For centuries, the covers of Arabic books did not advertise the nature of their contents. The leather bindings that protected hand-copied manuscripts were decorated with circular motifs, almond-shaped medallions, stars, stamps, and occasionally flowers, as Adam Gacek describes in Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers.
When book production shifted to print, starting in Cairo in the 1820s, these early printed books borrowed cover-design motifs from their manuscript cousins. The covers of books printed in the 1830s and 1840s feature crescent moons, flowers, and decorative patterns.
“The idea that there was an obvious link between the cover and the content of books was not yet established,” said Moe Elhossieny, founder of the Arabic Book Cover Archive (ABCA) project.
The ABCA’s focus is the next phase of Arabic book-cover design: the shifts and movements in the 20th century. The project is under the umbrella of the Design Repository, supported by the Swiss Art Council’s Pro Helvetia Cairo. The core team is made up of four designer-researchers based in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine: Elhossieny, Nourhan El Banna, Omayma Dajani and Yaman To’meh. Together, they are working to collect and organize a wide-ranging digital archive of Arabic book-cover images and information.
The ABCA’s searchable website isn’t set to launch until 2021, but when the group started posting select covers to Instagram in February of this year, they attracted immediate interest from authors, publishers, bibliophiles, and designers.
Some of this attention may be fueled by nostalgia. Yet there is also a clear interest in filling in the gaps in knowledge about Arabic book-cover design. Currently, Elhossieny says, there “isn’t enough to connect the dots between different moments in [cover-design] history, between the past and the present.”
In the early 20th century, printed Arabic literature began to reach new audiences, and book covers underwent a major shift. By the 1940s, some book covers continued to feature calligraphy and patterned design, while others served as brightly colored advertisements for the stories within, reaching out to catch a reader’s attention.
But for Elhossieny, there is always more to cover design than mere advertisement. Book covers, he says, “encapsulate knowledge, thoughts, fears, history, and dreams of the people who live in any geographical location. They are, on a fundamental level, our collective memory, consciousness, and even unconscious.”
“Encapsulate knowledge, thoughts, fears, history, and dreams of the people who live in any geographical location. They are, on a fundamental level, our collective memory, consciousness, and even unconscious.”Moe Elhossieny
Founder of the Arabic Book Cover Archive project
Detective novels were one of the most popular genres in 1940s Egypt, and many cover designs from that decade evoke a shadowy, noir style. By mid-century, the melodramatic designs of Gamal Kotb dominated many covers, including those of novels by Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel Quddous. Kotb’s stylized realism blends the excitement of detective fiction with the romance of a 1960s movie poster.
When Kotb died in 2016, blogger Zeinab El-Gundy wrote that he had become one of the most well-known Egyptian artists, since his work had entered homes across Egypt and sat in millions of private libraries.
Yet Kotb’s style of hand-drawn cover images is no longer the norm. In the past 20 years, Arabic cover design has seen another major shift. Many young Arab artists are now trained in Western-focused design curricula, Elhossieny said. And many book covers now use standard fonts, stock images, and clip art that is available to designers around the world.
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Moreover, the gravity of book sales has shifted away from stalls, kiosks and book markets to contemporary bookstore chains such as Shorouk, Diwan, Jarir, and Magrudy’s. Here, the books on display are mostly new, and most of them sit tidily on shelves.
All these factors have created a shift in Arabic book-cover design. “For me, I saw a disconnect and a discontinuity in the identity that I sensed in the old book markets, and in older books generally,” Elhossieny said.
As organizers of a recent New York University panel titled “Digital Forays” point out, the Arabic Book Cover Archive is one of a number of small, independent projects working to bring digital material into a shared public space. Others include the Middle East Archive, the Middleast Archive, the Arab Film Archive and Pure Nostalgia.
In all these collections, objects aren’t being held by an institution. Instead, visual information is scanned and shared on digital platforms.
These independent projects raise new questions about what it means to archive the past. In “52 Questions About the Archive,” an essay for the online newspaper Mada Masr, six artists and archivists reflect on discussions that came out of a Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences course titled Archive Fever: Appropriation in Contemporary Art. Recent interest in independent archives has been fueled, the authors write, by the “despair at the lack of access to official archives, where information is locked in the cracks of ministry buildings or decaying government databases.”
“Projects like the Arabic Book Cover Archive will benefit from standardizing practices, it would be helpful for them to have context and information about the covers (designer, author, illustrator, publisher, etc.) more consistently throughout.”Kristine Khouri
Yet these new, decentralized archives face their own sorts of problems.
Researcher Kristine Khouri, one of the “Digital Forays” panelists, noted that projects like the Arabic Book Cover Archive will benefit from standardizing practices, saying it would be helpful for them to have “context and information about the covers (designer, author, illustrator, publisher, etc.) more consistently throughout.”
And indeed, Elhossieny said that the ABCA group is working now to gather all this information and more, adding, “We are intending to add nuance in the way we organize our content, so people would be able to get some advanced search options that can help them filter their search.”
“Since this is a visual research, the filter options will include visual options like shapes, symbols, colors,” Elhossieny said. “So, let’s say I will be able to search for books in the ‘60s that had a green color, illustration, with an icon of a globe in it.”
‘What Makes an Event Worthy of Archiving?’
Among the 52 questions the Mada Masr co-authors asked about archives is what makes something worthy of being saved. Elhossieny said that, at the moment, ABCA doesn’t have any guidelines for choosing worthy book covers. Instead, the team is interested in “all books” from roughly the 1940s through the 1990s.
Currently, in the project’s first phase, they are focused on collection and data. At this point, “We are not gathering beautiful or good-looking book covers; we are collecting all book covers.”
“The number one criterion for us is the quality of the scans,” Elhossieny said. “And the second is being rigorous in collecting the information. We are ultimately an archive providing the raw material for research, and that [research] could have such conclusions as to what defines good or bad designs.”
While it’s true that, on Instagram, the ABCA group has shared only the 450-some covers that have most stood out, Elhossieny said there are a lot more to come, as he emphasized, “We collect absolutely everything.”