Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

East Meets West: Hanna Diyab and the Thousand and One Nights

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

East Meets West: Hanna Diyab and the Thousand and One Nights

Article excerpt

Since its eighteenth-century entry into European literature, the Thousand and One Nights has seemed quintessentially "other" to Western eyes, altogether "Arabian," giving voice to traditional Middle Eastern storytelling. In part, this assumption is justified. The first seven volumes of Antoine Galland's Nights bring together stories from several Middle Eastern sources: a fifteenth-century Syrian manuscript titled Alf Layla wa layla (A Thousand Nights and One Night)1 that ends with the opening pages of a manuscript romance about a hero named Qamar az-zamän and a manuscript collection of stories about Sindbad the Sailor, both of which have Arabic-language source texts. These tales, published between 1704 and 1706, left the public clamoring for more, and Galland's publisher obliged by filling out Galland's partly completed volume 8 with two Turkish stories from François Pétis de la Croix (Mahdi 27).2 Galland, outraged, disavowed them and changed publishers.3 At this point, Galland had only one conte arabe left, "Histoire du dormeur éveillé" (The Sleeper Awakened), of unknown provenance. He translated it and passed it around among his friends but lacked further material.

In March 1709 Galland paid a call on an acquaintance, the traveler Paul Lucas, where he met Hannä Diyäb, a Syrian from Aleppo in his early 20s.4 Later that spring Hannä Diyäb told Galland fourteen stories, which Galland used to complete his version of the Nights, including two that remain emblematic for the collection as a whole: "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba."5 Those fourteen stories reveal Hannä Diyäb's knowledge of tales from narrative repertoires of Western Europe as well as the Levant.

The Nights Narrative

It is common knowledge that the Nights opens with a story about a king, Shariyär, so maddened by his wife's infidelity that, to prevent future betrayals, he marries a virgin each evening and executes her the following morning. Eventually, the vizier's daughter Shahrazad offers to marry Shariyär. Clever woman that she is, she begins telling Shariyär a story on their wedding night but stops short of its conclusion, leaving Shariyär so eager to know its outcome that he postpones her execution. In Galland's translation the thousand and first night passes as Shahrazad completes a story about a falsely accused queen, whose innocence redeems her from years of exposure and mortification. This tale, subsequently titled "Histoire des deux soeurs jalouses" (The Two Envious Sisters), makes up half of the twelfth, and final, volume and brings Galland's Nights to its happy conclusion.

We read Galland's Nights today as a single, internally coherent collection of tales. But historically the collection consisted of several discrete, mostly (and possibly all) traditional sources, as outlined, together with a final modern oral source. The first parts of the collection thus comprise translated and edited manuscripts that were between two and possibly seven centuries old when Galland worked on them, and the fourth part consists of an eighteenthcentury oral source.

The Aleppo manuscript contains far less magic than readers normally assume, as Marina Warner acknowledges in her discussion of flying carpets (76-77). There is, of course, the black demon of the prologue, who holds a woman captive in a glass chest under the sea. And within the following tales told by Shahrazad, there is, in the first tale cycle, "The Merchant and the Demon," a merchant's encounter with a demon that is followed by metamorphoses of people into animals.6 In the second tale cycle, "The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon," a poor fisherman hauls up a brass jar containing a malevolent jinn, whom he tricks back into the jar by telling him two magic tales; the first tale is about the sage Duban, and the second is about a king turned half into stone whose entire kingdom is enchanted by an adulterous wife. After those two tale cycles, the Syrian Nights manuscript continues with tales of urban rascality involving deceptions and misperceptions, domestic trickery, and court intrigues, but magic is not invoked until the storyteller reaches the romance of the silent, seaborne Jullanar. …

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