The Travels of a Master Storyteller


Arts & Culture

It is one of the ironies of literature that the Thousand and One Nights should owe its global fame to stories—“Aladdin” among them—that never belonged to the original collection in Arabic. They were the work, invented or recycled, of a young Syrian man named Hanna Diyab. Perhaps the most influential storyteller whose name is known, Diyab himself remained obscure until a memoir he wrote in eighteenth-century Aleppo was discovered at the Vatican Library more than two centuries later. The Book of Travels, edited by Johannes Stephan and translated by Elias Muhanna, appears today in English for the first time. The English edition, published by the Library of Arabic Literature, contains the following foreword by Yasmine Seale.

Photo courtesy of Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One morning in October 1708, two men walk into a room at Versailles where King Louis XIV is waiting to receive them. Between them is a cage of curious animals: a pair of honey-colored mice with giant ears and long hind legs, like miniature kangaroos. The older man, Paul Lucas, has just returned from a mission to the Ottoman Empire, where he was sent to hunt for coins, gems, and other precious things to feed the royal collection. Among the loot he has brought back are these strange, alert creatures. The king wants to know more. Lucas boasts that he “discovered” them in Upper Egypt, despite their being very difficult to catch. (He is lying: in fact, he was sold them by a Frenchman in Tunis.) And what are they called? Lucas, unable to say, turns to the young man by his side.

“I replied that, in the lands where it is found, the animal is called a jarbu‘.” Of how many people can it be said that their first words to the Sun King contained the Arabic pharyngeal ‘ayn? The pharynx, and the story, belong to Hanna Diyab, a multilingual monk in training from Aleppo who, around the age of twenty, dropped out of the ascetic life to be Lucas’s assistant on his voyage—translating, interceding, and, once or twice, saving his life—in exchange for the promise of a job in Paris.

It was probably through Diyab that gerboise, the desert-dwelling jerboa, entered the French lexicon. At the king’s request he writes down the animals’ name. At the request of the king’s son (“of medium height and quite rotund”) they are painted onto an enormous illustration of wild beasts. Then Diyab is marched around the palace to be peered at, by princess after princess, until two in the morning. He peers back.

The promise is eventually betrayed; after two years with Lucas and no job forthcoming, Diyab returns home to Aleppo where he spends the rest of his life selling cloth—and, no doubt, telling stories of his adventure. Fifty-four years after the facts, unknowably transformed, he commits them to paper in the form of a memoir, The Book of Travels.

Time is also a translator. After telling us about his encounter with the king, Diyab adds: “Is it possible I could have retained perfectly everything I saw and heard? Surely not.” It is the only moment in the memoir when he calls his own reliability into question, pointing to the half-century that separates the tale from the event. Yet the most astonishing scene in The Book of Travels, its perihelion, is also its most believable: the royal curiosity rushing to classify, the chubby prince, the little lie.

You are reading Diyab’s true story because of others he made up: “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba,” a dozen more told to the scholar and translator Antoine Galland over a handful of spring nights. These encounters, among the most consequential in literature, are recorded in a cooler key, offhand. Nothing could be more normal, less worthy of note than the telling and swapping of tales—“collaborative sessions,” as the editor of this volume aptly puts it.

Aladdin, readers are sometimes surprised to learn, is a boy from China. Yet the text is ambivalent about what this means, and pokes gentle fun at the idea of cultural authenticity. Scheherazade has hardly begun her tale when she forgets quite where it is set. “Majesty, in the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms, whose name escapes me at present, there lived a tailor named Mustafa.” The story’s institutions are Ottoman, the customs half-invented, the palace redolent of Versailles. It is a mishmash and knows it.

Like Aladdin, like Aleppo, Diyab’s is a story of mixture. He knows French, Turkish, Italian, even Provençal—but not Greek: in Cyprus, unable to understand the language, he feels like “a deaf man in a wedding procession.” Slipping in and out of personae, he is alert to the masquerades of others. Behind the European envoy’s mask we glimpse a con man: Paul Lucas travels in the guise of a doctor, prescribing remedies in exchange for treasure. He treats a stomachache with a paste made of parsley, sugar, and crushed pearls.

