The Arabic Print Revolution: Book Review

Ami Ayalon’s The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership is a well-researched, detailed, and insightful study of the production and circulation of large amounts of Arabic printed materials in the Ottoman Empire (mostly in the empire’s Arabic-speaking provinces) from 1800 to 1914. By focusing on the long nineteenth century, Ayalon seeks to shed light on the infrastructure that enabled the major intellectual and social developments throughout the Ottoman Middle East, including, but not exclusively, the Arabic Nahda. To a considerable extent, The Arabic Print Revolution builds on the author’s previous studies on the emergence of the press in the Arab world (The Press in the Arab Middle East: A History, Oxford University Press, 1995) and the emergence of printing and mass readership in Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century (Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900–1948, University of Texas Press, 2004). This volume, however, differs from these studies in terms of its geographical and chronological scopes.

Over seven chapters, Ayalon examines three aspects of what he calls (following Elizabeth Eisenstein’s famous book) “the Arabic print revolution”: production (printing and publishing), the rise of mass readership, and the formation of diffusion channels that spanned the Arabic-speaking lands (including the Ottoman capital and North Africa). After a brief historical overview of the earlier attempts to establish printing presses in the Arabic-speaking lands in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century and their limited success (chapter 1), chapters 2–3 examine the appearance of a considerable number of printers and publishers over the course of the second half of nineteenth century. Chapters 4–5 turn to the diffusion channels (bookstores, libraries) and circulation (agents, mail delivery services) of Arabic printed materials. Finally, chapters 6–7 look at the gradual evolution of Arab readership and of venues where printed texts were read aloud (such as coffee shops). Throughout, despite the book’s general argument that the introduction of the printing press was revolutionary, the author is sensitive to the complex interplay between continuity and change in the gradual process whereby print became a predominant medium across the Middle East: while some formats and media as well as the scope of the circulation of printed materials were clearly innovative, in many cases there were clear continuities (many scholarly and literary genres and practices, for instance, survived the transition from the manuscript to the printed book).

Ayalon’s book can also be read as a rich reference work. In fact, one of the book’s merits is the documentation of titles and publishers that are not represented in most library collections. For example, Ayalon notes that “[a] search in the Worldcat database of holdings in many thousands of libraries has turned out a mere six items [out of 281 known published titles] in Arabic and one in Turkish that were printed in matbaʿat jurji habib hananiya until 1908” (p. 55). Furthermore, although Ayalon is not particularly interested in the history of library collections in Europe and North America, the story he narrates in the book illuminates their history. In this sense, the book contributes to a better understanding of the diffusion channels that were so instrumental in the development of European and American collections.

It is worth stressing that other aspects of the revolution, such as printing technology, the intellectual content of the publications, and the revolution’s broader political and social ramification are left out or dealt with in passing. For the most part, the author’s decision to focus on certain aspects of the “print revolution” while leaving out others is justifiable. However, it appears to me that chapter 3, which deals with the printed titles, suffers from the book’s general disregard of the content of the works published and the various relationships between the published texts. In his survey of the published “classical” titles, that is, works written before the eighteenth century, the author argues that “[c]ontinuity was most visible in the choice of works to be printed, many of which came from the old literary and scholarly heritage” (p. 72). In the following page Ayalon lists numerous “classical” titles that were published over the course of the nineteenth century. But Ayalon does not pay enough attention, I think, to the manner in which the “classical” status of these works was constituted through the published printed edition. In other words, the “print revolution” also helped to define a “classical” canon. The case of al-Mawardi’s al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya is a case in point. Published in Egypt in 1880, after it had already been published in Vienna in 1850, al-Mawardi’s work became quite popular and was indeed canonized as one of the foundational works on Islamic political thought. However, as Hüseyin Yılmaz has shown, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya was not very popular during the Ottoman period. It is through the printed editions, first in Vienna and then in Cairo, that the work gained its “classical” status. Moreover, the printed editions often ignored significant differences and variations that existed between manuscript copies of the same title.

To conclude, Ayalon’s study of the institutions and networks that enabled the mass proliferation of printed materials is a valuable addition to the growing body of works on the history of printing and its impact in the Arabic Middle East. Historians of the Middle Eastern book and collectors of Arabic printed materials will surely find this insightful book of great interest and use.

Guy Burak
New York University