Storyteller of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ almost dies in Paris Freeze

Its author The travel book (Kitāb al-Siyāḥah), Ḥannā Diyāb, became known to Western scholarship more than a century after his death, when his name was discovered in the diaries of Antoine Galland, the great French orientalist and translator of the Thousand and One Nights. Since that discovery, Diyāb, a Maronite Christian merchant and storyteller from Aleppo, has become a familiar figure to scholars interested in the textual history of the Nights. He has been described as Galland’s muse: The informant who contributed many famous stories to the collection’s French translation, including “Aladdin” and “ʿAlī Bābā and the Forty Thieves”.

Until the early 1990s, few scholars knew that in 1764 Diyāb had written his own travelogue. The work is an account of Diyāb’s travels, mostly in the company of a Frenchman named Paul Lucas. Starting in early 1707, from the region of Diyāb’s birthplace, Aleppo, the two traveled through Ottoman Syria, then traveled across the Mediterranean to Paris, passing through Cyprus, Alexandria, Cairo, Fayum, Tripoli, Djerba, Tunis, Livorno, Genoa, Marseille. , Lyon, and the court of Versailles, among many other places. They arrived in Paris in September 1708 and lived there together for several months. In June 1709, Diyāb set out for home. His journey took him first to Constantinople, where he lived for some time. After crossing Anatolia by caravan, he returned to his homeland in Aleppo in June 1710. The following is an excerpt from The travel book in which Diyāb describes a time of freezing weather and hunger in Paris and shares stories that became part of his history A thousand and one nights.

On the fifteenth of December, Paris experienced a cold so extreme that the trees were frozen stiff. So did the Seine—the river that runs through the city. The sheet of ice covering the river was as thick as a handle, and the carriages could cross it as if they were on dry, rocky ground. The freezing weather lasted fifteen days, killing people in the seven arrondissements of Paris, each as large as the city of Aleppo. In all, eighty thousand people perished, not counting the little children, the poor, and the foreign inhabitants of the city, and the church bells tolled for all. Women were huddled in bed with their children and husbands hugged their wives, freezing to death because their homes were on the highest levels. Paris buildings have five floors: The higher you live, the cheaper the rent.

Farmers’ children who had come from their villages to the city in search of work were found dead in the streets, covered in dung. Paris was a ghost town. Everyone stayed home, confined to a single room, sitting by the fire, as I did myself. I spent fifteen days shut up in my room, warming myself by the fire.

The city’s priests were forced to set up braziers on the altars of their churches to prevent the sacramental wine from freezing. Many people even died while relieving themselves because the urine froze in their urethra as it left their body and killed them. Indoors, it was so cold that the copper barrels cracked and people had to break their bread with adzes and wet the pieces with hot water to eat them.

As for orchards and trees, what can I say? They withered completely. So did the vines and olive groves, as well as the crops, which froze after having produced two or three harvests for the year. This period of God’s wrath struck the whole region of France.

After the fifteen days of cold were over, I left my room and went to shave. The icy walk home from the barber shop left me stiff as a statue. It was so cold that my mustache hairs started to fall out and I was sure I was going to die. When I finally got to my room and they saw me in my condition, they ran to tell my master. He came to see me and immediately ordered the servants to strip me of my clothes. They couldn’t get my outer robes off because my forearms were frozen, so he told them to open the sleeves.

As soon as they took off my clothes and I was as naked as the day I was born, they lit the fire. We had bought a flask of eagle fat in the city of Tunis during our travels, and they trumpeted me with it from top to bottom, moving me close to the fire so that the fat would melt all over my body. Then they heated a white sheet and wrapped me in it. Two young men picked me up and carried me to my bed. I lay there like a statue, unable to move an arm or a leg. They covered me with three or four blankets and wrapped me tightly. I was so hot I felt like I was at the bottom of a bath.

They kept me in bed for twenty-four hours. Then I was back to my normal self, able to move my arms and legs without pain. I got out of bed, once again in good health, put on my clothes and walked home. Two days later, my master ordered one of the servant boys to take me out for a two-hour run through the streets of Paris and not let me stop until I was dripping with sweat. This did me good, and I was right as rain again.

Shortly thereafter, Paris was hit by a famine, which led to a large increase in the cost of food. The city administrators were forced to count the number of people in each house and, by order of the governor, issue each person a small portion of bread so that they would not die of hunger. All the bakers had lists of the members of each family, and someone representing the town authorities sat in each bakery, armed with a register of all the families and everyone’s names. The result of this system was that no one could take an ounce more food than was allotted to him. After a few days, the peasants began to leave their towns and villages and ran to Paris to beg for food to keep from starving. I saw many of them lying on the street, starving, because no one could afford to share their meager share with them. Many people died of starvation.

Faced with this disaster, the nobles of the city, along with its bishops and officials, were puzzled as to what to do. Thanks to God’s mercy, an inspired solution presented itself: They would put peasants to work building houses outside Paris, paying them with funds from the city’s charitable bequests. There was a hill on the outskirts of Paris that they planned to clear. Once that was done, they leveled the land and built on it.

In the meantime, wheat had begun to arrive from other countries, but the price remained high. They built an oven in the area to make bread for the workers, giving each man and his wife and children—those who could work, that is—a loaf of bread weighing two ūqiyyahs, together with a daily wage of two jarqs, that is eight ʿuthmanīs, or four soldiers. Farmers began to work there, relieving the burden of the city. This was the situation until the crisis finally ended, with shipments of wheat arriving from the lands of the East, the Maghreb and elsewhere. After all, demand attracts supply.

Later, when I went to Marseilles, I saw the arrival of four galleys sent by His Holiness the Pope. They were accompanied by barges laden with wheat, for Marseilles had experienced a famine even more severe than that of Paris. It was so extreme that people broke into houses and stole all the food they could find. The governor was forced to set up a gallows in each neighborhood and station soldiers to put an end to breaking and entering. Finally, the ships that had been sent to the East to buy wheat from the Province of the Islands and various territories arrived at Marseilles. There were about three hundred ships and boats in all. Wheat was suddenly abundant in all regions of France. Bread became available again, but a raṭl of bread now costs a crazy, i.e. three-quarters of its former value. It stayed that way until the prices went up again and everything was back to normal. This I saw in connection with the rise of prices in France in the year 1709.

During this time, I became discouraged and dissatisfied with life in those places. An old man, appointed to oversee the Arabic Library, who could read Arabic well and translate texts into French, visited us often. At that time he was translating, among other works, the Arabic book into French The story of a thousand and one nights. He would ask me to help him with things he didn’t understand and I would explain them to him.

The book was missing some “Nights” so I told him some stories I knew and he used them to complete his project. He was very grateful and promised that if I ever needed anything, he would do his best to provide it.

One day, while I was sitting and chatting with the old man, he said, “I’d like to do something special for you, a favor. But only if you can keep it a secret.”

“What?” I asked.

“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. After we finished talking, he left.

He came back the next day. “Good news!” he said. “If my plan succeeds, you will be very happy.”

Courtesy of the Library of Arabic Literature

Excerpted with permission from The travel book by Ḥannā Diyāb and translated by Elias Muhanna. Published by NYU Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *