A Paris Deep Freeze Almost Killed ‘Aladdin’ Storyteller

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

The author of The Book of Travels (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 supplied several famous stories to the French translation of the collection, including “Aladdin” and “ʿAlī Bābā and the Forty Thieves.”

Until the early 1990s, few scholars were aware 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 vicinity of Diyāb’s hometown of Aleppo, the two journeyed through Ottoman Syria, then traveled across the Mediterranean to Paris, passing through Cyprus, Alexandria, Cairo, Fayoum, 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 voyage took him first to Istanbul, where he lived for some time. After crossing Anatolia by caravan, he returned home to Aleppo in June 1710. What follows is an excerpt from The Book of Travels in which Diyāb describes a time of freezing weather and famine in Paris, and sharing stories that became part of the story of Thousand and One Nights.

On the fifteenth of December, Paris experienced a bout of cold weather so extreme that the trees froze stiff. So did the Seine—the river that flows through the city. The sheet of ice covering the river was as thick as a handspan and carriages could drive across it as if they were upon dry, rocky ground. The icy weather lasted fifteen days, killing people across the seven quarters of Paris, each as large as the city of Aleppo. In all, eighty thousand people perished, not counting the young children, the poor, and the foreign inhabitants of the city, and the church bells tolled for them all. Women were found huddled in bed with their children, and husbands embracing their wives, frozen to death because their homes were on the higher stories. The buildings of Paris have five stories: The higher up one lives, the cheaper the rent.

The children of peasants who had come from their villages to the city looking for work were found dead on the roads, covered in manure. Paris was a ghost town. Everyone stayed home, confined to a single room, sitting by the fire, as I myself did. I spent fifteen days shut up in my room, warming myself by the fire.

The priests of the city 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 urethras as it left their bodies, and killed them. Indoors, it was so cold that copper casks cracked, and people had to break their bread with adzes and moisten the pieces with hot water in order to eat them.

As for the orchards and trees, what can I say? They withered away completely. The same went for the vineyards and olive groves, as well as the crops, which froze after having yielded two or three harvests for the year. This bout of God’s wrath struck the entire region of France.

After the fifteen days of cold had passed, I left my room and went to get a shave. The freezing walk home from the barbershop left me stiff as a statue. It was so cold that the hairs of my mustache began to fall out, and I was certain I was going to die. When I finally arrived at 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 off my clothes. They were unable to pull off my outer robes because my forearms were frozen stiff, so he told them to slit the sleeves open.

Once my clothes were off and I was naked as the day I was born, they lit the fire. We had purchased a flask of eagle fat in the city of Tunis during our travels, and they slathered me with it from top to bottom, moving me close to the fire so the fat would melt all over my body. Then they warmed up 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 arm or leg. They covered me with three or four blankets and wrapped me up tightly. I was so hot that it felt as if I were lying in the innermost depths of a bathhouse.

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

A short while later, Paris was struck by a famine, which led to a great rise in the cost of food. The city’s administrators were compelled to take a count of the number of people in each home, and, by order of the governor, to issue each person a small ration of bread to keep them from starving. The bakers all had lists of the members of each family, and someone representing the city authorities sat at every bakery, armed with a register of all the families and everyone’s name. The result of this system was that no one could obtain an ounce more food than that allotted to them. After a few days, peasants began leaving their towns and villages, and streamed into Paris to beg for food so they wouldn’t die of hunger. I saw many of them lying in the street, starving to death, for no one could afford to share their own meager ration with them. Many people died of hunger.

Confronted with this catastrophe, the city’s nobles, together with its bishops and officials, puzzled over what to do. Thanks to God’s mercy, an inspired solution presented itself: They would put the peasants to work building houses outside Paris, paying them with funds from the city’s charitable endowments. There was a hill on the outskirts of Paris that they planned to clear away. Once that was complete, they would level the earth and build upon it.

In the meantime, wheat had begun to arrive from other countries, but the price remained high. They built a bakery in the area to make bread for the workers, giving every man and his wife and children—those of them able to work, that is—a loaf of bread weighing two ūqiyyahs, along with a wage of two jarqs, which is to say eight ʿuthmānīs, or four soldi. The peasants began to work there, relieving the burden on the city. This was the state of affairs until the crisis finally ended, with shipments of wheat arriving from the lands of the East, the Maghreb, and other places. Demand attracts supply, after all.

Later, when I went to Marseille, I witnessed the arrival of four galleys sent by His Holiness the pope. They were accompanied by barges loaded with wheat, as Marseille had experienced a famine even more severe than the one in Paris. It was so extreme that people were breaking into homes and stealing all the food they could find. The governor was forced to erect a gallows in every neighborhood, and station soldiers to put an end to breaking and entering. Finally, the ships that had been sent to the East to purchase wheat from the Province of the Islands and various lands arrived in Marseille. There were about three hundred ships and boats in all. Wheat was suddenly plentiful in all the regions of France. Bread became available again, but a raṭl of bread now cost a zolota, which is to say three quarters of its previous price. That was how it remained until prices rose again and everything returned to normal. This is what I witnessed with regard to the rise of prices in France in the year 1709.

During that time, I became discouraged and discontent with life in those parts. An old man, who was assigned to oversee the Arabic Library and could read Arabic well and translate texts into French, would visit us often. At the time, he was translating into French, among other works, the Arabic book The Story of the Thousand and One Nights. He would ask me to help him with things he didn’t understand, and I’d explain them to him.

The book was missing some “Nights,” so I told him a few stories I knew and he used them to round out his work. He was very appreciative, and promised that if I ever needed anything, he would do his utmost to grant it.

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

“What?” I asked.

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

He returned the next day. “Good news!” he said. “If my plan succeeds, you’ll be very happy.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Library of Arabic Literature</div>
Courtesy of Library of Arabic Literature

Excerpted with permission from The Book of Travels by Ḥannā Diyāb and translated by Elias Muhanna. Published by NYU Press.

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