The “Aladdin” story is often presumed part of the Arabic collection known as the Thousand and One Nights, one of a number of popular medieval collections. Yet the story we know as Aladdin was not translated from an Arabic original. At least, not directly:
The Aladdin story was instead written originally in French, by Nights-translator Antoine Galland. Still, as Paulo Lemos Horta describes in his introduction to Yasmine Seale’s 2018 re-translation of Aladdin, Galland didn’t invent the story. It was relayed to him in the spring of 1709 by Hanna Diyab, a Syrian storyteller who’d come to Paris from Aleppo.
As far as we know, Diyab did not write down his own version of the Aladdin tale. But he did write a travel memoir, which sat in dusty obscurity for centuries at the Vatican Library. A French translation of Diyab’s narrative, D’Alep à Paris: Les pérégrinations d’un jeune syrien au temps de Louis XIV, appeared in 2015, edited and translated by Paule Fahmé-Thiéry, Bernard Heyberger, and Jérôme Lentin.
An English translation, by Elias Muhanna and Johannes Stephan, is tentatively scheduled for Fall 2020:
— Elias Muhanna (@QifaNabki) May 24, 2019
Yet although Galland and Diyab both acknowledge Diyab’s contribution, in Seale’s re-translation of Aladdin, there is no author listed on the front cover. Seale said, in an interview last year: “It’s tempting to see the relationship between Galland and Diyab as that of the ethnographer and the ‘native informant’, and to conclude that a commitment to decolonising the Arabian Nights would mean putting Diyab’s name on the cover. But it’s more complicated, I think. Diyab’s contribution – an oral performance recorded in a few lines in Galland’s diary – is ultimately unknowable.”
Diyab’s memoir, written when he was in his 70s, he describes traveling to Tripoli, to Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Livorno, Genoa, and Marseilles, and then to Paris, where he is received at Versailles in the apartments of Louis XIV. On the way back home, he travels through Smyrna and Constantinople.
Horta wrote, in his book Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights, of trying to map Diyab’s memoirs to “Aladdin”:
Interest in Diyab and his writing is certainly growing:
Wikipedia used to have no biography for Ḥannā Diyāb, hailed by some folklorists as perhaps the most influential storyteller of the modern world. But as of just a month ago, there's now an entry on him and it's surprisingly good: https://t.co/v2c5uTPUnk pic.twitter.com/WeVriQHiBK
— Belated Antiquity (@afzaque) May 26, 2019
Also forthcoming in 2020 are selected stories from the Nights, re-translated by Yasmine Seale:
Selected stories from the Nights coming out in 2020 https://t.co/qX6xvNVPp3
— Yasmine Seale (@yasmineseale) May 24, 2019