Friday, March 24th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog post, writer and editor J.D. Harlock reflects on the influence of Hannā Diyāb on Western literature, especially the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Even though few of us have heard of him, Hannā Diyāb is, without a doubt, one of the most influential storytellers to have ever graced our pages. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, Alī Bābā and the Forty Thieves, The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Perī-Bānū, and The Ebony Horse are but four of the fourteen fantastical tales that Diyāb offered up for inclusion in Les mille et une nuits — the French translation of One Thousand and One Nights — and their impact on world culture is inescapable.

Though he went uncredited for the tales of his that were included in the French translation, scholars of the Nights were aware of the existence of the Syrian Maronite storyteller and his defining role in the creation of the most famous stories in the collection. However, it was not until Diyāb’s Book of Travels was identified in the Vatican’s archives centuries later that tangible evidence of his unique contributions to the Nights was uncovered, and, in turn, his advancements in the field of speculative fiction were finally made clear.

The style Diyāb cultivated in his writing was undoubtedly a product of his education — which entailed extensive readings and multilingualism (Arabic, French, Turkish, Italian, and Provençal) — coupled with wide travel throughout the Middle East and western Europe. Inspired by the storytelling traditions of both the Arab and European worlds, in addition to popular motifs from the East and West, his speculative fiction exemplified an early embrace of the diversity that would come to define western science fiction and fantasy centuries later.

Set in locales outside of Arabia and with a cast of characters from all over the world (e.g., Aladdin is a native of a capital in China, Prince Ahmed is a son of the Sultan of the Indies, Khorshow Shah is the ruler of Persia, and so forth), the tales Diyāb contributed respectfully depicted individuals from societies other than his own, allowing them to be heroic or villainous without devolving into racial or ethnic caricatures. Aladdin, in particular, is thought to be a literary surrogate of Diyāb himself, and we are introduced to him as an irresponsible youth who gradually, over the course of the story, becomes a cunning hero and a powerful warrior.

Scheherazade and Shahryar (One Thousand and One Nights) by Marie-Éléonore Godefroid. Public domain via Wikimedia.

On the other hand, the way Diyāb’s tales depict his settings shares features of the pulps of the early 20th century, with locations a mishmash of cultural artifacts from popular consciousness and esoteric knowledge that often were nothing like the real location of the time period. Sheherazade even begins Aladdin — a tale that was inserted into the Nights from a manuscript supplied by Diyāb as opposed to an oral telling — by informing the king: “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 . . . .”

And yet, the way in which the Chinese capital is organized is reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire, with made-up customs to go along with it and a palace in the style of Versailles (reminiscent of the passages in The Book of Travels where Diyāb first lays eyes on it). Though this kind of portrayal is now considered culturally insensitive, from his travelogue, we might infer that Diyāb meant no harm, as he too came from an amalgamation of disparate cultural influences, which he drew on to concoct amusing yarns using his aptitude for unique and intricate worldbuilding.

Even the characters in his tales seem to be aware of this lack of authenticity, poking fun at it, as in the quote above where Scheherazade ‘forgets’ the name of the ‘Chinese’ capital that Diyāb completely made up. This tendency to poke fun at (in)authenticity recurs throughout The Book of Travels, encapsulated in Diyāb’s preparation to meet the French king. Instructed to wear his ‘native’ dress — turban cloth, pantaloons, and dagger — Diyāb presents himself with an Egyptian calpac on his head and londrin-cut trousers, aware that Europeans, for all their oriental curiosity, will be unable discern these inaccuracies — for better or worse.

Even though Diyāb has yet to receive much attention as a writer of speculative fiction, the tales he concocted are distinguished by their grandiosity and lean heavily into the fantastical, in contrast to the original tales of the collection; they also stand out for their fixation on extravagance, ceremony, and jewelry. In the popular western imagination, these stylistic flourishes have come to define not only the Nights but Arabic and Islamic folklore and fairytales as a whole. In light of the scant information on Diyāb, the French translator Antoine Galland was thought for centuries to have been inspired by elements he believed representative of Islamic culture, such as superstition and love of luxury, while adapting the tales in terms of character and technique to allow them to resonate with the literary trends of French prose of the time.