To meet the king, Diyab has been encouraged to wear his native dress: turban cloth, pantaloons, dagger. But the calpac on his head is actually Egyptian, and his trousers cut from londrin—London or Mocha broadcloth, a textile made of Spanish wool, manufactured in Languedoc and exported to Aleppo by merchants in Marseille. His outfit, like his mind, bears a pan-Mediterranean print.

In The Book of Travels he is forever drawing comparisons: between Lyon and Aleppo, Seine and Euphrates, Harlequin and Karagöz. Against the clash of cultures, here is a cradle; against the border, a lattice. Here is a Syrian’s view of France, a description of Europe where Arabs circulate and thrive, a portrait of the Mediterranean as a zone of intense contact and interwoven histories.

This is also an old man’s account of what it was to be twenty years old, gifted and curious, somewhere new. Time has sharpened its colors. Its thrill is picaresque: a tale of high drama and low ebbs, the exuberant perils of early modern travel. At a Franciscan monastery in Cyprus, Diyab is kept awake all night by the grunting of pigs. He is eaten alive by mosquitoes in Rosetta, by lice in Fayyum; ambushed on the way to Livorno by corsairs who cry “Maina!”—lingua franca for surrender; abandoned to the whims of muleteers. Tobacco is smuggled in a mattress, a mummy in straw. Much energy is spent evading English pirates.

In the long tradition of Arabic travel writing, Diyab is different: he lets us in and keeps us close. Unlike Ilyas al-Mawsili, whose account of the Spanish conquest of America Diyab seems to have owned, he is not a cleric seeking to secure his reputation. Nor is this a self-consciously literary document in the vein of ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s descriptions of his journeys through the Muslim world. There is no poetry in The Book of Travels, no quotation. Its cadences are those of Syrian speech, its subject everyday emotions: fear, shame, astonishment, relief.

Some of the most vivid pages concern a storm in the Gulf of Sidra, where Diyab and his companions nearly drown. By the time the castaways reach land, their throats are so dry they cannot speak, and their food has turned soggy with seawater. For days they eat nothing but dates, then they are reduced to eating cats. When they finally reach Tripoli, after fifteen days without nourishment, and are given bread, Diyab is unable to swallow it: “It tasted like ashes.”

Then there are the fifteen icy days in December 1708, the coldest winter in five hundred years, during which tens of thousands froze to death. “Paris was a ghost town … The priests of the city were forced to set up braziers on the altars of their churches to prevent the sacramental wine from freezing. Many people even died while relieving themselves, because the urine froze in their urethras as it left their bodies and killed them.” Diyab has to be rubbed from head to toe with eagle fat (another of Lucas’s remedies) and wrapped in blankets for twenty-four hours before he recovers sensation in his limbs. It is in these moments of plain, precise language that hunger, thirst, and cold—untranslatable pain—come through.

Unusually for a travel writer, Diyab is a working man. For all the pomp of the French court, his attention remains trained on those who, like him, labor invisibly: hospital workers who serve soup three times a day in tin bowls; nuns who launder clothes in the river; prostitutes whose doors are marked by a large heart made of thorns. Striking, too, is the sheer violence of everyday life. In Livorno he sees a soldier punished for desertion—nostrils slashed and forehead branded with the king’s seal. In Paris he goes to a courthouse to watch the trial of highway robbers, and to the public square to see them killed.

A thought recurred as I read: you couldn’t make it up. While Lucas bathes rusty coins in vinegar to reveal their inscriptions, Diyab probes the strangeness of the world. Miracles—magical causes applied to mechanical effects—jostle with the most daily phenomena. The true colors of things take on a hallucinated quality. If the dauphin’s bestiary contains no jerboa, can his own eyes be trusted? If the remedy is bogus, but you were healed, what then?

Scholars argue over how much of Diyab is in Aladdin, where to draw the line between fiction and truth. The Book of Travels smudges such distinctions by showing how fantasy is woven into life, how enchantment is neighbor to inquiry. At the opera, Diyab is dazzled by stage contraptions. Knowing how they are built does nothing to lessen their spell. Mechanical causes with magical effects: this is art.


Yasmine Seale’s essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Poetry Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. She has translated many texts, classical and contemporary, from the Arabic and French. She is the winner of the 2020 Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Poetry. Her translation of Aladdin is out with W. W. Norton, and she is currently working on a new translation of the Thousand and One Nights for the same publisher.