Arabic’s Gutenberg: Defining an Era Through the Lens of Print

As thousands of scholars make our pilgrimage to the 52nd annual meeting of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (known to many affectionately as “the ‘Zoo”) we look forward to the largest gathering of medievalists in North America. Over the course of yesterday (Thursday) through this Sunday, many scholars have and will make contributions to the field that amplify our knowledge and transform our critical understanding of our craft. Since I am privileged with the mic during this auspicious time, I will take this opportunity to address a fundamental question that was raised at one of yesterday’s roundtables: where and when do we locate the “Middle Ages” in a global context? In other words, how can we reevaluate our Eurocentric biases and take into account cultures around the world that don’t fit traditional definitions of medievalism?

The organizers of the Kalamazoo roundtable, the University of Virginia’s DeVan Ard and Justin Greenlee, created a forum to discuss the fraught term “medieval” from various perspectives, including Buddhist art in China (Dorothy Wong), the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah period (Aman Nadhiri) and the challenges of accurately representing the Middle Ages in the classroom (Christina Normore). The speakers and moderator Zach Stone strove to challenge the artificial boundaries that are often used to constrict the idea of the medieval and to consider, in the words of Nadhiri, “the Middle Ages as a period without the parameters of time.” I offer here an adapted version of my own presentation, which considers the limits of the term “medieval” through the history of the printing press in the Muslim world.

Of all the metrics that various disciplines use to demarcate the end of the Middle Ages—shifts in military tactics, game-changing historical figures, scientific discoveries, etc.—the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in Germany is often seen as the critical moment when Western culture was ‘reborn’ into a new era. Medievalists know well that the effects of this new technology were not as immediate or as clear cut as many outside the field sometimes think, but the ability to disseminate materials more efficiently and more widely led to changes in the economy, literacy, and writing practices rivaled only by the recent progress of the digital age.

The first printed edition of the Qur’an, printed in Venice by Paganino & Alessandro Paganini​ between 1537-38​.

The history of movable type in Arabic provides a point of departure for wider discussions of how to bookend a historical era in the Middle East and North Africa as well as other predominantly Muslim populations. Although the printing press made its way to the Ottoman Empire not long after its introduction in Europe, it was almost immediately forbidden to print in Arabic. Among the various political, social, and theological reasons for this legislation, I argue that the sanctity of the Arabic language itself created resistance to movable type. According to Islam, Arabic is the direct language of God communicated through the angel Gabriel. Many believe that translations of the Qur’an are no longer the holy book, and throughout the early centuries of Islam there were meticulously-enforced rules for the style of writing that could be used for certain texts.

The clumsy attempts of early printers to negotiate the connectors, diacritics, and shape-changing letters of Arabic writing could not hope to represent the word with the accuracy and beauty that it required. Continuing attempts to this day to create functional Arabic fonts and Turkey’s twentieth-century switch from Arabic to Roman script demonstrate that these challenges are still being negotiated. This narrative of technical and literary development, so vastly different from that of Western Europe, offers a lens through which we can consider other intellectual and cultural differences that complicate comparisons between Western Europe and the Arab world.

Working in the Archives – Manuscript Research at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, Rabat

One of the major manuscript collections in Morocco is currently the property of His Majesty, King Mohammad VI. The Khizana al-Hasaniyya or the Bibliothèque Royale as it is known, is housed in the royal palace in Rabat and directly attached to the royal residences. The Researcher Annex where most guests of the library work, is detached from the palace yet located within the palatial environs.

Due to the personal nature and physical location of this library, it is necessary for the aspiring researcher to observe security protocol and to put their best professional foot forward. Like many things in Morocco, the rules will not be explained in detail but everyone will act as though you know them. When in doubt, ask questions.

Basic Details

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya is part of the Qasr al-Malik or Palais Royale in Rabat and consists of the main manuscript library attached to the royal residences and the Researcher Annex. The Researcher Annex is opened from 9am-4pm Monday – Friday. Most work is done in the Researcher Annex, a new building completed sometime after 2014 and staffed with computers for manuscript consultation. Be advised that electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops are forbidden in the Researcher Annex, and all bags must be stored in the small cupboard in the corner of the Researcher Annex.

At the time of the visit, the Khizana al-Hasaniyya manuscript library was open only to those researchers with specific codicological research though it is possible for one of the librarians to give you a tour of the Khizana. The manuscripts they have on display are stunning, from early Qur’ans to musicology texts to a copy of Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima copied by one of his students and annotated in the margins by Ibn Khaldun himself.

