THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

2 posts from October 2017

18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

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Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

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Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

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Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

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Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls
 ccownwork

 

04 October 2017

The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian 'Nahwy'

On January 3rd 1938, the BBC’s first ever foreign language radio station – BBC Arabic – made its inaugural broadcast. The station was launched in almost direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic-language radio station of the Italian Government that had been broadcast to the Arab world since 1934. Radio Bari’s broadcasts consisted of a mixture of popular Arabic music, cultural propaganda intended to encourage pro-fascist sentiment in the Arab world and news bulletins with a strongly anti-British slant. British officials had initially been largely unperturbed by Italy’s efforts, but from 1935 onwards as Radio Bari’s output became more overtly anti-British and specifically attacked British policy in Palestine, they became concerned and began to discuss how Britain ought to respond.

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Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941, a supplementary magazine produced by Radio Bari with details of its Arabic broadcasts (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

It was soon decided that Britain needed to establish its own Arabic radio station in order to counter Italy’s broadcasts. As the Secretary of State for the Colonies remarked in August 1937, “the time has come when it is essential to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital Imperial importance”. Detailed discussions began over what form the station should take. In addition to logistical issues concerning content and where it should be based, British officials were concerned as to what type of Arabic should be used in its broadcasts. There was a keen awareness that in order for the proposed broadcasts to be both widely understood and taken seriously, making the appropriate choice linguistically was crucial. The Cabinet Committee that was formed to discuss the issue reported that the Arabic used in Radio Bari’s broadcasts in the past – speculated to be that of a cleric of Libyan origin – had been “open to criticism as being pedantic and classical in style and…excited the ridicule of listeners”. The potential for ridicule, in addition to the fact that many uneducated Arabs would struggle to understand it, made classical Arabic an undesirable choice. Yet given the significant variation in regional dialects that exists throughout the Arab world, the choice of a single dialect was equally problematic. British officials in the region possessed strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what course of action should be taken.

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Details of Radio Bari’s broadcast schedule as contained in Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, believed that Nejdi Arabic was the ideal choice, arguing in March 1937 that the “Nejdi accent and vocabulary are accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabia” and form “the common denominator of the whole Arabic language”. He supported this assertion by providing quotations from the 19th century travelogues of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, 1831) and Charles Montagu Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888), both of whom stressed the supposedly uncorrupted nature of Nejdi Bedouin Arabic in comparison with – in Burckhardt’s words – “the low language of the Syrian and Egyptian mob”. De Gaury emphasised the importance of getting the decision right, noting that the Ruler of Kuwait – “who regretted the absence of an Arabic broadcast from London” – had commented to him on the poor grammar of the announcer used by Radio Bari. He argued therefore that there was “an excellent opportunity to be taken up by the British Arabic Broadcast Station of having a really first class man much more welcome than those of other foreign Arabic broadcasters”. In a further display of his simplistic understanding De Gaury concluded his argument by stating that “the Arab is far more language conscious than any other race”. De Gaury’s stance was more a reflection of a racist attitude then rife amongst British officials regarding the ostensible purity of Bedouin Arabs than of reality.

A more nuanced proposal was put forward by Robin Furness, a Professor of English at King Fuad University in Cairo who had been approached by the Foreign Office for his expert opinion. Furness had previously served as Deputy Director General of Egyptian State Broadcasting, as a Press Censor for the Government of the Mandate of Palestine and later served as Deputy Chief Censor in Egypt. He too stressed the importance of making the right decision, commenting that Radio Bari now employed a broadcaster who spoke "ungrammatical Arabic with a marked Levanese [sic] accent…those Palestinian Arabs who spoke to me about these broadcasts ridiculed the accent of the broadcaster: Egyptians…would have ridiculed it even more”.

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Programme of the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4132) ©BBC

While Furness concurred with De Gaury regarding the importance of the decision, he did not agree as to what form of Arabic should be used. Furness explained that on Cairene radio, classical Arabic was generally used only for broadcasts that were related to religion, literature and history and that colloquial Egyptian was used only occasionally for stories or broadcasts intended for children. Otherwise, what Furness terms “Egyptian Nahwy” was generally used. Nahwy (literally ‘grammatical’) is a term used in Egypt to refer to classical Arabic (i.e. fusha), but it is clear that at this time it referred to something distinct. Furness elaborates on what he meant describing it as the way “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavouring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities, and using so far as he can an accent which would be called ‘Egyptian’ but not e.g. ‘Cairene’, ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Saudi’ [Sa’idi or Upper Egyptian]”. Furness gives the specific example of the pronunciation of ثلاثة أيام (three days) which, in Nahwy, would not be pronounced in the classical way as “thalāthatu ayāmin” nor in the fully colloquial Egyptian way of “talat ayām” but rather as “thalāthat ayām”. Furness argued that the announcer chosen for the British broadcasts should avoid colloquial dialects, eschew classical Arabic except for such purposes as Cairo radio used it (“otherwise he would generally be regarded as absurdly pedantic”), avoid grammatical mistakes as much as possible and use Egyptian Nahwy. He reasoned that as Egypt was “the largest and most advanced of the countries affected, and the centre of Islamic education. A broadcaster will be best understood by the most of the listeners, and least criticised, if he uses Egyptian Nahwy”. Aside from classical Arabic, he concluded, “it is the nearest approach to a common language”.

