A Syrian Storyteller in Versailles

An extract from Paulo Lemos Horta’s Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, documenting how the Thousand and One Nights came to be.

A painting depicting a scene from Thousand and One Nights by Sani ol-Molk, 19th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A painting depicting a scene from Thousand and One Nights by Sani ol-Molk, 19th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Thousand and One Nights, or Alf Laila wa Laila, remains one of the most fascinating collection of tales in the world. Despite originally being titled Arabian Nights, the tales within the larger body of work have deep hallmarks of Persian and Indian storytelling as well. These stories, carried from word of mouth by soldiers, traders and fabulists across the vast landscape of Asia over centuries, changing as they came into contact with different cultures to the extent that, in India, the collection is referred to as Alif Laila, since the Arabic word for a thousand (Alf) makes no sense to Indian languages and Laila is merely a name, not night.

In a lovely new book, Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, Paulo Lemos Horta documents a number of such conversations, between Europeans documenting the tales and their interlocutors. In doing so, he seeks to show what a dynamic process it was, with actors on both sides, taking part in creative storytelling. The Wire is reproducing excerpts about one such conversation.


Galland included the tale of Aladdin and the equally famous story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in his French edition of the Arabian Nights, even though he did not fi nd these stories in the Arabic manuscript that he used as the principal source for his translation. Entries in Galland’s diary reveal that these “orphan tales” were told to him by a Syrian traveller named Hanna Diyab in Paris in the spring of 1709.

Scholars of the Arabian Nights have assumed that Galland drew from his own travels in the Levant to turn the outlines from these storytelling sessions with Diyab into the rich characters and elegant prose of the tales in French.3 However, Aladdin’s palace bears little resemblance to the residence of the Ottoman sultans at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Instead, this marvel of the jinni’s magical powers appears distinctly European.

Writing his memoir in Aleppo in 1763–1764, Diyab does not seem to have been aware of the significance of his contribution to the Arabian Nights, although by this date Galland’s version of the story collection was well known among French readers. In a single passage of his memoir, Diyab recalls that an unnamed “old man” often visited his master, Lucas, and that this man was translating the Thousand and One Nights. “The book he translated was missing some nights,” Diyab reported, “so I told him tales that I knew.” At no point does Diyab claim that the stories he told Galland belonged to the Thousand and One Nights. In fact, his wording might suggest the contrary. He simply drew on stories that he knew— either narrating from memory or creatively combining elements to create new tales in the manner of a coffee house storyteller. According to Diyab, “[The old man] then finished his book by including these stories and was happy for my assistance.”

Paulo Lemos Horta
Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights
Harvard University Press, 2017

Diyab’s skill in weaving marvellous tales might be credited to the early years he spent in the rich storytelling culture of Aleppo. Situated in this regional center for trade, local storytellers had at their disposal not only Levantine folklore but also tales originating in India and China to the east and France and Italy to the west. In the city’s more than sixty coffee houses, storytellers held their audiences in thrall. Their stories were not merely narratives; they were a performance animated by the teller’s actions as much as by his words. In this environment, the storyteller’s most valuable skill was combining and adapting tales to appeal to the interests of a particular audience. In 1794, the Scottish physicians Alexander Russell and Patrick Russell famously described the ability of Aleppine storytellers to surprise their audiences by adapting familiar tales: “A variety of other story books, besides the Arabian Nights entertainment, (which, under that title, are little known at Aleppo) furnish materials for the story teller who, by combining the incidents of different tales, and varying the catastrophe of such as he has related before, gives them an air of novelty even to persons who at first imagine they are listening to tales with which they are acquainted.” At a moment of great excitement the storyteller would suddenly break off the tale and leave the coffee house, deferring the resolution of the story until the following evening and leaving the audience to debate possible endings no less hotly “than if the fate of the city depended on the decision.” To hear the rest of the suspended tale, the listeners would have to return to the coffeehouse the next night.

