Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

The author of the Nights?

The memoirs of the 18th century Syrian co-translator of the Thousand and One Nights have at last appeared in French translation, writes David Tresilian


The author of the Nights?
The author of the Nights?
Al-Ahram Weekly

It has long been known that Antoine Galland, the 18th-century French translator of the Thousand and One Nights, did not work alone. Galland may have received the credit for translating the 15th-century Syrian manuscript that preserved the Arabic text of the stories, today in the French national library in Paris. But by his own account he also received substantial help from a “young Syrian from Aleppo” who helped him with some of the thornier passages in the Arabic. 

That young Syrian, named Hanna Diab, appears on numerous occasions in Galland’s Journal after he was introduced to him in Paris in March 1709. In addition to helping Galland with the Arabic translation, he also supplied him with additional stories not found in the manuscript, Galland apparently taking these down as dictated. These stories include some of the best-known in the entire collection, including “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” While Diab did not exactly make them up – he must have heard similar stories growing up in Aleppo – he certainly seems to have had a keen sense of what was most likely to please European audiences of “oriental” tales. 

Arabic manuscript versions of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” turned up later, but they cannot have been used by Galland in making his original translations and they look suspiciously like Arabic back-translations of Galland’s French prose. Later translators of the Nights, such as the 19th-century Englishmen John Payne and Edward Lane, left out the stories on the grounds they did not have Arabic originals. They were later reinstated by Sir Richard Burton and Stanley Lane-Poole in his revision of Lane’s translation on the grounds that the Thousand and One Nights without Aladdin and Ali Baba would be like Hamlet without the prince. 

Yet, in this case it seems the prince was supplied by Hanna Diab, the unsung author of some of the most famous stories in the Thousand and One Nights. Despite his evident skills as a story-teller, little has traditionally been known about him apart from what appears in Galland’s Journal. However, today all that is set to change with the publication of a French translation of Diab’s memoirs from a manuscript kept in the Vatican Libraries in Rome. The manuscript, written in 18th-century Middle Arabic, has never been published before in any language, and it seems that it has been little-known even to researchers. Its appearance in French under the title of D’Alep à Paris, les pérégrinations d’un jeune Syrien au temps de Louis XIV will be of great interest to all readers of the Thousand and One Nights.

The translation, prepared by French scholars Paule Fahmé-Thiéry, Bernard Heyberger and Jérôme Lentin, is prefaced by an introduction in which Heyberger sets out what is known of Diab and how best one might understand his memoirs. Many Syrians wrote travel narratives in the 17th and 18th centuries, he notes, and they became more common later when travel also became more common or when impressions of abroad were written with a view to making an impact at home – the Egyptian scholar Rifaa Al-Tahtawi’s famous book about Paris, published in 1830, is perhaps the best-known example of what was an established and growing genre. 

What marks out Diab’s memoirs is the fact that his travels were not undertaken for a specific and far less for an official purpose – unlike, for example, those of al-Tahtawi – and his memoirs, apparently written in old age and for private purposes, do not bear the stamp of the official prose of the period, with its elaborate syntax and vocabulary and host of learned allusions. Diab was not writing with a view to his career, Heyberger notes. If anything, he was writing up his employment history. “He wasn’t writing to instruct others or to justify his choices. In fact, the theme of his memoirs is more of a meditation on life and the different opportunities it had given him during his youthful travels.” 

Since Diab had not been an ambassador, a religious official or a scholar, he had been free to mix with people from many different backgrounds on his travels. When he came to write up his memoirs in later life, he “enjoyed much greater freedom of expression than the authors of most travel memoirs, hemmed in by the erudite Arabic literary culture of the period which they felt they had continually to pay tribute to.” 

Diab was neither obliged to write in the kind of elaborate, often rhyming, prose that the authors of such narratives used as a way of demonstrating their literary credentials, and nor was he obliged to fill out his memoirs with the kind of references that would prove him to be an erudite witness. The result, Heyberger says, is that he “is always able to focus on his own experiences… always appearing in the first person and always ready to give his own thoughts on a given situation.” 

STARTING OUT: Diab 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. He then met a French merchant, Paul Lucas, one of many trading in Lebanon at the time, who hired him to act as a kind of interpreter, secretary, and personal assistant, eventually taking him on his travels to, among other places, Cyprus, Egypt, Tunis, Marseilles and Paris. It is these travels that Diab writes up in his memoirs, taking him throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and making him, in Heyberger’s words, one of a class of “trans-imperial subjects,” go-betweens, or dragomen, who at the time acted to grease the wheels of east-west commerce. 

Diab, little more than a boy when he was employed by Lucas, describes the latter in detail in his memoirs, but Lucas scarcely mentions Diab in his own published account of his travels.  

One of the pair’s first destinations was Egypt, where the “khawaga Lucas” was interested in buying precious stones, jewelry, 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 carefully hidden in false-bottomed trunks “so that even if the trunks were opened, they would not attract the attention of the customs authorities,” Diab writes. 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 instead for Fayoum. 

