Preloader
Critical WritingEssaysTranslations
Dark Mode

On Arabic justification: part 1 – a brief history

Introduction

This is the first of a series of posts on Arabic justification. It begins by setting out some basic – but rarely expressed – observations about the subject which underpin the following discussion. It will then consider the typographic legacy of justification in a very short history. To understand the current situation, and to consider an informed way ahead, we have to know how we came here.
A second post will review current software implementations, the available options, and discuss their approaches, qualities, and shortcomings. Having established current typographic justification of Arabic, a further post will examine exemplary historical practice from the Middle East with the aim of identifying clues that may contribute towards the advancement of current practice.

The basics of Arabic justification

Arabic justification, i.e. the filling of a line of text to achieve uniform lengths for all lines of a column, uses different concepts to those that are widely known from the Latin script. Because most Arabic letters connect, hyphenation, i.e. the breaking of words at the end of a line, is generally not practised (there are some exceptions, notably the modern Uyghur orthography which adopted word-breaks across lines in typography).1

In Arabic texts, handwritten and typographic alike, the remaining space of a line is principally filled using a combination of three techniques: (1) the variation of letterforms (principally elongation and alternative letterforms), (2) changes in the density of black and white, and (3) the configuration of words, including the vertical stacking of letters, reduction of size, and extension of the line into the margins. In the context of typography, the latter is of marginal relevance, and this post will only consider the first two techniques.

Hand-lettered shop sign of a doctor’s surgery illustrating elongation principles of Arabic writing styles. From top to bottom: Naskh style using a swash variant of kāf, Nast‘alīq style employing kashīda elongation, Ruq‘ah style foregoing any elongation because of the ambiguity it would create with medial sīn. Damascus, Syria, 2007. Photograph by the author.

The most prominent technique for Arabic justification is elongation, and it is known by various terms with ambiguous usage, including notably kashīda, madd, and taṭwīl.2 Whilst kashida (in the simplified English spelling) is most frequently used, it often lacks precision of meaning. However, amongst authors engaging the subject of justification there appears to be growing consensus that kashīda is the preferred term for the elongation of letter parts, agnostic of technological implementation.3 This post employs the more elaborate distinction that Thomas Milo established in the context of DecoType’s technology,4 in which kashīda relates to the elongation of letterforms by means of curvilinear strokes following conventions observed in manuscript practice, and taṭwīl refers to the Unicode character U+0640 Tatweel.5 A further, specialised case of elongation are swash variants of letterforms. Although also used for justification (amongst other uses), they are governed by different rules to kashīda elongation, and will be referred to here as swash variants.

By contrast, the Tatweel extension stroke, although widely seen as the standard means of justification in Arabic, is an artefact of typographic technology and should be considered separately. The Tatweel is discussed more below, but suffice it to say at this stage that it should not be regarded as a feature inherent to the script. It is important to note that the elongation of letterforms does not mean stretching (which implies a simple distortion), but a reconfiguration of the whole letterform, and that only some letters, and only certain parts of them may be elongated – and that much only in specific, style-dependent contexts.

Arabic manuscript demonstrating various justification techniques in a Naskh hand. Note how subtly the justification means are used: apart from the red subsections, which are meant to stand out, the main text appears to have equal line lengths without apparent elongations. Only careful observation reveals elongation (lines 1, 3, 8), letter-stacking (lines 1, 3, 13), and changes in the density of the writing, the latter being the preferred technique in this manuscript. Taqī al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ma‘rūf, Treatise on watchmaking, Nablus, 1701–1800, 27,5 cm by 17,5 cm, 85 pp. Courtesy of BnF Gallica, ark:/12148/btv1b8406163s

From Arabic manuscript to letterpress justification

When printers adopted typography to compose Arabic texts, justification principles had to be translated into the new medium. In manuscript production a scribe could use his experience to approximate the number of words he could fit in a given line. Whether he needed more or less space he could tweak the proportions of letter shapes, the width of white spaces, the vertical arrangement of letters and words etc., all before resorting to the more visible justification means: swash letterforms and elongations. Scribes thus had a range of tools to make a written line fit the column.