Researcher cards can be obtained by contacting the director of the Khizania al-Hasaniyya, Dr. Ahmed Chouqui Binebine (a.binebine@gmail.com), and requesting a meeting with him to discuss your research. Dr. Binebine speaks Darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic), Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA) and French; if you do not speak these languages, it is best to arrange your meeting with the help of another scholar with current researcher privileges; that way, they can advocate on your behalf while translating as needed.

If you arrive in Morocco and you don’t have someone in country who can pull strings for you at the Hasaniyya, contact Dr. James Miller, the director of MACECE in Rabat.  He is used to helping Americans make connections with Moroccans and may know someone who can help.

Bring your passport and a copy of the passport face page and the page with your date of entry to Morocco or your Carte de Séjour, your research clearance and/or Lettre D’Attestation, and two passport sized photographs to your meeting. Unlike the BRNM, there is no fee associated with this card. It is unclear as to whether or not researcher cards are valid for a specific amount of time or if this time can be negotiated.

For the record, I was able to gain a researcher card valid for three months. This card is an index sized paper card written in Arabic and stamped with the official seal; you will need it for subsequent visits to the library.

During your meeting, you can also request a copy of the General Index for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya along with other catalogs relevant to your research.  This is invaluable as copies of the General Index are quite hard to come by in the United States (Emory and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have copies of the General Index).

The General Index of Manuscripts for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya. All entries are in Arabic.

While the General Index just lists the manuscripts alphabetically and with little information about the manuscript, the more in-depth catalogs, such as the catalogs on Ash’arite manuscripts and those concerned with Islamic law, are much more detailed.  You can request copies of these subject-specific indexes from Dr. Binebine.

Additional manuscript catalogs; text in Arabic.

Dr. Binebine and other librarians at the Khizana may also give you additional texts, such as their publications on codicology. Dr. Binebine’s 2015 book, Histoire des bibliotheques au Maroc, is worth having for any medievalist or manuscript specialist.

The dress code is business wear, with many Moroccan researchers wearing traditional Moroccan clothes such as djellabas. Looking like you have a valid reason to go to the royal palace will help convince the guards and employees that you are not some random tourist hoping to see the king.

For those spending the day or at least the lunch hour at the Khizana al-Hasaniyya, there is a small arcade opposite the soccer field near the Researcher Annex where you can get a pizza (15 MAD) and fresh orange juice (10MAD) as well as a sandwich on occasion or snacks from the nearby hanout (kiosk). It is best to be discreet about drinking water in the Researcher Annex just to avoid any problems.

Getting There

The Qasr al-Mālik is a massive compound located at the end of the Avenue Mohammed V in downtown Rabat and is guarded around the clock. For your first visit, you will need to present your passport and tell the guard that you have an appointment with the director of the Khizana; the guard will then phone to confirm your visit. For subsequent visits, saying that you are a researcher (chercheur/chercheuse) at the library and presenting your researcher card is enough to get in, though it never hurts to have your passport and your Lettre D’Attestation in case someone asks for it.

Unlike European palaces, the Qasr al-Mālik is more akin to a city within a city, making it difficult for the first time visitor to get to where they are going. For the person going alone, it is best to take a petit taxi to the main gate, Bab Soufara, and then have the cab driver continue through the gate and take you directly to the Khizana.

NB: Make sure the driver takes you to the right spot; simply asking for the Khizana al-Hasaniyya might bring you to the Researcher Annex or it might bring you to the Khizana itself. The same is true when it comes to asking for directions inside the compound. If the cab driver wants to leave you at the gate, it is a 10-15 minute walk to the Researcher Annex from Bab Soufara.

Conducting Research

As previously mentioned, the physical manuscripts are largely off-limits to most researchers, meaning that the majority of manuscript work is now done digitally. To request a copy of the manuscript, you will need to fill out a small request form at the desk in the Researcher Annex and give it to the librarian sitting there; they will then call up the digital copies of the manuscript and load them on one of the computers lining the walls. When the files are ready, the librarian will call you over to the computer.

To request digital copies of the manuscripts, you will need to write directly to the director of the Khizana, Dr. Binebeine, and state what it is you want and why you need it. Do not email Dr. Binebine but present a printed and signed copy of your letter to the librarian at the Researcher Annex and ask them to give it to Dr. Binebine. The librarian will then convey your request and, if it is approved, a digital copy of the manuscript will be given to you within 24-48 hours.

Prior to 2013, digital copies were presented to researchers on CD but as of March 2017, a colleague was able to load the files directly onto a USB stick.

