The Archive: Visual Culture in the Middle East


Vying for Readers? The Disparate Aesthetics of Maqamat Publications

Hala Auji

During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the market for printed Arabic books was an increasingly competitive industry with the rise of private and state-funded publishers in key urban centers throughout the Islamic world. At this time, the reproduction of classical Arabic literary and poetic texts in printed form was a widespread regional trend. One of the most popular of these genres was the maqamat. Multiple versions of maqamat al-Hamadhani, al-Hariri, and al-Zamakhshari, (among others), were published at presses in Ottoman, Mughal, and Qajar cities using various formats, aesthetics, and organizational conventions. A number of these volumes emulated the visual and calligraphic conventions found in their handwritten counterparts, while others concurrently introduced modes of textual organization and visual representation that were more in line with western book production at the time.

This paper takes up a material analysis of select nineteenth-century printed copies of the maqamat by examining their format, typographic compositions, ornamental elements, and textual organization, and proposes that regional presses used the visuality of these books to compete against similar editions in circulation. I show how some of these books’ visual translations from scribal to printing conventions may be read examples of remediation. While other printed copies show how publishers strove to set their books apart through visual conventions that broke from those of manuscript traditions. Concurrently, I consider statements found in these varied editions’ colophons and title pages in which publishers strove to distinguish their editions from those of other presses. In doing so, I argue that the use of certain visual conventions at different presses is evidence of early and diverse promotional practices at a time when publishers were likely vying for, and often struggling to acquire, a share of the local print readership.

Content, Context, Form: Portal 9, a Multidisciplinary Approach to Arabic Publishing

Nathalie el Mir

Through a multitude of lenses, Portal 9 investigates urbanism within and through literature just as it features creative writing that reveals the city. A bilingual journal that proposes “an intensive exploration of the urban condition from architecture and planning to metropolitan mores and cultural pursuits”. By publishing “stories” and “critical writing” about the city, Portal 9 combines interpretation with argumentation, reflection with analysis, and the poetic with the expository.

The journal proposes a new approach to Arabic publishing by re-questioning how we read. It defies the rigid systems of education in most every country in the Arab Middle East which vigorously adopts strict boundaries between disciplines and pedagogical techniques like memorization and repetition. In many instances, this segmented pedagogy is a legacy of colonialism and has influenced not only the structure of the public sphere but also how citizens maneuver – or not – through economy, politics, and society.

In its engagement with a wide spectrum of disciplines (art, photography, archive …) while all reflecting on one theme, Portal 9 transforms from one theme to another, through which it unfolds a new reading experience in the form of a compilation of different reflections, an installation, a multilayered object. 

A Critique of Storytelling

Raafat Majzoub

Majzoub builds on a decade of work in experimental publication from journalism to film, branding, architecture and contemporary art to create an argument against writing, teaching and funding storytelling as a form of political agency. His critique comes from a hypothesis that just like NGOs are designed to patch—but not fix—broken socio-economic systems, storytelling is designed to allude to public impact with no mechanism for actual public agency. This piece breaks down the rising star of “storytelling” as yet another hegemonic, capitalist tool to diffuse dissent and divert agency to mere cathartic gestures. This text also questions the power relation in the dependency of stories being told to the interest of the audiences they are told to. And that in the fatigue of a networked world, the “importance” of one narrative over another can be as reductively manipulated as a switch of a button. Through examples from personal projects and regional case studies, Majzoub employs his work on Active and Dormant Fictions to propose “publication” as a transition from narrative storytelling, where the aim is not as much to tell a story, but perform gestures that could amount to future systems that shape new shared publics.

Writing cultural history based on archival material and imaginaries

Sonja Mejcher-Atassi

The Arab world is often represented as a cradle of civilization, its ancient past exhibited in museums the world over, whereas modern cultural history is left in the shadow of powerful Western narratives. How can cultural history be reconstructed, no matter how fragmentary, written, and brought to light?

‘Abd al-Rahman Munif found in the Arabic novel “the history of those who do not have a history, the history of the poor and downtrodden who dream of a better world” (1994). The first part of his sentence might be understood in relation to what Ibrahim ‘Abduh described as a “history without documents” (1975; see Omnia El Shakry 2015), the continued destruction and lack of accessibility of archival material; the second part offers a way out as it focuses not on what is documented in content and form of archives (by the victorious, from colonial powers to postcolonial regimes) but on what is dreamt and imagined (by the oppressed). As I argue in this paper, it is precisely in these dreams, that is in the expectations based on real life experiences, in futures past, as reflected in the title of a collection of essays by historian Reinhart Koselleck (2004), that glimpses into cultural history may be possible. What we need to study then along archival material is archival imaginaries, what we encounter as absences in archives – both tangible, but lost, destroyed, or inexistent in the first place, and intangible, residing in expectations, dreams and aspirations for the future.

Torn, Folded, Curled: Orphan photographs sourced from the Arab Image Foundation: Crafting an archaeology of the recent past, one photobookwork at a time

Paula Roush

Torn, Folded, Curled is a working term used at the Arab Image Foundation to categorise heavily damaged photographs that require special care in storage and preservation. It is also the title for a project started with photographic research at the Foundation followed by a publishing residency at PlanBEY that resulted in photobookworks and an exhibition in Beirut (Makan, 2015). The photobookworks BayroumiSuper-Private and Today source from three photographic collections that are temporarily stored for preservation, whilst awaiting its full digitisation and cataloguing.  In my presentation I elucidate the Art as Research methodologies I use that represent an archaeology of the recent past, and reflect the way these orphan photographs exist in a phantasmic connection with Middle East history, chance and everyday life.
I outline 5 strategies I use to acknowledge and celebrate the photographic collections’ uniqueness through the medium of photobook publishing.
- The  group/series/sequence formula applied to orphan photographs – a structural approach that aligns the photobookwork with the collection’s content;
- The story-showing technique developed through contextual research – a documentary approach used to elevate orphan photographs from archival storage to lived experience;
- The photo-text authorial position - a distinction between a photography book and a photobookwork  employed to elaborate the relationship between photography and writing;
-The haptic mode- a focus on materiality of the book object, layout and binding techniques that engage the reader’s sense of touch; 
- The book-dummy- a handmade studio maquette as 3-d artwork that supports project development and gets the work seen by a commissioner or a publisher.

Arabic Book Design, a History in Progress

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès

Books are the result of the interaction between intellectual thought, aesthetics, innovation, and reproduction techniques. Every well-crafted book is a reflection of its textual content, but also of the collaboration between various people with varied skills, at a certain moment in time. The printing press and publishing in the Arab world, in the modern sense, flourished with secular and technical/scientific publications, and became a tool for mass public education, cultural reform projects, and economic progress—a tool for building a truly modern society. The first aspects of the printing press, standardization, had technical, aesthetic as well as lasting effects on the Arabic language and culture. In its inherent ability to fix knowledge across a wide geographic (and demographic) spread, through the exact reproduction of content and its dissemination, it unified the classical Arabic language and writing styles, reviving old literary forms and preserving historical accounts and traditional mythologies. By this, it created a sense of a uniform and united Arab community—and ultimately a shared destiny. Printing, and printed books in particular, became the binding agents of Arab culture. In this paper influential early publishing houses from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be discussed and their particular legacy with be underlined. The paper will illustrate the elements and design conventions that have defined the aesthetics of printed Arabic books and will present a few cases studies and approaches in terms of content and ideologies and their visual manifestation. The paper will contribute to the discussion on the challenges of publishing and designing books in the Arabic language and will discuss the importance of building historical references on design from the region for Arab designers, students and educators.