In letterpress printing not much of this malleability remained. Although white space could be modified too, it was not as flexible. Adding quads to fill a line was easy enough, but reducing the space between sorts required a disproportionately bigger effort by the compositor than by the scribe. Letterforms, on the other hand, could not be modified at all, considerably reducing the margin of manoeuvre. Metal type thus left the compositor with three means to quickly justify a line and lock the forme:6 (1) increase the width of word spaces, (2) use swash sorts if contained in the font and applicable in the given line, or (3) insert specialised sorts between letters to mimic the elongation of letter parts – enter the Tatweel.

Although technically possible, it was economically inconceivable for compositors to create elongated letters as they were needed. In principle typesetters had to work with the font at hand, employing its sorts to the best effect, and as quickly as possible. Rather than making custom sorts for every justified line, typography’s modularity was therefore used to imitate Arabic elongation by means of a dedicated typeform: the Tatweel.7 It was first used by European type-makers and printers when they began composing Arabic in the sixteenth century. Straight extension strokes can be found at least as early as 1516 in a multilingual volume of the gospels published in Genoa, and henceforth it remained a feature of European Arabic typography.8 The utility of the Tatweel is obvious, and would have been appreciated by the compositors of Arabic type. A uniform, straight line that could be repeated as desired and inserted between any connecting letterform greatly facilitated their work. If setting Arabic was laborious, at least its justification was easy.

An example of the excessive use of the Tatweel sort in early Arabic letterpress typography. From Bashārat yasū‘ al-masīḥ kamā kataba mār matī wāḥid min ithnaī ‘ashara min talāmīḏihi, Rome: Typographia Medicea, 1591, 137, Austrian National Library, 255499-D, http://data.onb.ac.at/rec/AC09709138

Yet, the compromises of Arabic typography justified with what amounts to a horizontal rule may not have been appreciated by sixteenth century compositors.9 Although the basic principle of elongation could be readily observed and explained by Oriental scholars, typically involved in the context of European typography, the more elaborate rules underpinning it remained opaque to the first printers of Arabic texts. This discrepancy is well illustrated in books produced at the Medici Oriental Press in Rome. Backed by considerable political and economic clout, its Arabic volumes were widely regarded as hallmarks of scholarly and artistic achievement.

The renowned French punch cutter Robert Granjon, then at the height of his career, was commissioned to cut new Arabic types specifically for the task, and produced five fonts in various sizes.10 Their influence was considerable as they were widely copied and until recently held up as role models of Arabic type-making.11 The fonts achieved somewhat greater fidelity with the Arabic script than their precursors, and included swash variants and some elongated letterforms that Granjon may have intended for justification. Yet the publications of the Medici Oriental Press are dotted with instances in which the compositors still resorted to inserting straight Tatweel sorts, with predictably alien results. Whereas Granjon’s fonts had a lively appearance, with a multitude of curves and rounded strokes, justification by means of the Tatweel introduced a geometric linearity nowhere else to be found – excepting the margins surrounding the column. The unrestrained use of this sort stretched words beyond recognition, and created blank spaces without apparent function, undermining a central tenet of typography for reading: lending shape to meaning.

Mechanical justification and the Tatweel: made for each other

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the Tatweel remained in use. Indeed, rather than disappearing with advances in technology, it appears as if increasing mechanisation contributed to its proliferation. Machinery and industrial manufacturing processes favoured modular concepts, and systematic organisation. Point sizes and the organisation of type widths into repeatable units are but two elements of type-making that had resisted uniformity and consistency for hundreds of years, but were standardised soon after mechanical processes supplanted manual techniques. The Tatweel fitted very well into the systematisation of type-making and typesetting, whereas the formal variety expressed through swash characters, for example, did not.

With the emergence of the typewriter in the nineteenth century, the segmentation of the Arabic script into recurring elements reached a new low. Although the repertoire of forms that could be represented with 90 keys required a drastic cull of letterforms, the Tatweel kept its place in the characterset. Thus it attained unprecedented prominence, and today justification using the Tatweel, although historically inaccurate, is often associated with the typewriter and its drastic simplification of the Arabic script.