Galland, immersed in his beloved world of classical Greece as he pursued his translation of the Arabian Nights, makes no comment on the riots that occurred in his own neighborhood, but Diyab shows a lively interest in the fate of ordinary Parisians caught up in the intense tensions of this period. The famine that lingered from winter into spring features prominently in his portrait of the French capital. By the order of the governor, Diyab writes, a census was taken, and the rationing of bread was strictly enforced. Each person was allotted only enough bread to survive. In some places, the police would be called in to suppress rioting and prevent looting. Peasants from the villages poured into the city to beg, but, as Diyab recalls, no one would give them alms.

Diyab would see them stretched out on the streets in the throes of starvation.

In his memoir Diyab evocatively captures the elaborate rituals and excessive luxury that accompanied his presentation to the “sultan of France” as one of the curiosities acquired by Lucas on his travels. Even from a distance, he felt the intense presence of Louis XIV as he approached the throne. The monarch’s magnificence was such, Diyab writes, that no one could hold his gaze. The king’s interest was immediately drawn to the creatures that Diyab refers to as “savage animals,” but that were in fact jerboas, a variety of desert rodent related to the jumping mouse. Confounded by the king’s questions about the animals, Lucas directed him to Diyab, and the Syrian youth wrote the name of the animal in both Arabic and French for the king. Louis XIV seems to have been intrigued by the young man in “Oriental” garb. After examining what Diyab had written, the king asked him who he was and where he had come from— extending the curiosity originally piqued by the animals to this other Oriental marvel.

The mutual consumption of the experience of otherness is clearest in Diyab’s description of his interactions with the women of the royal court at Versailles, who proved to be even more fascinated by him than by the jerboas. Abandoning the spectacle of the “savage animals,” Diyab writes, they turned to examine his features and clothing instead. Some of the women reached out to touch him, lifting the folds of his clothing to get a better look at the garments and removing the Egyptian fur cap from his head. One princess asked why Diyab had a moustache, to which Lucas replied that it was the custom of his country. Diyab does not record what he felt when the laughing princesses treated him like a spectacle for their amusement. Was the young Diyab upset by their laughter? Was he embarrassed to be dressed in a strange ensemble of “Oriental” garments?

Or was he flattered by the intimate attention of women dressed in their own regal finery?

Paul Lemos Horta. Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi website

Paulo Lemos Horta. Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi website

Whatever the young Diyab felt at that moment, the memoir that he recorded fifty years later describes his encounter with the ladies of Versailles in the style of a fabulous tale. When he entered the apartments of Lucas’s patroness, the Duchess of Burgundy, he found the wife of the dauphin playing a game of cards with several princesses, with piles of gold coins arranged on the table in front of them. All wore dresses of precious silk embroidered with gold, but the duchess was attired with even greater extravagance and beauty than the rest. The princesses resembled stars, Diyab writes, and the servants seemed to orbit around them. Leaving the duchess’s “palace,” Diyab crossed paths with a lovely young woman wearing a diadem studded with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones who was surrounded by sumptuously dressed servants. So ravishing was she that Diyab imagined she must have been the king’s daughter. Later, Diyab was summoned to the rooms of another princess whom he describes as beautiful, gracious, and surpassing all other women of the age. The princesses who clustered around her bed were dressed in splendid clothing heavily adorned with jewels and precious stones, and they appeared to shine with the brightness of stars.

Diyab’s descriptions of the radiant beauty and luxurious attire of the ladies of Versailles are reminiscent of the princesses in the tales like “Aladdin” and “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri- Banu,” which he related to Galland in 1709. Every one of the ladies in Diyab’s account of the royal palace is beautiful and splendidly dressed, and as ravishing to the eye as the princesses in the fabulous tales of the Arabian Nights. Beyond the general hyperbole of Diyab’s description, certain details of his Versailles princesses correspond to details in the tale of Prince Ahmad. When Prince Ahmad first sees the fairy princess Peri-Banu emerging from her palace, she is adorned with the costliest of jewels. Her throne is covered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and other gems— a repetition of the precious ornaments of the diadem worn by the beautiful princess that Diyab assumed was the French king’s daughter. The repetition of such details in Diyab’s narration of his Versailles experience and his tale of Prince Ahmad suggests that Diyab was the author of more than just the bare outline of the orphan tale.

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