THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

3 posts from April 2021

12 April 2021

An enigmatic Javanese manuscript in the British Library: Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara, Add 12310

Today's blog is by guest writer Dr Dick van der Meij, Liaison Officer and Academic Advisor for the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia (DREAMSEA), programme, University of Hamburg.

One of the crucial problems in philology is deciding whether a manuscript is a new creation or an attempt to create a faithful copy of an already existing text, but it is often hard or even impossible to solve this problem because of a lack of information either in the manuscript itself or from external sources. One of the clues that may help solve this puzzle are the mistakes and corrections the scribe or others have made in the manuscript, either at the time of composing/copying, or at a later stage. Another clue may be the actual number of mistakes: if only a few errors are found it may either be due to the faithful copying of an existing manuscript, or the sign of an expert composer who made very few mistakes while creating the text (see Van der Meij 2017, Ch. 5). Combinations are, of course, also possible, and part of a manuscript text may be copied while other parts may be new or partly new creations. Another thing that can help to understand the production process is an assessment of other manuscripts made in the same culture. Some of these philological issues will be explored through the study of errors and their corrections in an early 19th century Javanese manuscript in the British Library, Sĕrat Jaya Lengkara, Add 12310.

Illuminated page at the start of a new canto. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 128v.
Illuminated page at the start of a new canto. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 128v.

This manuscript of Sĕrat Jaya Lengkara was first identified correctly by Ben Arps in the book Golden Letters (1991). The brief description in the catalogue by Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977) wrongly describes it as the poem Sĕrat Gondakusuma, and does not mention one of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript: that it is absolutely loaded with clearly indicated mistakes and corrections.

The manuscript starts with various pages that are clearly try-outs, some in a different hand. The text ends abruptly with three pages written up-side-down with two unfinished and uncoloured decorations, while the last inscribed page consists of jottings. The many errors (visible on virtually every page) are clearly marked, mostly scratched though with one to three black lines and provided with wavy red lines above, as will be clear from the illustrations below. The large number of mistakes make me think that this manuscript is perhaps a trial attempt by a person in training to become a professional scribe? At the same time, the manuscript contains many detailed illuminations and canto dividers. This combination of fine decorations and a bewildering number of clearly indicated errors will need to be explained some other time.

Illuminated canto indicator in the form of a mermaid. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 181v.
Illuminated canto indicator in the form of a mermaid. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 181v. Noc

We will have a closer look at this manuscript of the Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara and see if we can make sense of the way the scribe worked. We will start with mistakes in single letters (in Javanese called aksara and pasangan, consonants with added vowel sign) or parts thereof, and continue with larger mistakes.

Mistakes in single letters

Add 12310, f. 85r: anangkil. Just before the aksara /la/ at the end of the word the scribe noticed that he had started it in the wrong way, and so he struck it through with two black lines.
Add 12310, f. 85ranangkil. Just before the aksara /la/ at the end of the word the scribe noticed that he had started it in the wrong way, and so he struck it through with two black lines.

Add 12310, f. 115r.  Kakang dipati.The word dipati was started with the aksara /pa/ which was wrong, and so the scribe scribbled it out and placed a red error mark above, and the word started again with /di/.
Add 12310, f. 115rKakang dipati.The word dipati was started with the aksara /pa/ which was wrong, and so the scribe scribbled it out and placed a red error mark above, and the word started again with /di/.

 Add 12310, f. 114v: nĕmbah aturipun. After nĕmbah the scribe started with the aksara /ma/.
Add 12310, f. 114vnĕmbah aturipun. After nĕmbah the scribe started with the aksara /ma/. For a certain reason he crossed it out and put the aksara /ha/ under it making it aturipun rather than maturipun, which is interesting as it means the same and also does not violate the poetic rules of the sentence. It may have been seen after the writing process was finished as there is no red line above.

The scribe thought he was going to write tannana, but when he realized it was wrong he had to cross out both the aksara and pasangan /na/ with red ink, and repeat the aksara /na/ and added pasangan /ka/ beneath with the vowel sign /ĕ/.
Add 12310, f. 113vmantri tan kĕna ingetung. The scribe thought he was going to write tannana, but when he realized it was wrong he had to cross out both the aksara and pasangan /na/ with red ink, and repeat the aksara /na/ and added pasangan /ka/ beneath with the vowel sign /ĕ/.

