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Marvellous Thieves adds a new chapter to Arabian Nights

Paulo Lemos Horta gives 'secret authors' their due in his study of the World Literature classic

Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta (Harvard University Press).

Paulo Lemos Horta’s research into the history of the storytellers who composed the Arabian Nights is a must-read for fans of World Literature.

The tales, also known as the Thousand and One Nights, are based on oral literature and have been worked on and reinterpreted over centuries by Middle Eastern, South Asian and European wordsmiths. The core of the collection retains an “Oriental” sensibility but the tales themselves have been filtered through many different hands.

In Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights Horta examines the real life contexts of the scribes and adventurers who travelled far and wide in compiling the Arabian Nights. The book takes readers back to 18th century coffeehouses in Aleppo, the salons of Paris, colonial Calcutta and Bohemian London to give a fascinating backstory on how the collection came to be.  

In doing so he also introduces us to an entirely new hypothesis concerning Hanna Diyab, a young Christian Maronite from Aleppo, who travelled to Paris in the 18th century and wrote about his experiences in a manuscript which was recently discovered in the archives of the Vatican Library.

Up until now the common consensus has been that Diyab provided additional stories to French translator Antoine Galland who then reworked the material into the “orphan tales” of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad that were not part of the original Arabic collection.

Research in Marvellous Thieves suggests that Diyab was much more integral to the creation of the “orphan tales” than has been previously thought and he should be viewed as one of the authors, as opposed to a transmitter, of the material.
Horta, an assistant professor of Literature at New York University Abu Dhabi, previously taught at SFU, from 2007 to 2010. He founded the World Literature program at the Surrey campus which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. He spoke to the North Shore News about his research into the cross-cultural production involved in the creation of the Arabian Nights and the writing of Marvellous Thieves.

North Shore News: Is your research at New York University Abu Dhabi an extension of what you were doing in Vancouver?
Paulo Lemos Horta: The attraction of the job here, and in Surrey, was the programs were supposed to be different from existing programs. The argument that I made was that the fastest growing, youngest, most multicultural suburb in Canada – Surrey, where everybody was a first, second or third–generation immigrant – needed to have a more global literature program, so World Literature was the main literature program for that campus.
It’s not like it had English and World Literature was a side thing. It was World Literature instead of English and it was a smash success. It attracted a much more diverse population than standard English courses. Basically, the idea of World Literature in Vancouver was to reflect the city and to reflect Surrey in particular and the suburbs where SFU is actually located.
NYU Abu Dhabi being in Abu Dhabi, again, it’s supposed to be a global reworking of the American curriculum – it’s not supposed to be just a cut and paste from what NYU does in New York. I find that very attractive. Basically this is my second job and my second start–up. There is something about being involved with something from the very beginning, collaborating with other people and building something new in both cases.
The program is simply called Literature but again it’s not just English, it’s different kinds of literature from around the world put into conversation with one another. The students here are also very diverse. They are all on scholarships which are paid for by the Emirati government. In a way it’s part of that same dynamic quality I enjoyed so much in Surrey and in Burnaby which is to be teaching very diverse multicultural classrooms where students are curious to read things from all over the world. There’s an unpredictability to it but there’s also something exciting about it – imagining what literature study will be in a more global way.
I joined Abu Dhabi in its first year of existence in September of 2010. I’ve been here since the beginning and I’ve really enjoyed the entrepreneurial start–up culture. It’s rare to be in a university and to be able to shake things and to actually mould programs to match the student body. Normally universities are very slow to change. It’s like turning a ship. It takes a very long time. You could spend your whole life at a university and never have the chance to change a program in any kind of fundamental way.
In both cases we got to invent them from scratch. The students are excited about going beyond an established Western canon and doing comparative work. If you are looking at anything, modernism or courtly love you’re doing it in a comparative cross culture way. In a way I think it’s necessary in both contexts both in Vancouver and in Abu Dhabi. The cities are similar in that the overwhelming majority of the population in Abu Dhabi is born outside of Abu Dhabi and Vancouver has an even higher percentage of foreign-born residents.
There’s something about these places where most people come from somewhere else. It’s exciting if someone is actually open to learning from them and allowing that experience to shape the kinds of programs that we bring into existence. Even though I left I’m very happy that the program in Vancouver is thriving and 10 years later it’s still around and people have graduated and are publishing novels and are involved in publishing houses. They are doing all sorts of things and it’s very satisfying in that regard.

North Shore News: How did you yourself first experience the tales in Arabian Nights?
Paulo Lemos Horta: My mother was an orphan from the north of Brazil which is where I’m from. The first book her adoptive dad gave her, when she was six or seven, was the Arabian Nights. My parents had actually lived in the Middle East before I was born so not only were they the first stories that I remember being told but the objects that I associate with home were Middle Eastern carpets and low Arab trays and things like that. In a way those are my earliest memories of childhood. It almost didn’t matter where we were living the objects they had acquired in the Middle East seemed to go with these stories of the Arabian Nights which are very universal.
I still teach a course here at NYU Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Nights. I taught a version of this course at SFU and it’s amazing it appeals to everybody because after the Bible it’s one of the most widely circulated works of literature. I have students who have encountered the Arabian Nights in Ethiopia growing up or in China or in Mexico. It’s staggering just how global the circulation of the Arabian Nights really is. In that way it’s been the ideal book to travel with and the ideal passport to meet other people.

North Shore News: How would you characterize the Arabian Nights in terms of world literature?
Paulo Lemos Horta: There’s a whole series of story collections that include texts that were originally oral and were written down. The Arabian Nights don’t have the status in the Arab world of the Sagas, I should say. They have not traditionally been considered high canonical literary works in the Arab world. Some of my students’ parents here are surprised to find out that the Arabian Nights is being taught in a literature class. They occupy, if this term makes sense, a Middle Arabic or a middle literature. They weren’t considered high but they were the stories merchants told about themselves and shared in coffee shops in Damascus and Cairo.

North Shore News: How do you approach the massive amount of material available in and around the collection?
Paulo Lemos Horta: The course has changed a lot over the years. The original way I taught it I might have taught the stories themselves and also how they were retold in English literature and French literature. Over time the course has become more about encouraging students to translate rewritings of the stories because there’s just an infinite number of operas, ballets, soap operas, plays, poems, songs that have been inspired by the Arabian Nights.
What I have my students do here is to find reworkings of the Arabian Nights that have not been translated into English. My students enjoy discovering a Russian, or a Bulgarian, or an Albanian rewriting of Shahrazad or Ali Baba or reimagining characters in a different cultural context. They learn about the original story collection and the way it’s become so influential in literature across the world but they also do some detective work and show me things I haven’t seen before. It’s still exciting to teach.

North Shore News: What is considered the original story collection?
Paulo Lemos Horta: There’s a very reliable Arabic core of stories but there are only about 40 of those stories and they only would have lasted Shahrazad about 280 nights. Scholars of Middle Eastern literature tend to think of those 40 stories as the Arabic core. My book is really about the stories that were added in translation like Ali Baba and Aladdin and Prince Achmed, these are the most famous stories but they were added in French. Arabists and specialists in the Middle East have been trying to exclude those stories from the canon of the collection. Based on my research I’m arguing we should put those stories back in because it turns out even though they were added in French they were actually added on the basis of the storyteller of a Maronite storyteller from Syria. The stories are not just French inventions.

North Shore News: In your research were you specifically looking for this type of information?
Paulo Lemos Horta: The French translator, Galland, made reference to this mysterious traveller that had showed up but only in his diary, not when he published the Arabian Nights. He never acknowledged in print that he got Ali Baba and Aladdin from somebody else. A lot of even recent scholarship knew of these diary entries but didn’t know what to make of them and some scholars even suggested that Galland was imagining this or inventing it to tell posterity via his diary that he had a source for these stories. I thought that you just can’t disappear from history without a trace. If Hanna Diyab, the storyteller that was mentioned by Galland, existed there had to be a birth certificate or a marriage certificate somewhere. It just so happened as I was looking at this Hanna’s memoir surfaced in the Vatican Library. It was missing the first five pages but it was the memoir of this young traveller from Syria who went to Paris and told these stories.
This guy was brought in as a servant by a collector of curiosities – Paul Lucas – kind of an Indiana Jones style adventurer. He brought Hanna Diyab, who might have been 17 or 18, back from Aleppo to Paris to show him off as a curiosity in the court of Versailles.

North Shore News: Diyab is sort of like a missing link connecting the Middle Eastern and European material?
Paulo Lemos Horta:  The memoirs are actually very well written. There are tales within story tales, there are tricks that are common to the Arabian Nights. He deserves to be seen as a co-author. I don’t imagine that this question will be settled over night. The exciting thing is to realize that Hanna Diyab did bring these stories. They were not complete inventions. The French translator didn’t just run out of stories in his Arabic manuscript and then invent everything off the top of his head. He actually did rely on a storyteller from the Arab world to contribute the stories. I think that’s a very exciting and mind-blowing discovery.
For 300 years we’ve imagined that the source of the Orientalism of these stories, like the palace of Aladdin has to be some kind of Oriental palace that the French translator Gallant must have seen in his travels in the Middle East. I’m suggesting there’s an uncanny overlap about how Aladdin wanted to build his palace like no other and Louis XIV built this palace like no other. Hanna Diyab visited Versailles which had just recently been built by Louis XIV. The palace in Aladdin is much more like Versailles. I don’t think we need to imagine that all the imagination came from the French traveller in the Middle East. I think some of that came from the Arab traveller who visited Paris and Versailles.
A lot of Arab travelogues from that period in the early 1700s are much more formal and were written because of a diplomatic request or for some kind of political or commercial reason. Hanna Diyab wrote his memoir in a much more colloquial manner. I think it’s a text that will appeal to modern readers. It’s more impressionistic and less ethnographic. It’s not an overview but more of his own personal experience of the city. In that way I think it’s a very appealing text. It is being translated into English and hopefully in a couple of years the Library of Arab Literature will publish the translation.