Close-up of the type petal carrying the Tatweel on an Olympia SM-8 typewriter. Photograph by the author.
Typewritten sample using the Olympia SM-8 typewriter, illustrating the function of the Tatweel. Photograph by the author.

Throughout the twentieth century, and across the numerous technological changes that it saw, the Tatweel retained its place. From the first Arabic Linotype (1911), to the first Monotype system for Arabic composition (1939), photocomposition devices, and computer-assisted typesetting, the Tatweel was included in fonts, and used in typography. When Linotype & Machinery and Compugraphic co-developed the first automated Arabic justification computer in the second half of the 1960s, the role of the Tatweel was firmly established.12 Hrant Gabeyan, at the time L&M’s representative to Egypt and Sudan, became responsible for the design of the substitution tables that governed the justification ‘choices’ of the computer. We know that Gabeyan consulted a range of professionals in the field, including calligraphers, teachers and Linotype operators, to inform his task, yet the exact process and the rationale that guided the resulting specifications are difficult to reconstruct today. Probably the prospective customer of the system, the Al-Ahram newspaper, had considerable influence on its design, tailoring it to the needs of newsprint composition. The Arabic JusTape justification computer was built around the Tatweel as the principal means for justification, and modification of white space and elongation of letter shapes were disregarded. Indeed, the patent that L&M filed to protect its invention lists the term ‘kashida’ 64 times across its 12 pages.13 Although the JusTape primarily automated what newspaper compositors in the 1960s already did, it also codified practice, and thereby established a precedent for subsequent automated justification systems.14

Front page of Al-Ahram newspaper from 1, 4, 7, and 8 November 1968, showing the transition from hand-lettering to automated type composition. On 1 November, all headlines were hand-lettered in the Ruq‘ah style; on 4 November, the main heading was written in a ‘typographised’ Naskh style, anticipating the upcoming change; three days later, the main header kept its typographic look, whilst more sub-headlines also changed from Ruq‘ah to Naskh; by 8 November, the new equipment from Linotype and Compugraphic was installed and first put to use, replacing all hand-lettered headlines with hot-metal composition type. This issue of Al-Ahram probably is the first ever publication using automatically composed Arabic type with automatic Tatweel insertion. Illustration made by the author using images obtained from the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/AlAhram1968EgyptArabic, accessed 8 November 2019.

Tatweel today

Over time, and through continuous, uncritical repetition of previous practice the Tatweel secured its place in contemporary typography. A place that was cemented, for the time being, through the inclusion of a discrete Unicode codepoint in version 1.1 of the Standard in 1993. ‘U+0640 Arabic Tatweel’ is defined as a modifier letter with the ‘join causing’ property. The Standard notes that this differs from the ‘dual joining’ property in that characters of this class ‘do not change shape themselves’. Thus, according to the standard that encodes nearly all contemporary text, the Tatweel is a solid rule, in shape and behaviour identical to the sorts that European type-founders used in the sixteenth century. Unicode therefore assigns semantic meaning – a codepoint – to what should be a purely graphical device, demonstrating one of the many inconsistencies of the Standard. After all, a central tenet of Unicode is the distinction between semantics and form, between characters and glyphs. Yet because many of its principles derive from typographic legacy, technological artefacts such as the Tatweel entered its conceptual framework.

The pronounced technological bias is also manifest in the inclusion of the Tatweel on most contemporary Arabic keyboards.15 One of the unintended consequences of the hard-coding of a graphical elongation device is that users employ it for purposes that it was not meant to be used for. For example it is common that users key Tatweel characters in order to trigger joining behaviour. Because some fonts fail to make the expected isolated form of Heh accessible, users frequently key Heh followed by Tatweel to give them the initial form of Heh, visually more similar to the required isolated shape, but then followed by the straight Tatweel bar.

 

Illustration of unintended usage of U+0640 Tatweel to trigger joining behaviour in poorly programmed fonts. From right to left: (1) Arial does not provide the isolated Heh form that is expected for the abbreviation of the Hijra date; (2) a frequently used workaround is to insert U+0640 Tatweel after the Heh to trigger joining, resulting in a make-shift approximation of the desired shape; (3) the expected letterform as shown with the Adobe Arabic font.