Add 12310, 109r: karasa ing tangani wong (line two in the illustration)
Add 12310, 109rkarasa ing tangani wong (line two in the illustration). The scribe noticed he had forgotten the aksara /sa/ in karasa and added it above. He inadvertently repeated nni, which he crossed out, but then thought he was writing tanganira which again was wrong, causing him to scribble out the aksara /ra/ and add wang, forcing him to extend into the margin.

A plethora of these errors of essentially single letters occurs, and also of single vowel signs. The fact that these errors were seen by the scribe during the inscription process means that he or she was aware of what was being written, but does not offer a clue about whether or not the text is a new creation or a copy.

Larger errors

In the first line a verse line was added going into the right margin
Add 12310, f. 7r.  In the first line a verse line was added going into the right margin. The next line has two verse lines crossed out and provided with red lines. The correct lines followed to address the mistake. The first mistake ends in ing mang and continued in the next line with ka gene. The vowel sign /e/ was omitted at the end of in the second line. By erasing both lines and adding the correct text in the right margin this error was addressed.

In this particular case the scribe noticed the error when he or she had already completed this section, and therefore was unable to address the mistake within the text block, and so had to resort to adding text in the margin. Examples of this process are found in many places in the manuscript.

07-Screenshot_2021-03-09 The British Library MS Viewer(18) 90r
Add 12310, f. 90r.  An entire verse line is crossed out and red error marks added on top. The line starts with rĕspati which is the first word of the second line in the stanza that follows. The words angĕmbat madya are the last words of the second line of the stanza that precedes it, which starts with lumampah angĕmbat madya. The scribe seems to have glanced at a page and combined two parts of different verse lines into one, but noticed it in time to correct the mistake. Perhaps this means that in this and similar cases the text was indeed copied from a source, because otherwise the scribe’s eyes could not have wandered over the page. 

Two lines in the stanza had been forgotten and were added in the top margin.
Add 12310, f. 92r.   Two lines in the stanza had been forgotten and were added in the top margin. It is preceded by a mark that is repeated in line three of this illustration to indicate where it should be added. This addition means that the scribe was only aware of the omission when he was already further on in the writing process.

In the instances of errors above it is not clear whether the scribe was copying a text, or creating one him or herself. The mistakes could be the result of a scribe knowledgeable in text production and he or she may have noticed omissions because of the requirements of the verse meters. Something of an altogether more complicated nature occurs when whole stanzas were rejected. When they were rejected because they were repetitions it may point to a copying process. However, this is not what we see in this manuscript as no indication can be found why a stanza was rejected and the issue thus becomes more complicated.

Erasures of whole stanzas

A full stanza was rejected because the eye had jumped from one sentence to the next causing a mistake
Add 12310, f. 175r. A full stanza was rejected because the eye had jumped from one sentence to the next causing a mistake. The first erased line runs pun uwa maos pati kabranan which is a combination of the start in the first line in the stanza in the correct version which runs pun maos and the third line that starts with pun uwa. The scribe saw this error in time to correct it.

An entire stanza was crossed out and red lines added above
Add. 12310, f. 93r. An entire stanza was crossed out and red lines added above. Why it is wrong is a puzzle. It is not a repetition of a stanza before or after it, or indeed anywhere to be found in its vicinity.

The last line of the stanza was written no fewer than three times, of which two were deemed wrong, while the third was accepted.
Add. 12310, f. 61v. The last line of the stanza was written no fewer than three times, of which two were deemed wrong, while the third was accepted. To make things even more clear, each letter in the incorrect line was provided with the vowel sign /i/ making the letters unreadable because many carry two vowels. This is a way of indicating corrections that we see in carefully executed copies but in this manuscript only in a few cases.

Other types of errors

In this case, corrections have been made in the margin, and then they too were rejected and marked as wrong
Add 12310, f. 94r. In this case, corrections have been made in the margin, and then they too were rejected and marked as wrong.

A new canto has started in the second line in this illustration, but the first stanza was rejected, and was crossed out with red error lines added above
Add. 12310, f. 121v. A new canto has started in the second line in this illustration, but the first stanza was rejected, and was crossed out with red error lines added above. To make things quite clear, a new decorative canto indicator (pepadan) was repeated, and coloured with the name of the poetic metre puh nila wisuda which is apparently an alternative name for the metre mijil. It is not clear where the erased text comes from as it has not been encountered elsewhare in this manuscript.

This is one of the rare occasions when a correction was made in another hand in the margin.
Add 12310, f. 171r. This is one of the rare occasions when a correction was made in another hand in the margin.