NB: One might be limited to the number of folia they are allowed to request per manuscript. Some have reported that they were only able to request 10 folia of a manuscript, while others said they were able to get 40-50 folia. As such, plan your requests and research accordingly.

Language

The Khizana al-Hasaniyya runs on Arabic, especially Darija. The various manuscript indexes, from the General Index to the more thematic indexes of manuscripts, are in Arabic, along with the manuscript request forms. Researchers should have a solid command of the Arabic script and decent penmanship in order to correctly write out their requests.

Spoken French can get one by in a pinch, especially if one’s vocabulary related to manuscripts is not as strong in Darija or Fusha (MSA) as it is in French. For those researchers who are Caucasian or black, the staff may speak to you in somewhat broken French, assuming that you either come from France (if white) or one of the francophone African countries (if black).

The computers in the Researcher Annex all run Microsoft OS and are in French, not English. The screens are touch screens, meaning that you can pinch and zoom in on the images, as well as swipe back and forth. However, most of the other researchers in the Annex use the mouse so it’s probably best to follow their lead.

When it comes to writing a manuscript request letter, the letter must be in Arabic (MSA) or French. If you are unsure about the protocol or language within the letter, ask the librarian in the Researcher Annex if they have a copy of a request on file for you to use.

Misc.

The Royal Palace is a trip for a medievalist not in the least because it is a functioning palace on the scale of medieval administrative cities.  Those who live on the palace grounds and who work there inherited the position from their family members, many of whom may have been part of the royal slave retinues just under two hundred years ago.  To see the Royal Palace in Rabat gives one a good appreciation for the scale of medieval administrative cities like Baghdad, Samarra, Qayrawan, Cairo, Fez, and Marrakech and for the way in which such palaces were cities in their own right.

For additional resources on the Hasaniyya as well as other manuscript libraries in Morocco, see J. Hendrickson and S. Adil, “A Guide to Arabic Manuscript Libraries in Morocco: Further Developments,” (2013)

Research at the Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc

It is always daunting to start research in a new location; it is perhaps more so when you are one of the first people (if not the first) from your institution to arrive there and the advice you have to go on is whatever one can glean off of a library website, if that even exists. The aim of this post is to provide information about conducting research at the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco, from getting a researcher card and gaining access to the collection to requesting manuscripts and getting digital copies for future use as well as other information about library services.

Getting there and Gaining Access

The Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc (henceforth BNRM) is the new name for what used to be the Bibliothèque General.  Founded in 1924 and renamed in 2003
Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc, the library now occupies a beautiful new building on Avenue Ibn Khaldoun in the Agdal neighborhood of Rabat, Morocco.  Easily accessible by car and by the Rabat Tram (Station: Bibliothèque Nationale), it is also a 30 minute walk from the neighborhoods of L’Océan and Hassan and a 15 minute walk from the Rabat Ville Train Station.

The BNRM is open M-F 9:00-21:00 and Saturday 9:00 – 18:00, with reduced hours during the month of Ramadan (M-F 9:00 -15:00).  The four main sections of the library are the Espace Grand Public, Espace cherchéres, Espace collections spécialisées, and Espaces audiovisuals et malvoyants.  There is also an auditorium on the ground floor, a public lobby where artwork and various cultural installations reside, as well as a café with an outdoor terrace on the second level.  At the end of the lobby on the left there is the bag check, bathroom, and the Inscription (Registration) office.  Requests can be done in French or in Moroccan Arabic.  For those who speak only Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) your interactions will be a bit more limited; be prepared to have staff, especially those working at the security level, to reply only in Moroccan Arabic to your MSA.

In order to gain access to the library, one needs to complete and print the Inscription form provided on the BNRM Website BNRM Website, then bring that, a copy of your passport, proof of University affiliation and/or your Letter D’Attestation (in French or Arabic) stating your research, and 150 MAD to the Inscription office.  If you can’t print your Inscription form —the system does not like to work with Mac OS— bring everything else with you when you go and tell them your situation; usually people are forgiving and will print everything there.  Once you have given them your paperwork and paid the fee (if they are nice, you might only get charged 100 MAD), they will print your library card.  The card is valid for one year and can be renewed by completing the same process outlined above.  Unlike other libraries, such as the Biblioteca Nacional de España, you do not have to register your computer or electronic devices with the BNRM.

The Library Itself

Bags, purses, folders, and laptop cases are not allowed in the BNRM; they must be checked at the bag check.  However, you are allowed to bring your laptop, your phone, a small bottle of water, pens, pencils, and notebooks. Once you’ve checked your bag at the bag check, you enter the library by going through the main turnstile. Tap your library card on the card reader to pass through.