Another problem of hard-coded elongation is searchability. Because a Tatweel inserts a character into a string of characters, albeit only for graphical purposes, in some environments searching a particular word won’t yield results. Although present in the text, a word that contains Tatweel characters will not be found by the search again if the user keys the word in non-elongated form. Thus a search for طويلة cannot be found if the text contains an elongation using Tatweels such as here طويــلة. Examples of this problem can be found in Mozilla’s Firefox browser, or Apple’s default text editor TextEdit.

Today, we are thus left with an ambiguous situation. Although we have at our disposal sufficient computing power that could easily reproduce the Arabic script without recourse to inadequate simplifications, advance is hindered by the continuation of legacy practices, and concerns for backwards compatibility. The Tatweel is a particularly clear example of the influence that legacy practice, rooted in obsolete technology, remains in use today. It only provides a coarse approximation of a central requirement of basic shaping in Arabic. Whereas limitations of technology may historically have provided the explanation or rationale for such a compromise, today there is no reason to accept inadequate representations of any script in type. If we imagine for a moment that an equivalent shortcoming in the typography of the Latin script – say the distinction between capitals and minuscule letters – could not be handled by layout engines, we can be sure that the industry would rush to address this shortcoming.
In the following post I will review the state of Arabic justification in various software environments. I will discuss the options of the most wide-spread professional design applications, word processors, and browsers, and consider their strengths and weaknesses.


Corrections

An earlier version of this post published on 15 Nov 2019 at 09:31 incorrectly stated that any browser-search would be handicapped by the use of Tatweel, when in fact this problem pertains only to software that is based on the Gecko engine that is used notably for Mozilla’s Firefox browser.


Notes

  1. In early manuscripts word-division at the end of lines was common, but this practice fell into disuse. Gacek, Adam, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden ⸱ Boston: Brill, 2009, 146.
  2. Kashīda derives from the Persian کشیدن, to draw, pull; to extend, protract.
  3. See e.g. Elyaakoubi, Mohamed & Azzeddine Lazrek, ‘Justify Just or Just Justify’, The Journal of Electronic Publishing, Volume 13, Issue 1, Winter 2010, http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0013.105; Benatia, Mohamed Jamal Eddine & Mohamed Elyaakoubi & Azzeddine Lazrek, ‘Arabic text justification’, TUGboat, Volume 27, No. 2, Proceedings of the 2006 Annual Meeting, pp. 137–146.
  4. Milo, Thomas, Tasmeem: The Spirit of Arabic Writing, Grenoble: WinSoft, 2006, 23.
  5. The Unicode Standard considers the two terms as synonymous. The Unicode Consortium, The Unicode Standard, Version 12.1.0, (Mountain View, CA: The Unicode Consortium, 2019. ISBN 978-1-936213-25-2), http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode12.1.0/
  6. Locking the forme, ensuring that all sorts and furniture stayed in place during printing, was significantly easier if text was justified, rather than ragged. Similarly it was much faster to cut a paper frisket for a justified block, and re-use it on every page, than it was for a block with different line lengths which could only be used once. Both aspects contributed to the prevalence of justified setting in letterpress printing.
  7. I am not aware what term was used for this sort in the first Arabic letterpress fonts. In this post Tatweel is used for consistency.
  8. The polyglot Psalterium, Hebræicum, Græcum, Arabicum, & Chaldæum emerged from a collaboration between the orientalist and Bishop of Nebbio in Corsica, Agostino Giustiniani (1470–1536), and the printer Pietro Paolo Porro.
  9. As any cursory review shows, neither do many contemporary practitioners.
  10. For a thorough analysis of Granjon’s Arabic types see Conidi, Emanuela, ‘Arabic Types in Europe and the Middle East, 1514–1924: Challenges in the Adaptation of the Arabic Script from Written to Printed Form’, PhD thesis, University of Reading, UK, 2018.
  11. See for example Yasin H. Safadi, “Printing in Arabic,” Monotype Recorder no. 2, New Series (October 1981): 4.
  12. Note that L&M’s system used the term ‘Kashida’. See also Titus Nemeth, Arabic Type-Making in the Machine Age: The Influence of Technology on the Form of Arabic Type, Boston ⸱ Leiden: Brill, 2017, 183–204. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004349308
  13. Lamberti, Sergio. Means For Controlling Typographic Composing Machines. UK Patent GB1162180, filed 24 December 1966, and issued 20 August 1969. This patent may have contributed to establishing the term ‘kashida’ in the trade: In Gabeyan’s documents the term ‘kashida’ was always set in quotation marks, whereas the author of the patent removed them, using kashida without explanation or qualification.
  14. Gabeyan developed another justification system for Compugraphic’s own Arabic typesetting system in the late 1970s when the company tried to enter the Middle Eastern market. At that time it also developed Arabic fonts which, in line with its catalogue of Latin typefaces, were clones of the commercially most successful designs by the competition. In 1988 the Compugraphic Corporation was bought by Agfa Gevaert. The new owner subsequently licensed Compugraphic’s Arabic fonts to the Microsoft Corporation, where they were used as the default Arabic script fonts of the Windows operating system for more than a decade. Although this is pure conjecture, it appears plausible that Microsoft, at that time without any experience in developing Arabic typesetting software, built on Compugraphic’s justification system. Should this be the case, a direct line can be traced from the justification system that was developed for a hot-metal line-caster to those in use in today’s digital devices.
  15. By contrast, one of the letters that are required for the correct spelling of Allah, U+0670 Arabic Letter Superscript Alef, is not accessible on common Arabic keyboards.
This piece was first published on University of reading Blog by Titus Nemeth. The author have given Design Repository permission to republish and translate the essay.
InterviewsTranslations
Dark Mode