Conclusion

The copy of the Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara under discussion is an enigmatic manuscript. Even though it contains many fine illustrations, it is literally littered with minor and major mistakes that were addressed by the scribe and others. This combination of many textual errors with finely executed illuminations is a curious phenomenon and needs more detailed research as to why this happened. The fact that the scribe was aware of the traditional unobstructive way of indicating mistakes, but only used this occasionally in favour of crude crossings-out, suggests to me that the resulting manuscript was not intended to be a cherished final product.

Decorations on a nautical theme. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 19v.
Illustrations on a nautical theme. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 19v. Noc

References:
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia. Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. London: British Library; Jakarta: Lontar, 1991.
Dick van der Meij, Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Dick van der Meij Ccownwork

 

05 April 2021

An ‘enhanced’ Qur’an manuscript from Madura

Many manuscripts show evidence of multiple layers of history. For example, a 12th-century manuscript text with marginal annotations from the 15th century might be set in new decorated borders in the 19th century, or a 16th-century Mughal manuscript could have added miniatures from the 18th century. Evaluating such manuscripts depends on an accurate identification of the nature and dating of the constituent parts, and an understanding of the motivation for any additions or enhancements, whether for reasons of scholarship, conservation, beautification or deliberate manipulation, the latter most commonly for commercial gain. One such complex manuscript in the British Library is a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, Or 15877, which was acquired at a Christie’s South Kensington auction sale in London in 2001, and which just been fully digitised.

Opening decorated pages in a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r
Opening decorated pages in a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r  noc

At first glance, this manuscript appears to be a typical illuminated Qur’an from Java. It is written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and has three pairs of decorated double frames at the beginning, middle and end of the book, with marginal ornaments marking every juz’ or thirtieth part of the text. The most impressive feature of this Qur’an is the calligraphy: the whole text is written in a supremely confident, dashing, cursive hand, with a pronounced forward slope, as can be seen below in the repetition of the first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah, at the end of the volume. According to the colophon below written in Javanese, this manuscript was copied by ‘Abd al-Laṭif in the hamlet of Larangan, in the village of Puri (dusun Larangan kampung Puri), which can probably be located in the regency (kabupaten) of Pamekasan, near Sumenep, on the island of Madura.

Final page of a Qur’an from Madura, with a repetition of the Surat al-Fatihah, with the colophon below in the triangular panel. British Library, Or 15877, f. 297v
Final page of a Qur’an from Madura, with a repetition of the Surat al-Fatihah, with the colophon in the triangular panel. British Library, Or 15877, f. 297v  noc

What is not typical though is a full-page illuminated frontispiece at the start of the volume. In the form of carved wooden standing screen, it is inscribed in the middle in vocalised Arabic script: Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’. Sumenep is one of three princely courts on the island of Madura, and the Javanese year 1793 is equivalent to AD 1865. This strikingly decorated page in fact acts as a warning ‘red flag’, for such full-page representational illuminations are not found in any Qur’an tradition in Southeast Asia.

Illuminated frontispiece to the Qur’an, inscribed Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’ (AD 1865). British Library, Or 15877, f. 1r
Illuminated frontispiece to the Qur’an, inscribed Pangeran Paku Ningrat Kraton Sumeneb 1793, ‘Pangeran Paku Ningrat, the Palace of Sumeneb, 1793’ (AD 1865). British Library, Or 15877, f. 1r  noc

There are numerous other hints that Or 15877 is an ‘enhanced’ manuscript, namely a genuine but probably originally plain 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, which was most likely only illuminated shortly before being consigned for sale. Hundreds of Qur’an manuscripts from Java and Madura, copied on both dluwang and on European paper, were created devoid of decoration but with the text on the two opening pages set in smaller frames, as for example in Or 16877 in the British Library, shown below. In recent years there have been countless examples of such Javanese Qur'an manuscripts with recently added illumination, especially in the wide borders of the opening pages. Sometimes it is easy to recognize these ‘enhanced’ manuscripts through the garish and harsh synthetic pigments used, as in Or 15877, which have often bled through the paper to the other side. In Or 15877, the faint powdery sheen evident on the opening pages appears to be due to talcum powder rubbed over the illuminated elements, presumably to induce a degree of patina.