Khawaja, you mustn’t even think of wandering about down there – the whole region is awash with evil people and sorcerers,” he is told by one Cairo resident, according to Diab, who throughout his memoirs has a remarkable ear for dialogue. “They’re real brutes. If you go down there, there is a good chance you won’t come back alive.” However, Lucas and Diab do make the journey, meeting the sanjak bey (governor) of the region, to whom they explain they want to buy “old coins… idols made of silver and copper, books written on parchment,” and other precious items. 

There is one dodgy moment when, having ridden out to view “a black column on which were engraved ancient designs” (identified as the Begig Obelisk by the editors), the pair are surrounded by 200 villagers who demand “the gold that’s under the column, or else we will kill you.” Fortunately, they are rescued just in time.

Reading these early sections of Diab’s memoirs, one is reminded of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. There is the same emphasis on miraculous wealth (the account of the riches promised by the merchants in the Cairo bazaars could be straight out of the Nights), great luxury (for example, in the account of the sanjak’s feasts), sudden dangers (the hostile peasants) and miraculous escapes – like when a horseman suddenly arrives to rescue Lucas and Diab in Fayoum. Behind these episodes there is the background narrative of maritime trade and the low cunning, or barely believable luck, of the traveling traders – things familiar from the stories of Sindbad, among others, in the Nights.

In fact, Heyberger believes that Diab drew on his own experiences when imagining the story of Aladdin in “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp”. “What if Hanna is Aladdin,” he asks. In both Diab’s memoirs and the stories he told Galland for inclusion in his French translation of the Thousand and One Nights there is the same emphasis on ordinary individuals placed in extraordinary circumstances and the same interest in the upbringing and adventures of a young protagonist.

In both the story of Aladdin and the story of Diab, there is a “young man who has lost his father and is going through a crisis. In both, there is a moment when the young man meets a sort of foreign father-figure. And while the ‘uncle’ of Aladdin turns out to be manipulating Aladdin for his own ends, Diab was also very suspicious of Lucas when he first met him and made all sorts of enquiries about him before he agreed to serve him. Leaving Aleppo for the first time, Lucas had a member of the party descend and explore a cave hidden behind a group of rocks, from which he brought out a lamp. Isn’t this exactly what the ‘uncle’ demands of Aladdin” in the story of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp”, Heyberger asks.

THE SULTAN OF FRANCE: In Paris, Diab visits Versailles where Lucas is to present his purchases to the relevant government minister. Dressed by Lucas in oriental costume, he is presented to the king as an acquisition from the Orient. “It was the first time I had the honour of seeing the sultan of France, Louis the Fourteenth was his name, seated in his audience chamber,” Diab comments. 

More importantly from the point of view of posterity, Diab also meets “an old man who was in charge of the library of Arabic books and would often visit us.” This old man was Antoine Galland, who was “translating the stories of the Thousand and One Nights at the time. He asked me about several points he didn’t understand, and I explained them to him. Some of the nights were missing from the book he was translating, so I told him some stories I knew. He was able to complete his book with these stories, and he was very contented with me as a result,” he continues. 

It occurs to Diab to stay in France, especially when he is offered a job through Galland, later withdrawn, by an important prince of the court. Heyberger says in his introduction that Diab probably did not have much chance of an important job in Paris, as French “orientalism was taking on a scholarly character at the beginning of the 18th century, which disqualified most oriental Christians who supposedly did not have the required linguistic knowledge.” 

During Diab’s stay in Paris, Galland himself managed to bag the position of professor of Arabic at the Collège royal despite being up against competition from Syrian native speakers of the language. But probably Diab did not want to stay in France – which is what he says in his memoirs at any rate – and in 1710 he returned with Lucas to Lebanon. He later joined his family’s business, and in 1717 he married.

Diab, Heyberger says, had a natural capacity for story-telling, shown off in his memoirs as well as in the stories he contributed to Galland’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights. This capacity, no doubt learned in the cafes and gathering places of his native Aleppo, echoes that at work in the traditional stories, with their multiple embedded narratives, fantastic happenings, sudden changes of identity, and reversals of fortunes. 

However, Diab’s memoirs also have much to say about the early modern Mediterranean and the ways in which a young man could hope to make his fortune. Diab travels from East to West in the service of his khawaga master, but there is no sense in which he leaves a world that is totally familiar to him for one that is completely foreign or that he crosses a clearly demarcated cultural frontier.

The Mediterranean was far more hybrid, and its languages, religions and cultures far more intertwined, than that. “In Aleppo, Diab and his brothers were employed in a company that was based in Marseilles… He read and wrote in French and could speak and probably also write Italian. He understood and spoke Turkish… He worked with southern French merchants in Aleppo, who introduced him to people in Marseilles, and in Marseilles he was able to count on the help of families that were well known in Syria,” Heyberger comments.

For Diab, the Mediterranean was a space of interaction and a meeting place for individuals from widely different backgrounds. “Like the warehouses of the merchants, or the houses of the foreign consuls,” whose help Lucas and Diab receive when visiting ports around the Mediterranean, “the merchant ships that Diab travels on are also places where the ‘Franks’ can get to know the Orient, and the “Orientals” can come into contact with the ‘Franks’” 

Hanna Dyab, D’Alep à Paris, les pérégrinations d’un jeune Syrien au temps de Louis XIV, Arles: Actes Sud, 2015, pp440.

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