At this time, Britain already operated a local Arabic language radio station in the Mandate of Palestine and for this it utilised what the Cabinet Committee on Arabic Broadcasting referred to as Palestinian Nahwy. This committee acknowledged that although the type of Arabic to be used in the broadcasts for the Arab world as a whole “presents certain difficulties…these are not considered to be insuperable”. Through constructive comments on style and pronunciation it was believed that a “type of Arabic may gradually be evolved which would be palatable to the largest Arabic-speaking audience”. This succinct description brings to mind a form of Arabic that emerged in the 20th Century and is now usually referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) or Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA).

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Details of BBC Arabic broadcasts for Sunday 23rd January – Thursday 27th January 1938. (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214) ©BBC

Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s Ambassador in Cairo, was receptive to Furness’ argument regarding the use of Nahwy but believed that there could “be a conflict of opinion between him and those who advocate the use of classical Arabic, except in the exceptional cases of broadcasts for children, popular stories, humorous items etc”. Lampson also feared that although Egyptian Nahwy “approximates very closely to classical Arabic minus the inflectional terminations, there may be many who hold the view that to give an Egyptian flavour to material which was intended for general consumption in the Arabic-speaking countries might well detract from its wider effectiveness”.

Notwithstanding Lampson’s concerns, it appears that Furness’ argument was influential, for the first chief announcer appointed by BBC Arabic was an Egyptian named Ahmad Kamal Suroor who had previously worked for Egyptian radio. The first ever broadcast of BBC Arabic, that was announced by Suroor, can be listened to here. After its launch, BBC Arabic quickly became popular, Suroor in particular, who was praised by listeners as having “forcible and clear delivery”.

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Ahmad Kamal Suroor delivering the first ever BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938. Copyright BBC

By September 1938, a secret report produced by the BBC was able to report that “[n]ative opinion” unanimously approved of both the type of Arabic used and the quality of the announcing in BBC Arabic broadcasts, which were said to “compare favourably with the performance of other stations broadcasting in Arabic”. Interestingly, the only adverse comments reported had come from Europeans, criticism which the BBC report argued could largely be discounted as it was “based on hasty impressions and incorrect information”. For instance, the report claimed that the specific criticism by some Europeans that the Egyptian accent of the announcers was “displeasing outside Egypt” was “not endorsed by native opinion”. The report quoted at length the thoughts of a “well-informed Englishman in Baghdad” who stated:

A friend told me the other day that he and his friends really enjoy listening to an Egyptian talking correctly in contrast to the best of the announcers from the local Baghdad broadcast, who was always getting his (vowel) points wrong.

One of the Europeans highly critical of BBC Arabic’s broadcasts was James Heyworth-Dunne, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who attacked the technique of the announcers. The report commented that although Heyworth-Dunne claimed to voice the opinion of “every Arab to whom he has spoken on the subject”, his view directly conflicted with a large volume of evidence gathered from all parts of the Arab world. The report argued that since modern literary Arabic was an “artificial and bookish language” with no universally accepted fixed standards, discussions on disputed questions of grammar and style were to be expected and that few “achieve unquestioned correctness”.

Debates around the appropriate use of classical and colloquial Arabic – often heated – continue to this day, but it is fascinating to consider whether BBC Arabic, that remains widely listened to throughout the Arab world, may have played a part in the development of media Arabic throughout the 20th century and the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic as distinct from both classical Arabic and the numerous regional and national dialects that exist throughout the Arab world.


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
 ccownwork

 

Primary documents:
(These are all due to be digitised as part of the  Qatar Digital Library)

India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4131-4134
India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214

Further reading:
Louis Allday An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda: The British Government's Arabic-Language Output during WWII Jadaliyya (May 2016).

Callum A. MacDonald “Radio Bari: Italian Wireless Propaganda in the Middle East and British Countermeasures 1934-38” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 195-207.

F. Mitchell “What is educated Spoken Arabic?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61 (1986), pp. 7-32.

Andrea L. Stanton “This is Jerusalem Calling” State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Texas, University of Texas Press, 2013).

Kees Versteegh “The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic” (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Manuela A. Williams Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad, Subversion in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 (London/New York: Routledge, 2006).