Revolution For Kids: Dar El Fata El Arabi, Recollected

In 1974, the children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arabi was launched in Beirut. Over the next decade, Dar El Fata — staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause — produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region. Bidoun sat down with Mohieddin Ellabbad, one of the cofounders of the publishing house and its first and most influential art director, as well as Nawal Traboulsi, a leading expert on children’s literature and reading habits, who got her start as an amateur illustrator hand-picked by Ellabbad to work with him making books.

(1)
The Palestinian
Alphabet Poster
Mohieddin Ellabad
(2)
Our Oil is Arab!! Original drawing and text for wall newspapers
Mohieddin Ellabad

Mohieddin Ellabbad: I remember the first time I walked into the Dar El Fata offices. Right away I noticed how plush the office was — wall-to-wall carpeting, a long row of telephones, fresh coffee and orange juice. I had come to Beirut under the assumption that conditions would be very difficult. In Egypt we had a fantasy that all things Palestinian automatically meant suffering. I imagined I would be sleeping in an iron bed with six other people in the room. But I was willing to suffer considerably for the cause. I had just scrapped a long-planned sabbatical in Paris, in which I had invested all of my savings, to come to Beirut and work with a novice publishing house linked to the Palestinians.

My first meeting was with Nabil Shaath who was the director of the Palestinian Planning Center and also in charge of the publishing house. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah; later he would hold various positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. In Shaath’s office, I immediately noticed a stack of typewritten papers on the corner of his desk. In response to my inquisitive look, he told me that it was material he had approved for publication, and proceeded to dramatically ask one of his aides why it had not already been sent to the print shop. Another employee interjected that it was necessary to first design and prepare the manuscript. And of course, there was no designer. That was how I came in.

Nawal Traboulsi: Dar El Fata was the PLO’s cultural program, though there was no direct political guidance. Dar El Fata was very creative and progressive, although of course there was a definite, and genuine, enthusiasm for the Palestinian revolution. But the money came from the PLO.