Opening pages of an undecorated Qur’an manuscript from Java, probably late 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, ff. 1v-2r
Opening pages of an undecorated Qur’an manuscript from Java, probably late 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, ff. 1v-2r  noc

In the original manifestation of Or 15877, the start of each juz’ was indicated with a star-shaped ornament in the text with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin identifying the number of the juz’. As part of the late 20th-century ‘beautification’ process, the facing page of each new juz’ has had triple green medallions added in the margins. In the example shown below, these medallions overlie an earlier textual correction, proving that the ornamentation is a later addition to the manuscript.

The start of juz’ 28 at Surat al-Mujadilah (Q. 58), with the original calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin at the top of the left-hand page, but with the recently-added green medallions on the right-hand page partially obscuring an old textual correction in the margin. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 264v-265
The start of juz’ 28 at Surat al-Mujadilah (Q. 58), with the original calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin at the top of the left-hand page, but with the recently-added green medallions on the right-hand page partially obscuring an old textual correction in the margin. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 264v-265r  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts in which illuminated frames were added at the time of creation, the text boxes on those pages would normally have been made smaller – sometimes, much smaller – to allow for the ornamentation of the borders. Another incongruous feature of the British Library Qur’an Or 15877 is therefore the double decorated frames in the middle and at the end, which have been squeezed into the narrow margins around the full text pages. Moreover, in all Qur’an manuscripts produced in the Javanese tradition, illuminated frames in the middle would frame the start of Surat al-Kahf, but in this manuscript they have (inadvertently) been placed on the following two pages, starting with Q. 18:17.

Decorated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 147v-148r
Decorated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 147v-148r  noc

Decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 296v-297r
Decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Madura. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 296v-297r  noc

It is considerations about the sizing of the illuminated frames in the middle of the Qur'an which help to interpret one of the most puzzling aspects of this many-layered manuscript: the presence on the doublures – which in the case of Or 15877 comprise two sheets of European paper pasted on the inside of the front and back covers – of two small illuminated panels. That at the front is inscribed Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate', and that on the back Alhamdulillah, 'Praise be to God'. Both panels contain small cartouches above and below in which an inscription in red ink has been defaced. The online tool retroReveal has helped to decipher the erased inscriptions, which on the front panel can be read as Surat / al-Kahf. The second pair are more difficult to read but the top word may be Makiyyah, referring to the place of revelation of this chapter.  Thus the two panels, together, contain the first words of the Surat al-Kahf, and appear to have been originally created as part of the central illuminated pages of a Qur’an manuscript. When that enterprise was, for some reason, abandoned, the pages were repurposed as doublures in Or 15877, with the sura headings erased to leave simply two pious expressions set in decorated borders. The two doublure pages have been digitally reconstructed below to show how the central pages of the Qur’an were originally envisaged, alongside the middle illuminated pages from another Javanese Qur’an manuscript with almost as small text boxes for the start of Surat al-Kahf.

Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim-Or 15877 Doublure front  Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim-Or 15877 Doublure front-RetroReveal

Illuminated panels inscribed Alhamdulillah-Or 15877 Doublure back  Illuminated panels inscribed Alhamdulillah-Or 15877 Doublure back-retro
Illuminated panels inscribed (top) Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim and (below) Alhamdulillah, with the legibility of defaced red text enhanced by retroReveal. British Library, Or 15877, front doublure and back doublure.  noc

Digital reconstruction of the front and back doublures of Or 15877, to show how they were originally created as the central pages of a Qur’an manuscript marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 15877, front and back doublure.
Digital reconstruction of the front and back doublures of Or 15877, to show how they were originally created as the central pages of a Qur’an manuscript marking the start of Surat al-Kahf. British Library, Or 15877, front and back doublure.  noc

Central pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, marking the start of a Surat al-Kahf, enclosing a single line of text on each page. National Library of Singapore, Farish Noor Collection.
Central pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, marking the start of Surat al-Kahf, also enclosing a single line of text on each page. National Library of Singapore, Farish Noor Collection, B29235337A.

The binding of Or 15877 is also curiously hybrid. The leather covers themselves are evidently 19th-century, and the stamped decorative medallion with four petals at the centre is similar to those found on other Madura manuscripts (cf. Plomp 1993: Figure 4). However the covers are slightly smaller than the text block and thus the binding may not be original to this particular manuscript. The edges of the page have been gilded, which can be assumed to be another recent enhancement, such gilding is never normally encountered in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts.

