New York-based publishing company W.W. Norton released in November 2021 a new translation of the world-famous Arabic compilation of tales, One Thousand and One Nights, known in the West as “Arabian Nights.”
Lavishly designed with beautiful illustrations and groundbreaking commentary, “The Annotated Arabian Nights” revisits fabled classics from the ninth century, introducing them to contemporary readers.
This new version also sheds light on the forgotten role of Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab, who is now accredited for two of the Arabian Nights’ most famous tales, “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
The original “Arabian Nights” needs little introduction; it is a cornerstone of world literature that has influenced celebrated writers from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allan Poe, to contemporary Arab authors like Naguib Mahfouz; winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.
First compiled in the city of Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate, the story is set against the backdrop of a homicidal king named Shahryar, who, appalled by the treason of the women in his house, decides to marry a new wife every night, and then murder her by daybreak before she has time to betray him.
That is when the beautiful daughter of his vizier, Shahrazad (also referred to as Scheherazade) steps in, marrying herself to the king in order to halt his mad murder spree. She begins telling him a story every night, stopping right at its climax before he orders her killed. Eager to hear the rest of the story, Shahryar spares her life until the next day, a process that spans across 1001 stories.
There is no single author for the stories told by Shahrazad, which were collected from Iraq, Egypt, Persia, and the broader Middle East and beyond, including India.
Western audiences are usually most familiar with two versions of Arabian Nights, the first in French, penned by French Orientalist Antoine Galland in the 1700s, and the second in English, released by Sir Richard Burton in 1885.
W.W. Norton’s latest translation carries the signature of Yasmine Seale, the first woman to translate the Arabian Nights. A Syrian-British writer, poet, and translator, she is the daughter of British journalist Patrick Seale and great-granddaughter of Abu Khalil al-Qabbani, founder of the Arabic theater and inventor of Arabic musicals in the 19th century. Her uncle is the world-famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.
Seale’s new book was edited by the internationally acclaimed scholar of world literature Paulo Lemos Horta, who also wrote its introduction. Their version of Arabian Nights includes classics like “Sinbad the Sailor,” and lesser-known tales like “Dalila the Crafty.”
Hanna Diyab, a Maronite Christian from Aleppo, brought the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” to the 18th Century.
The crux of their work highlights the contribution of Hanna Diyab, a Maronite Christian from Aleppo, who brought the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” to the 18th Century version of Arabian Nights.
The Story of Hanna Diyab
Born in 1688, Diyab was working as a guide and interpreter for the French antiquarian Paul Lucas, traveling the world with him between 1706 and 1716. Lucas met him in Aleppo while shopping for gems and carpets for the French royal court, taking him along to Paris, where he was introduced to French Orientalist and archeologist Antoine Galland.
During their meetings, Diyab — himself a gifted storyteller — told Galland two stories that he had heard in the old souks of his native Aleppo, one about a young boy named Aladdin and his magic lamp, and another about Ali Baba and the Cave of Thieves. We do not know how much of these stories were recounted from memory, and how much was invented by Diyab.
Galland took note meticulously, showing great interest in both tales. At the time, he was working on the first French translation of Arabian Nights, released in 12 volumes between the years 1704-1717, under the French title: Les Mille et Une Nuits. He carefully inserted the two stories into his new book, with no mention of Hanna Diyab.
Les Mille et Une Nuits was an instant bestseller in Europe, due mainly to the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba.
Les Mille et Une Nuits was an instant bestseller in Europe, due mainly to the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba. It was subsequently translated into many languages, Arabic included, and Diyab’s stories were adapted into stage and cinema, reaching Hollywood with the 1992 Disney animated film “Aladdin,” which grossed $504 million in box office revenue worldwide, and won two Academy Awards. Diyab’s authorship remained unknown until the 20th Century.
The Discovery of Diyab’s Memoirs
Diyab had returned to his native Aleppo in 1710, making a small fortune for himself by trading in cloths and textiles, explaining why he never made claim to his intellectual rights for Aladdin and Ali Baba, who had become household names in the West.
In 1763, he wrote “The Book of Travels,” which was deposited at the Vatican Library by a priest from Aleppo named Paul Sbath in 1928, fully 165 years after it was written. The memoir was not to be unearthed until 1993 by a French Arabist named Jerome Lentin.
Amazingly, Diyab’s chronicles had been stored in the Vatican library for 65 years until discovered by Lentin. It took another 22 years for the memoirs to be published in a book, first in French, in 2015, followed by an Arabic version in 2017.
In May 2021, Diyab’s “Book of Travels,” was finally translated into English.
In May 2021, Diyab’s “Book of Travels,” was finally translated into English by Elias Muhanna and released by New York University Press. In his autobiographical account, Diyab speaks of his encounter with Galland, who until then, had been universally accredited with the authorship of Aladdin and Ali Baba.
Yasmine Seale is the first to incorporate this fact into a full translation of the Arabian Nights. Before that, there were various translations of Diyab’s autobiography and versions of Arabian Nights, but none of them had recognized his role.
The new annotated edition is the first acknowledgment in English of Diyab’s contribution to Arabian Nights, building upon the May 2021 release in the West of his remarkable memoirs.
However, it was Horta who actually first gave Diyab his due place in history in his 2016 book, “Marvelous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights,” and again in 2021, with the new version of Arabian Nights, where he and Seale offer him long-overdue justice.