ME: Actually, that’s not true. The money came from private businessmen. At the time, it was common for projects like this to be launched with private donations. But it was founded by Abu Ammar — Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre — after Black September and the expulsion of the Palestinians to Lebanon. An Egyptian doctor who had been imprisoned by Nasser in the fifties, a Marxist, donated a sum of money to Fatah with the suggestion that it be used to fund something that would signify the revolution’s persistence — its ability to take the long road when necessary. A document for the education of children was being drafted at the same time, and thus the idea of launching a publishing house geared toward making books for children started to gain currency.

NT: I was twenty years old, and I was studying philosophy at the French university in Beirut, drawing on the side as a hobby. I had some work in an exhibition at a cultural center in the city, and I was very lucky that Ellabbad saw it. Though they informed him that I was only a student, he insisted on meeting me anyway. He asked if I was interested in doing drawings for children’s books. To be totally honest, at the time I had never done any drawings for children. What’s more, he said that the publishing house was to be primarily about and for Palestinian children, and at the time I had no relationship to Palestine or the Palestinians. But Ellabbad told me not to worry, he would guide me in the process. And in fact, he was so authoritarian! We called him Monsieur Millimeter because of his sharpness and precision. I ended up illustrating around ten books. I got to meet artists like Nazir Nabaa, Kamal Boullata, and Helmi El-Touni. All these Arabs then living in Beirut, “foreigners.” For a Lebanese French-speaking student from the 1968 generation, Dar El Fata opened my horizon onto the Arab world. I was interested in where they came from, their conversations, their painting. But I preferred to stay in the shadows.

ME: When I started, it wasn’t clear what we were going to do. There was no marketing or distribution plan. I decided that if the publishing house was to survive, I’d have to come up with one. What soon became clear was that we needed to establish several distinct series for various ages, in different formats. I made our official goal to publish sixty-seven books by the end of that first year. It was a large but necessary number. We needed to have an extensive and diverse back catalog for the publishing house to establish itself, and to find retail outlets in the Arab world willing to carry our books. I had arrived in May 1974, and I wanted sixty-seven books by December. It was crazy. Somehow we actually, miraculously, met our target.

NT: Yes, and you managed to publish original works! At the time, the few existing children’s publishing houses were busy translating already published books and copying their images. Even more impressive was that you published modern texts about modern children, the children of the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, Dar El Fata was an Arab publishing house with authors and illustrators from every Arab country, which was a totally new and progressive practice. It was not a publishing house that merely reflected the owners’ tastes, as is common now, and at the same time it was not the property of any one country. Because it was dedicated to the Palestinian cause, which especially at that time was the cause of many Arabs, it was truly a pan-Arab endeavor. And it paid attention to children. Writing and publishing quality books for children was not common or trendy in those days — to even think about children was revolutionary!

(3)
Original preliminary drawing of the cover of The Cat’s Banquet
by Zakareya Tamer, 1975
Mohieddin Ellabad

ME: After the first year we conducted an internal assessment that pointed out the utter failure of our administrative and distribution system. What I suggested as a remedy was to become a much smaller operation, a sort of atelier de création, focusing only on the production of content. Nabil Shaath was very unhappy with my proposal, he wanted us to be something big, like Akhbar El Yom, the Egyptian newspaper giant, with their huge nine-story building. He wanted to be a big corporation that produced video for broadcast. I thought, “We can’t produce a sixteen-page book for children and distribute it properly.” He tried to convince me to stay, but I decided to leave after the second year. I returned to Egypt after the civil war erupted. Two of the office boys had already been killed in the fighting. But I did keep working with Dar El Fata through a project that I initiated in Cairo, the Arab Workshop for Children’s Books. We coproduced several books together.

(4)
A Colophon from The Numbers book, 1988
Published by Dar El Fata El Arabi & The Arabic Experimental workshop for Children’s books

NT: After Ellabbad left, nobody from Dar El Fata contacted me again. So it was a brief but influential two years for me. It was clear how crucial Mohieddin Ellabbad had been to the project. He was demanding about which artists he chose to work with, and he refused to have any artists forced upon him because they were Palestinian, or had certain political convictions. I remember that I was astonished to find that I was being paid exactly the same as other illustrators, although I didn’t consider myself a professional like they were. Ellabbad told me that he paid for the work, not the “name” of the person. It was a new and fair way of dealing, and I was proud to work in an institution that operated under such rules. Ellabbad gave Dar El Fata its Arab face — he made sure that it didn’t just become another tool for propaganda. He sought out writers and artists from Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, everywhere in the Arab world.