Detail of the stamped central medallion-Or 15877 binding motif  Detail of the stamped corner piece-Or 15877 binding motif corner
Detail of the stamped central medallion and corner piece from the binding. British Library, Or 15877, front cover.  noc

Gilded edges of the text block, with too-small leather covers. British Library, Or 15877, bottom edge.
Gilded edges of the text block, with too-small leather covers. British Library, Or 15877, bottom edge.  noc

In the most generous assessment, the process of 'enhancing' these older Javanese Qur'ans could be seen as part of an ages-old inclination to 'beautify' the Holy Book.  However, in some other cases of augmentation of Qur'an manuscripts, whereby fake colophons attributing production to Southeast Asia have been added to Qur'ans from Daghistan, no such extenuating factors can be adduced.

Further reading:
A.T. Gallop, Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.
M. Plomp, Traditional bookbindings from Indonesia. Materials and decorations. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149 (3):571-592.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

01 April 2021

Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Between April-June 2021 the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will co-host Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

Two-ring binder open with black and white page of illustrations, atop a green open-topped box with obscured items
From the collected archive for the project Borrowed Faces by Fehras Publishing Practices, Berlin, 2018-2021.

© Ferras Publishing Practices

The series has been co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

The series has been organised in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and the Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Video still showing a white board with writing in black ink and lines in blue ink, with a hand at the bottom holding a writing instrument
Video still from Past Disquiet.
© Past Disquiet

Engaging with a variety of artistic, design, archival, curatorial and academic research projects, this series will reflect on the multiple and overlapping worlds of publishing and on the contemporary efforts to reconstruct and reimagine them.

Learning from the leading practitioners in the field, the series examines past and present practices of publishing in Arabic. It explores questions of scale of operations and reach; mediums and formats; audience and language; and the social and political context that gave rise to the practices in question. The series also explores contemporary collecting practices of publishing archives. It highlights collections’ capacity to foreground publishing archives not merely as a signifier of other historical processes but as a historical process in its own right.

 

Split image, with colour and black and white covers of books and pamphlets on the left, some in Latin script and some in Arabic script, some with titles blacked out, laid out in an overlapping fashion, and on the right a headshot of a woman with chin-length curly hair standing against a white textured wall, with shadow obscuring part of her face
Left: Image courtesy of Kayfa ta.
© Kayfa ta

Right: Hala Auji. 
© Hala Auji

 

How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics

The first session in the series on Tuesday 27 April at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) brings together artists and curators Ala Younis and Maha Mamoun, in conversation with art historian Hala Auji, to talk about Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. In 2012, they founded Kayfa ta as an independent publishing initiative that emerged from a need to break out of the limited readership and distribution of alternative books: books that cross genres, engage a mixed range of writers and readers, and are not driven by restrictive market values that control who and what is publishable. Their project is also interested in identifying the mechanisms of “gate-keeping”, be they in art or publishing, that shape and limit the voices and practices that have access to a wider public. In 2019, Kayfa ta expanded its interest into understanding the wider field of self and independent publishing and distribution, as well as the new challenges facing access of the private to shared public platforms, and the space left to maneuver the mounting obstacles therein. Their talk explores the expanded fields of contemporary publishing and distribution – modes of making-public and of public–making, as developed through quotidian as well as artistic strategies – as a revealing entry point to understanding contemporary efforts to limit and expand the space of the commons.

 

Split image with colour photograph of seven books standing up in a line on the left, and a black and white photograph of a man wearing spectacles on the right
Left: Arabic Design Library by Khatt Books.
© Khatt Books

Right: Moe Elhossieny.
© Ahmed Othman

 

Archives of design and designing the archive

On Tuesday 11 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers, will speak on The Arabic Design Library: Alternative Narratives from the Arab World. She will address the importance of documenting and presenting an alternative design history from parts of the world that are rarely covered in main-stream design publications. She will present the series of design monographs, The Arabic Design Library, published by Khatt Books since 2016. The series covers the work of some of the Arab world's design pioneers (including the likes of Hilmi al-Tuni, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Dia Azzawi, Nasri Khattar and Abdulkader Arnaout) who were practicing in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s and who in their own way, engaged with design as a tool for political emancipation and socio-cultural progress.

She will be joined by Cairo-based multidisciplinary designer, researcher and writer Moe Elhosseiny who will speak on Arabic Cover Design Archive: Digital Archives as Design Activism. Through engaging with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, he takes a critical approach to history, archival practices and access in relation to collective memory in South Western Asia and North Africa. With archives being suppressed, neglected, avoided, or locked away, there is an urgency to support collective memory building. Consequently, forms of digital archiving may take on the role of design activism. Elhosseiny founded the Arabic Cover Design Archive which seeks to surface and record book design practices throughout the history of Arabic publishing, providing an accessible digital extension to an often inaccessible physical archive. By making the archive visible through digital means, this project multiplies the instances where engagement with this material can occur. It thus aims to increase the potentiality for creating meaning and greasing the wheels of knowledge production while simultaneously alerting the public to the existence of their history.

