View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide Critical histories of the nineteenth-century Middle Eastern visual and material culture are in full bloom at present, putting in question Eurocentric framings of modernity to closely examine the experiences and productions of local actors in this fraught historical conjuncture. Hala Auji’s Printing Arab Modernity is a key contribution to this emerging body of literature. For this reason alone, the book demands to be read by anyone concerned with a global history of design. It is focussed on the nascent Arab press and the American missionary press, in particular, in mid-nineteenth-century Beirut during a critical period of changing political, intellectual and aesthetic realms in the Ottoman provinces of the Eastern Mediterranean. Benefitting from foreign missionaries as well as from independent financing of a growing Christian, Muslim, and Jewish urban intellectual elite, the cosmopolitan Levantine port city—Beirut—developed as a key geographic pole of Arabic printing and publishing in the region. Auji centres her argument on how visuality, often disregarded, is crucial to the social history of the Arabic press. She rightly notes that the much-privileged textuality of books, and print culture more broadly, has to a great extent overshadowed questions of ‘visual literacy’— relying here on Johanna Drucker’s recent argument concerning the visual as a form of knowledge production.1 Through this framework, the book’s typography, layout design, binding and dimensions are examined as crucial markers of ‘visual literacy’ in a moment of transition from scribal to print culture. Based on hitherto overlooked primary sources, the analysis combines design and Islamic art historical methods, including codicology, while also diligently deploying new interdisciplinary bibliographic approaches. Auji’s central contention is that this transitional phase in the history of Arabic printing, from roughly the 1820s to the 1860s, yielded ‘dynamic approaches to the content, layout, organization, and visual conventions of Arabic print culture that varied in their responses to scribal customs and methods, and shifting notions of what books and texts should look like’ (p. 2). Printing Arab Modernity thus intervenes directly in the scholarship of both Islamic art history and Middle Eastern studies. Auji questions the allegedly sudden rupture with manuscript traditions and conceptions of book making, demonstrating how, in its early days, letterpress technology was adapted to replicate the aesthetic conventions of manuscripts. Received opinion concerning a discontinuity in aesthetic traditions rendered letter-pressed Arabic books conspicuously absent from Islamic art historians’ objects of study. Thus, Auji’s historical redress and attention to liminal artefacts of the Arab press—a book culture in transition, designed for mechanical reproduction—opens up a welcome avenue for transdisciplinary crossover between Islamic art and design history. In Middle Eastern studies, scholarship has emphasized the period spanning from the late nineteenth century to the First World War as a key historical moment of socio-political and cultural transformations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Known as the Arab nahda (Renaissance), this period is characterised by processes of societal modernisation, secularization of thought, and the formation of pan-Arab nationalist ideologies. In particular, scholars of the Arab nahda have attributed great significance to the nascent press in effecting cultural and political change. Undoubtedly, this technological shift played a crucial role in circulating emerging socio-political ideas and debates, as well as initiating new modes of cultural expression, in and through the incipient Arabic publications and within a growing community of readers. Nonetheless, Auji’s critical analysis is wary of an underlying technological determinism and Eurocentric purview in overrating the press as an agent of Arab modernity. This standard narrative in Middle Eastern studies, she convincingly warns in the introduction, stresses the Western origin of printing technology and accordingly ‘chiefly situates the Arab press as a vehicle for modernization and advancement, one that breaks away from “regressive” manuscript practices’ (p. 7). She urges instead a more nuanced understanding of the overlaps, continuities, tensions and disruptions that print cultures shared with scribal traditions. Thus, her study shifts the historical focus of the nahda to an earlier moment, when Arabic printing ‘interfaced’ with more dominant scribal practices of bookmaking. Auji’s focused analysis on the products of the American Press in Beirut makes a compelling case study in support of this argument and complicates our understanding of missionary-Arab encounters beyond reductive and essentializing binaries. Tied to the Presbyterian American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), this missionary press was established in 1834; its publications ranged across religious and secular subject matter and were aimed at a multi-confessional Arabic-speaking audience in Ottoman Syria. Interestingly, the financing and content of its publications, Auji tells us, was not confined to a unidirectional proselytising mission. Rather, as her close examination shows, Arab intellectuals—later prominent nahda figures: Nasif al-Yaziji and Butrus al-Bustani—were involved in the writing and printing of books by the American Press in Beirut in its nascent years from 1830 to the 1860s. These early publications are revealed to be the intellectual and aesthetic precursors of the modernist ideals and national identity discourses that typify the late-nineteenth-century nahda. Following on from a chapter that gives a historical account of the American Press as an extension of the ABCFM missionary apparatus in Ottoman Syria, in the subsequent three chapters Printing Arab Modernity moves into a chronologically organized analysis that meticulously traces the shifts in the graphic design schemes of the American Press’s publications. Thus, in Auji’s historical account, the Press’s early books in the 1830s are emblematic of an experimental period where visual conventions between script and print were in flux, revealing the mission’s attempts to appeal to a multi-confessional local manuscript readership. As political and intellectual changes taking hold of the region created new paradigms of knowledge production and transmission, the modernization impulse, in turn, materialized in an alternative visual form of the Arabic book. By the 1860s, the American Press’s design programme—including a specially designed Arabic typeface—had slowly turned to a streamlined and standardized design, which stripped its books of the ornamental characteristics of illuminated manuscripts and traditional scribal techniques. The popularity of the American Press aesthetic, Auji argues, was disconnected from the Protestant mission’s evangelical message. Rather, the new stark design of letter-pressed Arabic books appealed to emerging nahda scholars, in Beirut and beyond, because it embodied a secular vision of modernity which they advanced in their own literary works, as well as in new conceptions of the printed book. Auji’s careful and nuanced reading of the interactions between American missionaries and members of the local communities highlights the negotiations at play between diverging and converging worldviews and the coeval character of such encounters. Design historians interested in global histories of imperialism have a lot to learn from Auji’s astute critical approach, clearly elucidated in her introduction. Beautifully written, well illustrated and elegantly designed, Printing Arab Modernity also makes a delightful and important read for scholars of book history, typography and printing technology eager to learn how the latter interfaced with particular aesthetic traditions and cultures of the book and met with the politics of global modernity. Note 1 Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2014). © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved.
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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