(5)
Home Poster published by Dar El Fata El Arabi, 1979
Mohieddin Ellabad

ME: To ensure my independence, and in order to keep the administration from interfering too much, I consciously made a point of doing my work away from their offices. I would keep the entire process under my control until I presented them with the final results. At this time, Hegazy, Adly Rizkallah, and Mahmoud Fahmy all came from Cairo and stayed at my house — four beds in a row, we lived and worked together. We worked so hard that we didn’t really have a chance to experience the Beirut you hear about, the Beirut of nighttime pleasures and good food. When we Egyptians went to Beirut in the Seventies, we made a bigger impact than is usually acknowledged.

One thing I remember unconsciously doing was to use the publishing house’s catalog as an opportunity to publish a visual manifesto of sorts. I collected different drawings and juxtaposed them to produce a cover for the catalog that represented the kind of visual world we were interested in. We got rid of Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry type drawings. The idea was to present a new “rough” aesthetic that was at the same time visually powerful and artistically complete — something that was local and that rejected the sentimental and bourgeois nature of the dominant form of illustration at the time. What we wanted were rats, dogs that looked like the ones you see walking down the street, cats smoking cigarettes. That was what I was looking for, not to be just driven by the demands of creating images for propaganda. Anyway, everything I suggested was accepted!

(6)
Original maquette of the cover of the first publications catalogue of the publishing house, considered by the artistic director as a sort of visual manifesto.

NT: I remember during the civil war a meeting that Mohieddin and I participated in where some colleagues voiced the opinion that instead of drawing killings and corpses we should be drawing optimistic and hopeful things. I was quite critical of this position, as I believed we should be drawing what’s around us, the terrible reality we were living. I had also become involved in the Palestinian cause by that point, and I agreed with Mohieddin that art should exceed reality so that the audience could register reality itself. The whole period was marked by revolutionary ideas everywhere.

ME: Dar El Fata being connected to a political organization still meant that there were pretty sticky situations sometimes. People I had never seen before would suddenly show up and stand there, watching us while we were working. In such situations, I tried to be both polite and firm. After the customary but curt greetings I would find out who they were, usually people from the Palestinian Planning Center, on some kind of investigation to find out what we were up to exactly.

In 1975, the Emirates paid for the media campaign that accompanied Abu Ammar’s historical address to the UN, and suddenly there was funding for us to do something cultural to accompany his trip. The decision was taken to translate a few of our books into different languages to demonstrate the kind of books Palestinian children were being exposed to. The mere existence of a children’s publishing house was already an achievement, but fortunately the books chosen were of an aesthetically high standard, not mere propaganda. But the problem with the administration was that they couldn’t always differentiate between propaganda and art. Our efforts were always bound up in propaganda, so in a sense we never fulfilled our true potential.

NT: Another artist and I made a postcard for the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian revolution. The image was also published in the An-Nawar newspaper, but it was attributed to a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl called Nawal Abboud, who didn’t exist. Although I felt like the Palestinian girl secretly existed inside me, like another secret me, and though I was happy that my work was selected and used for the Palestinian cause, as a poster and as a background for a Palestinian children’s play, it was ultimately an act of theft that didn’t respect the artist’s rights. But I didn’t say anything. I have a draft of the original illustration, and it seems, in retrospect, like a prescient illustration of the children of the Intifada in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

(7)
A postcard for Palestine (Originally drawn for Lebanon)
Nawal Traboulsi

ME: It’s important to note that the experience of working in such close proximity to a political machine also influenced my practice positively, because it mixed up all the different channels. I used to work as a designer, a cartoonist, and illustrator — after Dar El Fata I started exploring the possibility of mixing all these different strands. There was a story by Zakaria Tamer called The Cat’s Banquet that I designed the cover for. At the time I was doing lots of caricatures about the infitah — Sadat’s economic open-door policy in the seventies — in which a vicious-looking cat is in the process of seducing a bird. I gave the cat a pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Coke.