 

Split image with a photograph of three men, one bare-headed and two on left with hoods, standing in a close group, and right side showing a woman with medium length hair facing the camera with her shoulders and head centred
Left: Fehras Publishing Practices: Sami Rustom, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas.
© Fehras Publishing Practices

Right: Zeina Maasri
© Zeina Maasri

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War

On Tuesday 25 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Zeina Maasri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton, will speak alongside Berlin-based artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices (Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich) about their respective projects on Arabic publishing during the Cold War.

In her talk The Visual Politics and Poetics of Arabic Publishing, Maasri will explore Beirut’s development from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, intellectual debate and political contestation, which was marked by anticolonial struggle and complicated by a cold war order. Central to this nodal configuration was the city’s infrastructure of printing, Arabic publishing and distribution that sparked creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. These transnational circuits have materialised in some of the pioneering modernist Arabic cultural periodicals of the period, as well as in politically radical publishing projects that summoned revolutionary change and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Her talk centres the visuality and materiality of Arabic publications as important sites of aesthetic experimentation and as reproducible and mobile artefacts of print culture. She argues that the translocal visuality of such Arabic printscapes helped articulate political imaginaries, mobilize cross-border identifications and shape aesthetic sensibilities in and through the disjunctive flows of the global sixties.

Likewise, through their project Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices focuses on the Cold War era as one of the most fertile and critical periods in the history of Arab culture and publishing because of the entanglement between politics and culture. Their ongoing project researches cultural policies, and intellectual hegemony pursued by the bipolar power, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their establishment of institutions to fund international networks, conferences and projects. It observes the transformation of culture and publishing in the region from within, where new literary styles and ideas started to emerge. At the core of these movements were publishers, writers, poets, and translators, some of whom established collectives and seminars or who launched initiatives, publications, and publishing houses. Borrowed Faces looks into this period by observing the common denominators between cultural practices then and today. Pursuing these lines of inquiry, the project digs into print archives from the 1950s and 60s, such as books, magazines, memoirs, personal letters, newspaper articles, and photographs.

 

Split image showing on the left a colour photograph of an exhibition space with free-standing black stands, movable orange walls, and cream and green structural wall, all with artwork on them; on right hand side, headshot of a woman with hair to her jaw, smiling
Left: Exhibition view, Past Disquiet, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27-October 1, 2018.
Photograph: Christopher Baaklini, Courtesy: Sursock Museum.

Right: Refqa Abu-Remaileh
© Refqa Abu-Remaileh

 

Fragmented archives and histories of solidarity

The final session in the series on Tuesday 8 June at 17:00 (register via Zoom) brings together Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri to speak about their respective archival and curatorial projects.

In her talk  A Database for Palestinian Literature, Abu-Remaileh will share the work-in-progress of the ERC project PalREAD-Country of Words. Focusing on PalREAD’s use of digital tools, the talk will discuss the challenges and joys of tracing and mapping a highly fragmented and scattered history of Palestinian literary production in Arabic from the early 20th century to the present spanning a multiplicity of geographical locations around the globe.

Researcher and writer Kristine Khouri’s talk Reflections on the (Digital) Future(s) of Past Disquiet focuses on her decade long research project conducted with Rasha Salti which took the form of an archival and documentary exhibition, publication, and seminars and other discursive events. The project investigated the histories of art collections and museums built in solidarity with political causes for Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and South Africa as well as unearthed histories of transnational artistic solidarity networks of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the exhibition presented the research in the form of text, digital surrogates of archival and other materials, video montages of interviews with participants and other testimonies and film and other footage, the exhibition did not exhibit any artwork. Today, over a decade later, the question remains on how to treat the digital archive which has been built throughout the project, gathering surrogates of documents held primarily in private homes or difficult to find ephemera of histories that have yet to be properly written. The talk will explore some of the reflections and challenges in thinking about the digital (and other) afterlives of Past Disquiet and ways to imagine encouraging further research.

Full abstracts and speaker biographies for the series can be found here. For any further enquiries please email Hana Sleiman and Daniel Lowe.

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator, Arabic Collections
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