Book Review: Hala Auji, Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and the American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut

By Fabian Steininger, Freie Universität Berlin

Auji, Hala. Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and the American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut. Arts and Archaeology of the Islamic World 7. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016.

„The book“, as Umberto Eco stated on multiple occasions, “is like the wheel – once invented, it cannot be bettered.” While this may be true for the book-form as a somewhat platonic ideal, more specialized topics, such as layout or page numbering, undoubtedly have a history. Particularly printing techniques, from letter-press to lithography and the steam powered machines of the 19th century, transformed both the quantity and aesthetics of books substantively. This holds particularly true for books in Arabic letters. Somewhat late to letter-press printing, book production in the Arabic World until at least the late 19th century continued to be fundamentally embedded in a rich manuscript tradition. Hala Auji, in the present study based on her dissertation from SUNY Binghampton, traces this transformation of book production in the 19th century Arab World by focusing on the “American Press” in Beirut, established in 1834.

The Press, a missionary endeavor, and its personal workforce that included luminaries such as Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883) are often seen as an important forerunner of the Nahda, the Arabic cultural “awakening” of the later 19th century. Auji, however, intends to tell its story from a different angle. Rather than narrating its history based on intellectuals and texts, she takes the materiality and design of the produced books as her starting point. Supplementing this with varied sources from missionary archives, she arrives at a perspective that highlights the role of the Press as a local space of interaction, where Arabic actors and missionaries made use of globally circulating material and immaterial resources to bring about a decisive shift in the aesthetics of local book production (pp. 14–16). After an introduction that locates the study in the relevant historiographical fields of art history, intellectual history, and post-colonial studies, the book’s chapters are organized chronologically.

The first deals with the establishment of American missionary activity in the region at the beginning of the 19th century (pp. 18–34). Commencing around 1819, missionary activity in the region was from the beginning dependent on local actors and knowledge, particularly regarding languages. While the critical stance of the Ottoman government forced missionaries to shy away from too overtly religious publications, books printed at the Press in Arabic were produced with conscious nods to existing manuscript traditions. The second main chapter then details how this manuscript tradition influenced the beginning of printing activities from 1834–40 (pp. 35–63). Floral page patterns and page numbering were taken up as aesthetic features, while title pages often featured calligraphic elements such as the Imperial tuğra and the religious bismillah. Arab Christian individuals working at the Press, such as Nasif al-Yaziji (1800–1871), were instrumental in this: faced with a shifting and broadening readership, they were given free hand to appeal to existing stylistic conventions.

This style changed during the 1840s (pp. 64–91), with missionary competition, US-Board disappointment over low conversion rates, and local opposition to Protestant missionaries contributing. Technologically, a new typeface – subsequently called American Arabic – and a steam-powered printing press significantly transformed book layouts: letters were now smaller, more uniform, and included more precise vocalization marks, while pages became numbered and title-pages simplified. Often seen as a transplantation of “austere” Presbyterian aesthetics, it was in fact a confluence of different styles (p. 75). A developing print readership and a change in missionary focus away from printed material towards a renewed emphasis on preaching and other proselytizing activities also contributed to this shift in print aesthetics (pp. 84–85).

It soon reached a wider audience than before: during the 1850s and 60s, (pp. 92–130), the Press increasingly rented out their equipment to local Arab intellectuals printing their own works. The American Press thus became a focal point for local social and literary debates. Regarding lay-out, these scholars often drew on the aesthetics of the company typeface, while not completely discarding traditional manuscript conventions. They thus codified a situated aesthetic of Arabic books by recourse to globally circulating technologies and ideas – the “Arab Modernity” of the title (pp. 127–29). In an epilogue (pp. 131–32), Auji integrates these findings into larger historiographical narratives: The printing activities of the American Press – although rather small in terms of output – certainly formed an early and downplayed part of the nahda’s cultural blossoming. However, the close reading of books as physical and aesthetic objects not only shows them being as important as newspapers and journals to local and regional intellectual debates, but also highlights the creative agency of local actors regarding available technologies and printing standards.

Auji’s book stands as an innovative contribution to the history of printing and reading in the Arab World of the 19th century. Particularly its methodological recourse to insights from art history and the focus on the materiality of books stand out in this regard. This last aspect also draws attention to the book’s own design. It is, in fact, visually delightful: Rather large (measuring 200x268mm), it features double-column typography and frequent high-definition reproduction of printed pages analyzed in the narrative. On a more textual level, the book’s focus on situated local interactions and concrete workings of the printing activities help to overcome essentialized notions of Missionary-Arab encounters or cultural change in the 19th century Arab World.

Lamentably, this local focus is bought with some blurriness regarding the regional context. While Auji includes side glances to contemporaneous developments in Iran and Egypt, the perspective of the Ottoman center in Istanbul is conspicuously lacking. This is lamentable, since the Ottoman Imperial Press, or Matbaa-i amire, was ever since its establishment in 1832 immensely important for regional book production, particularly regarding schoolbooks and other printed material of the expanding Tanzimat-polity. But even direct ties existed: Faris al-Shidyaq (1805–1887) – a pioneer of Arabic printing appearing in Auji’s book – worked from 1860 in the Ottoman capital as a chief proofreader at the Matbaa-i amire.[1] A deeper discussion of these regional, or Ottoman, links might have yielded interesting results. Nonetheless, Auji’s book contributes both innovative approaches and new insights to the fascinating history of Arabic printing in the 19th century.

 

[1]See Strauss, Johann. “‘Kütüp ve Resail-i Mevkute’ Printing and Publishing in a Multi-Ethnic Society.” In Late Ottoman Society. The Intellectual Legacy, edited by Elisabeth Özdalga, pp. 227–56. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005, here 229.

 


Citation: Fabian Steininger, Book Review: Hala Auji, Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and the American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research 12.09.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/13119.

 


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