be like Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the prince.
The decision to reinstate the stories despite questions about their provenance drew attention to Diyab’s contributions to the genesis of the Nights, although until recently very little was known about him other than scattered comments in the Journal. by Galland. Diyab is not mentioned in his employer’s Paul Lucas account of his travels in the Mediterranean, for example, which appeared in three episodes between 1704 and 1719, despite the fact that it was Lucas who initially introduced Diyab to Galland, presumably knowing the literary talents of the young man. .
However, this situation changed forever in the 1990s when Diyab’s account of his travels across the Mediterranean with his French employer, his meeting with Galland and even his presentation to King Louis XIV of France at Versailles was revealed. found collecting dust in the Vatican library in Rome. A French translation of this by academics Paule Fahmé-Thiéry, Bernard Heyberger and Jérôme 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 the Arabic Literature series, finally allowing English-speaking readers to access this remarkable addition to the Nights literature.
Impeccably produced to the high standards of the NYU series, the translation, by Arabic professor Elias Muhanna, contains an Arabic text opposite the Vatican manuscript edited by Swiss Arabist Johannes Stephan which also contributed to a broad introduction. Eventually, the two bound volumes of the Book of Travels will undoubtedly reappear in a single English-only paperback edition.
In the meantime, those who already know 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 the lively and pleasantly familiar version of Muhanna. Those who do not know him, perhaps the majority of readers, will now also have the opportunity to read accounts of Diyab’s voyages in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the 18th century, which, as Stephan points out in his introduction, almost exceed the stories of the Nights themselves. for wonderful and unexpected events.
THE JOURNEYS OF DIYAB: Diyab began his life as a novice in a monastery near Tripoli in what is now Lebanon, but left due to doubts about his vocation. Upon meeting Lucas, one of the many French merchants trading in the Levant at the time, he agreed to be the interpreter of the latter, eventually traveling with him to Egypt, Tunisia and France.
One of the couple’s earliest destinations was Egypt, where the “khawajah Lucas” was interested in purchasing gems, old coins and other trinkets. Arrived in Alexandria in June 1707 and welcomed by the French consul, they sailed down the Nile to the port of Bulaq near Cairo where Lucas began his research in the commercial districts. Particularly valuable purchases were hidden in false bottom trunks “so that even if the trunks were opened, they would not attract the attention of the authorities,” Diyab writes in his memoir on these events.
Lucas had heard that interesting objects were in Sinai and Upper Egypt, but having been convinced that both were dangerous, he decided to head to the Fayum instead.
“Khawajah, you cannot go through these areas,” residents of Cairo tell him, according to Diyab. “The natives are evil brutes who cast spells, the journey is dangerous and there is no guarantee that you will come back alive.” In Fayum, Lucas and Diyab meet the sanjak (governor) of the region, explaining that they want to buy “old coins … silver and copper idols, books written on parchment” and other items.
There is a dodgy moment when, after riding to see “a black column with ancient drawings carved on it” (identified as the Begig Obelisk), the pair are surrounded by 200 villagers asking for “the gold that is under the column, or else we’ll kill you. Fortunately, a representative of the sandjak arrives in time to save them, but it’s a great escape, according to Diyab.
After the trip to Fayoum, Lucas decides that the time has come to leave Egypt with his purchases for similar groceries elsewhere. Diyab writes that “in no time we arrived in Old Cairo, loaded our things on donkeys and went to the consul in the Mouski district where we had stayed before. A few days later, we traveled by boat to the port of Rosetta, and from there to Alexandria, where we stayed with the consul. We stayed there for a few days until a ship bound for Tripoli [in Libya] was ready to sail.
The ship, rented by a Frenchman, is loaded with “coffee, Egyptian fabrics and other products in great demand in the Maghreb”. Space is tight and Lucas learns that he “could not support the company” of the other passengers. “But my master replied, ‘It is a time of war, and there are a lot of pirates on the seas. If we travel with this ship, in the company of Muslims, we will have no reason to fear the English pirates. », Writes Diyab.
One of Muhanna’s useful notes to its translation says that these “English pirates” patrolled the eastern Mediterranean as part of the War of the Spanish Succession between France and Great Britain and other countries from 1701 to 1714 .
Arrived in France some time later after equally colorful adventures in Tunisia, Diyab visits Paris in the company of Lucas where, dressed in an oriental costume, he is presented to the “Sultan of France, Louis XIV” at the Palace of Versailles. Perhaps more importantly, he meets “an old man who looked after the library of Arab books”, Antoine Galland, who questions him on “several points. [in the Arabic] he did not understand ”as well as additional stories for his translation of Nights. “I told him stories that I knew,” Diyab remarks, “and he was very happy with me as a result.”
In his introduction, Stephan says that “it was common for Christians in Aleppo to [from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo] in the 17th and 18th centuries to work for (French) consuls, traders, missionaries and travelers, ”much like Diyab worked for Lucas. However, few of these people traveled with their employers to France, and even fewer later wrote down their experiences. Only one worked with Galland as co-translator and even co-author of the famous first foreign language version of the latter’s Nights.
Even so, Diyab’s memoirs, while unique, are perhaps best read not as an expression of the living personality of its author, although it stands out a lot, but rather as an important historical document of the time. It contains fascinating documents on the Mediterranean from the beginning of the 18th century, the relations between the traders of Western Europe and their interlocutors in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the origins and the narrative form of one of the major works of world literature under the form Thousand and One Nights stories.
As Stephan notes, much of what Diyab writes is more like Nights stories. He “uses the classic Arabic categories of khabar (relation) and hikayah (history) as generic frameworks”, for example, and in recounting his traveler’s tales, he “drew inspiration from a repertoire of tales he had probably acquired during collective reading sessions in cafes and elsewhere, as well as spontaneous oral narratives ”, linking these composition devices to those also used in the Nights narratives.
In short, the Book of Voyages, “resembling a representation of a public storyteller”, like Scheherazade’s own famous representations of the Nights stories, “is not a meticulous description of faraway places … but rather has the character of a modern adventure novel with picaresque elements, ”writes Stephan.
Like other works of the time it was written, it “was marginalized in the study of Arab literary history,” he says, but with increasing interest in this period of Arab literature and perpetual interest in material related to The Nights, it won’t be long before Galland’s name is forever linked to that of Diyab as the men who brought 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 is published in the November 11, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly