‘The reader familiar with tales of people now dead, with the feats of those plunged in the cavern of extinction never to emerge, with the lore of those who scaled the heights of power, and with the virtues of those whom Providence delivered from the stranglehold of adversity, feels that he has known such men in their own time. He seems to join them on their pillowed thrones and lean companionably with them on cushioned couches … It is as if all that company were of his own age and time; as if those who grieve him were his enemies, and those who give him pleasure, his friends. But they have ridden in the vanguard long before him, while he walks in the rear-guard far behind.’

Al-Wafi bi al-wafayat (Abundant Book on Dates of Death) a biographical dictionary compiled by the fourteenth-century scholar and government official, al-Safadi.

Hanna Diyab’s The Book of Travels is a travel narrative which doubles as a memoir of youth. In For Love and Money (1987) the travel writer Jonathan Raban wrote as follows: ‘Life, as the most ancient of all metaphors insists, is a journey; and the travel book in its deceptive simulation of the journey’s fits and starts, rehearses life’s own fragmentation. More even than the novel, it embraces the contingency of things’. Though this is fluently persuasive, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov took the trouble to refute it in advance; and in his novel The Gift (1938) he created an imaginary philosopher, Delalande, in order to deliver the contrary message. According to Delalande ‘the unfortunate image of a “road” to which the human mind has become attached (life as a kind of journey) is a stupid illusion; we are not going anywhere. The other world surrounds us always and is not at the end of some kind of pilgrimage’. I believe that a reading of Diyab’s strange narrative gives support to Nabokov and his mouthpiece, Delalande. 

Hanna Diyab was born in Ottoman Aleppo circa 1688. His Maronite Christian family were traders who had close links with the French expatriate community in the city. However, Diyab seems to have taken an early decision that commerce was not for him and in 1706 he began a novitiate in a Maronite monastery in the Lebanese mountains, but it did not take him long before he realised that the monastic vocation was also not for him and the abbot happily concurred. Shortly afterwards Diyab teamed up with Paul Lucas, an antiquarian adventurer and charlatan, whom he served as translator and general factotum, and he accompanied Lucas in his travels from Syria to Cyprus, then Egypt, North African Tripoli, Tunis, Corsica, Livorno, Genoa, Marseille, Paris, and Versailles. In Paris he met Antoine Galland, a distinguished classical scholar who was already becoming famous as a result of his ongoing translation of The Arabian Nights. In October 1708, Diyab and some caged jerboas were presented by Lucas before Louis XIV and his court in Versailles. The animals and the Christian Arab were regarded as objects of considerable curiosity. A little later Diyab broke with Lucas and slowly made a perilous journey back to Aleppo via Istanbul and Anatolia. Back in Aleppo he was welcomed by his brothers and set up as a trader in broadcloth. He married and became a solid citizen. Many years later he wrote a narrative of his adventurous anabasis. The manuscript of his adventures ended up in the Vatican library where his authorship was only identified in the 1990s.

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