(8)
Left: Beautiful Feather book, 1977
(9)
Right: The Cat’s Table، unknown
Mohieddin Ellabad

This was the image of the enemy: extremely well dressed but with claws, like the West. Our original publications, while actually quite cheap, looked lavish. I felt that this was not fitting — to walk into a refugee camp with open sewers and to present such an expensive-looking book, which indeed cost 25 pt — a lot at the time. I did an analysis that showed that it was possible to produce a book for a quarter of the price, if we got rid of the cover. But that never happened. I also initiated a wall journal, in public, with spaces left for locals to fill in. We produced six of them. Other formal innovative and rewarding experiences include the work I did on a book by Zakaria Tamer, which was a sort of comparison between a free, wild horse and a domesticated, servile one. At the time, I came across an exhibition of paintings of horses in Yemen by Laila Shawa. So I asked her if she would like to illustrate this book for me. When she hesitated, I told her that we could do the book together. I said, “You do the paintings in whichever form you like, and just leave me some space for the text.” We laid out the book together, and it was really beautiful. I was always interested in finding new unknown or unprofessional artists who had something strong about their work. Like Nawal, Laila had just graduated from university and had a wonderfully free and naive style. But you need time to discover people, and time to work with them. Unfortunately, things were run quite erratically, and we also worked with people who were not really able to go beyond the dominant aesthetics of the time. Also, the goal of producing sixty-seven books that I had set for the publishing house dictated some of these choices. Sometimes you are not as big as your dreams, and the people you’re dealing with are not up to it. And maybe I wasn’t able to achieve the aesthetic criteria I had set forth in the manifesto.

(10)
One of a series of children’s newspapers-as-posters published by Dar Fata al Arabi, 1988
Mohieddin Ellabad

NT: For me, my experience with Dar El Fata and the war afterward put me on the path I am on now. At the time it was part of a general ambience of revolutionary movements. I am from the generation that dreamed of creating a new world, a new Lebanon as a country of freedom and rights for all citizens, independent of religion, gender, or social class. The war went on to destroy everything in my life, but my work at Dar El Fata was the seed of everything I am doing now. For over ten years I have been engaged with children’s literature, libraries, and public reading. I’m one of the founders of the first NGOs in Lebanon to focus on the establishment and development of public libraries. Right after the war ended, Rafik Hariri was rebuilding the country in a bourgeois way, and a group of friends and activists began working on how to find alternatives through which to reconstruct this damaged country. So we focused on children, public schools, and libraries.

ME: After I left Beirut in 1976, the publishing house continued until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, when it left with the mass exodus of the Palestinians. It then came to Cairo, and a significant change took place. I guess politics finally became absolutely dominant. I am only guessing here, but I think that the house acted as a secret channel of communication between the PLO and the Egyptian government, who at the time were not officially communicating. I continued to design some books, and did some stamps for them, like the now iconic Falasteen Arabiyya (Palestine is Arab) stamp. When Israel participated for the first and last time in the Cairo Book Fair, with a pavilion next to the Dar El Fata pavilion, we volunteered to hold different events to support the publishing house and to celebrate Palestine. Later on we discovered that the PLO had allocated a budget for these activities. I wonder where the money went. By then, in the mid-Eighties, it was really over. Every couple of years a book might be published. The house was finally closed down sometime in the early Nineties. No one ever called to let us know.


Resources:

More of Mohieddin Ellabad’s work can be found on ADA
An online archive for some of Dar Al Fata’s work Here
A documentation of the Rainbow series for kids between 3-6 Here
An sound interview with Mohieddin Ellabad and Hasnaa Rida, 2014 Here
Buy Kashshoul Al Rasam for Mohieddin Ellabad’s Here
Buy Nazar for Mohieddin Ellabad’s Here

This interview was conducted by Hassan Khan and was published in BIDOUN, Noise, winter 2010.
This is published with permission from BIDOUN.
Some of the resources are taken from Hadibadi, check them Here