Arabian Nights illustration by William Strang. Public domain via Wikimedia.

However, as The Book of Travels exhibits, Diyāb was a deft storyteller, and it’s clear that what are now iconic qualities of the Nights should be ascribed to him. Embedded into the travelogue are forty or so stories ranging from the mundane to the magical that the Nights is famous for but weaved here in a far more complex manner that went further with the style than the other authors of the Nights ever did.

While the narrative structure of The Book of Travels follows in a long tradition of embedded narratives, or stories within stories, the narrative interiority breaks from the style of traditional Arabic travelogues and exemplifies the ‘modernity’ that was once ascribed to the French translator — long alleged to have written the stories from the scant outlines Diyāb supplied. This ‘interiority’ anticipated an evolution in speculative fiction that would come about much later, when the genre would shift focus away from worldbuilding and onto storytelling, emphasizing the need for psychologically complex characters.

The following passage from The Book of Travels illustrates the luxuries of the French royalty, but it reads like any description of an eastern monarchy featured in Diyāb’s tales:

“When we arrived at the princess’s palace, they brought me alone with the cage to her private residence and bedroom. I went in and saw the royal bed draped with fine brocade curtains. Reclining on it was the princess, whose beauty was without peer among all the women of her epoch. Seated around her were the wives of the princes, as radiant as moons, wearing dresses that glittered luminously from all the jewels set in them. The sight was simply indescribable.”

The style on display here resembles what the popular consciousness has come to imagine to be ‘arabesque,’ and it seems that the grandiosity of what Diyāb witnessed in western Europe left an impact. Throughout the travelogue, Diyāb repeatedly draws comparisons between the east and west, from Lyon and Aleppo to Harlequin and Karagöz. Insight from the travelogue into Diyāb’s worldview allows us to understand how he was inspired by disparate cultural influences for his magical tales of easterners, blending east and west while simultaneously modernizing the storytelling, and, most notably — especially when compared to some of the other tales featured in the Nights — displaying a remarkable social consciousness uncharacteristic of the time period.

In his memoir, Diyāb dwells on social considerations, displaying an awareness of the disparity between the rich and the poor, Christians and Muslims, Maronites and other Christians, men and women, eastern and western men, and eastern and western women. When applied to his speculative fiction, these preoccupations, coupled with the aforementioned interiority, were innovative. His consideration of social life in narratives characterized by high drama and the fantastical was something that western speculative fiction would not embrace for centuries.

Diyāb’s social consciousness is also evidenced in his refusal to be bound to the status ascribed to him by birth. Born to a merchant family, like many of his characters, he is confident and determined, keen on making his mark on the world on his own terms, and he refuses to bow down to the expectations of his family, friends, community, or even his Ottoman and European patrons. With characters like Aladdin and Alī Bābā, Diyāb had no small role in popularizing these kinds of protagonists and this worldview, and it’s clear from his writing that many were modeled on himself in some way or another.

With The Book of Travels finally translated into English, we now have a clearer understanding of the character of the author of some of the most famous stories of all time. It is this thoughtful character that makes Diyāb not only a remarkable figure in and of himself hundreds of years later but a prescient innovator in speculative fiction. Now that his narratives have been codified by researchers, it seems that Diyāb alone has introduced more to the narrative repertoire of the Western world than any other storyteller, yet few outside of the Arabic translation scene seem aware that he exists at all. Of all the crimes committed against this man, this is the most inexcusable.

J.D. Harlock is the pen name of Jad Youssef Doumani, a Lebanese Palestinian Syrian writer/editor from Beirut whose nonfiction has been featured New Lines Magazine, Film Daze, the British Council’s Voices Magazine, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association’s Blog. He is also an editor-at-large at the London-based Wasafiri Magazine and the poetry editor at Solarpunk Magazine.