The Espace Grand Public is down the hallway on your right.  A large, 2 story reading room with open stacks access to a number of books, the majority in Arabic but a sizable minority of French publications with other European languages thrown into the mix, the Espace Grand Public is a popular space for university students to study.  The books are catalogued according to the Dewy Decimal System though shelving can get a bit creative within the sections themselves.  At the far end of the Espace Grand Public is a copy room where you can request photocopies of books for a small fee.  Usually a couple of pages costs 1 Moroccan dirham (MAD), approximately 10¢, whereas 50 pages will cost around 25 MAD (approximately $2.50).  At present, there are two scanners in the Espace Grand Public but they are not operational.

NB: One cannot request an entire copy of a book; for that, best to download a scanner app to a tablet or phone and make a scan using the camera.

The Espace Cherchères is a separate area towards the back of the library on the right; to gain access to the EC, you again pass through a turnstile.  If your card does not let you pass, go back to Inscriptions and report the problem.  Inside the EC there are several large tables with outlets on the first and second floors, additional reference books, microfilm readers, computers for searching the library catalog, and the request desk.

Catalogs and Websites

The website for the BRNM is in French and Modern Standard Arabic but the majority of the catalog holdings are in Arabic.  This can be a bit frustrating if you are working off of Latin transcriptions of Arabic titles but you can always give the title to one of the librarians and they can look it up for you.  Alternatively, you can also find the item via Latin transcription on World Cat and then click on the link to the Bibliothèque Nationale to get the call number.

For manuscripts, one must search on the BNRM website in Arabic search on the BNRM website in Arabic or download one of the manuscript catalogs to look up the call number.  The catalogs are a good place to start if you want to browse but in order to find a specific manuscript, it is best to just go directly to the online catalog.

NB: For those who are following references pre 2003, note that letters associated with manuscripts are now  using the Arabic rather than the Latin alphabet.  Thus MS 419 G becomes MS 419 ج , K becomes ك  and N becomes ن

MS 419 ج

Requesting Manuscripts

About 80% of the BNRM’s manuscript holdings are digitized and they have a number of microfilms of manuscript collections from other libraries, including the Arabic manuscripts held at El Escorial in Spain.  Actual manuscripts are only given out to those researchers who are doing codicology work and who are requesting specific manuscripts.

To request a microfilm, fill out the request form at the request desk in either French and Arabic, complete with the shelf number.  Once you put in your request, the librarian will fetch the microfilm and set it up on one of the viewers.

The viewers are not the greatest for actually working off of the manuscripts so it is best to find what you need within the manuscript, noting the page numbers and then put in a request for a digital copy at the request desk.  In order to complete this request you will need another copy of your passport page and your Lettre d’Attestation, as well as additional money.  The librarian will write out two copies of your request, then ask you for your name, contact information including email address and/or phone number, and whether or not you want the scan emailed to you or on a disk.  You will also need to sign both copies of the form, then take one of them to an administrative office on the other side of the library; it is at that office where you will pay for the copy.  For the record, 10 manuscript folios cost 20 MAD ($2).  After paying, take your receipt back to the Request Desk in Espace Cherchères and give it to the librarian.   Your digital copy will be ready in a day or two.

Final Notes

The BRNM is a popular spot for university students since they can get access at a reduced rate; expect the place to get crowded in the afternoon and into the evening come the end of term (usually January and July).  Only upper level students, however, can gain access to the Espace Cherchères.

Water bottles are allowed but you must keep your water bottle on the floor by your chair, not on the table.  A guard (speaking Moroccan Darija) will come by and remind you if you forget, even if the bottle is empty.  Also, don’t bring water with you during Ramadan if you can help it.

There are two bathrooms, one on the ground floor and one on the upper floor, but you need to go out through the turnstile to get to them.  They are very clean but notoriously lacking in toilet paper; keep a pack of tissues with you.  The upstairs toilets also have places to wash for ritual prayer and to fill up your water bottle.

The cafe does breakfast lunch and dinner for about 30-50 MAD ($3-5) depending upon what you order.  The coffee and tea is a bit overpriced for what you’re getting but the food is solid.  It is also a popular place for students as you do not need to have a library card to enter the area.  The cafe is closed during Ramadan.

There is Wi-Fi but it is slow; if you’re working off of the cloud or just trying to open your email on your laptop you will get frustrated.   Consider adding internet credit to your local phone and tethering your laptop to it order to work with minimal disruptions.

Additional Resources

l’histoire de la Bibliothèque Générale et Archives