By guest contributor N. A. Mansour
Arabic periodicals are perhaps the greatest source for the history of the Arabic-speaking lands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Looking for Arabic primary sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be a minefield. Some archives are in warzones, others are chronically disorganized in under-funded archives, or in the worst cases, the sources simply do not exist. Periodicals survived through the aggregated power of steam, print, and colonial power: libraries across the globe subscribed to them, collected them, and many have since launched mass digitization projects. They are housed in comfortable libraries or even better, online, so long as you have an .edu login.
The story of the Arabic-language press is largely the story of Egypt and, even more specifically, of Cairo. Cairo also dominates much of the historiography of the Middle East and North Africa (see Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East). Egypt is painted in tones of exceptionalism: the first Arabic-speaking country in the Ottoman Empire to gain some semblance of independence in the 1820s, then the first in the Middle East to become a colonial project under the British in the 1880s. And Cairo was its founding city: an intellectual and cultural hub home to one of the world’s oldest universities, al-Azhar. And al-Waqa’i al-Misriyya (Egyptian Matters) was one of the first periodicals, issued by the khedival government for internal circulation amongst bureaucrats in 1828. Except Waqa’i did not have a wide reach and neither did its peers, notably al-Jarida al-‘Askariyya (The Military Journal) (1834) and Taqwim al-Akhbar ‘an al-Ḥawadith al-Tijariyya wa’l-I’lanat al-Malikiyya (A Summary of Trade News and Property Announcements) (1848–49). (For transliterating names, titles, and terms from Arabic, I used the standards known as simplified IJMES [International Journal for Middle Eastern Studies].) Except, the first major Arabic-language newspapers did not come from Egypt. Rather, the Arabic-language periodicals to have the greatest impact on the press as a genre of writing began as a provincialized enterprise, somewhat independent of traditional intellectual centers.
The Ottoman government, ironically enough, set the precedent for a private press, partially because they funded one of the first major private periodicals in the most unlikely of places: the province of Tunisia, which was only nominally under Ottoman control by the mid-1800s. Al-Ra’id al-Tunisi (The Tunisian Pioneer) was launched on June 22, 1860 as a weekly newspaper, with support from Maltese printing enterprises and one Mr. Richard Holt, based in Tunisia. An official governmental paper, it was founded with the explicit goal of being a newspaper for the general public, with news deemed useful by the head of the provincial council. It was also vehement in its dedication to “spreading truth.” Al-Ra’id quickly emerged as a soapbox for commentary on local, regional, and even global news. It originally included a lengthy section for qism rasmi or official news, alongside an equally long qism ghayr rasmi, a section for unofficial news. However, the official news component became steadily less present, especially because the only distinction between the official and unofficial news was its source. Both sections covered political news, where the provincial government selected what went under the heading qism rasmi and the editor Sa’id Hamid Burq al-Qawafi was responsible for the remainder of the paper; that is the qism ghayr rasmi. But al-Ra’id took yet another step away from its governmental connections and thus, another step towards becoming “private:” it ran opinion pieces under the unofficial news platform. For example, the March 26, 1872 issue of al-Ra’id discusses the provincial council’s annual budget at excruciating length. This might not seem extraordinary, but it was not until a decade and a half later that the opinion piece—or perhaps, the editorial—would securely be featured in the vast majority of Arabic-language newspapers. Al-Ra’id actually appears to have been one of the first Arabic-language newspapers in the Arabic-speaking world to run opinion pieces, before its contemporary, the Beirut weekly Hadiqat al-Akhabar (The Garden of News), which only adopted opinion pieces in the late 1860s. The September 25, 1860 issue of al-Ra’id had addressed the ministers of the Tunisian province on Tunis’s political isolation and the necessity of finding some way to counter it.
But that does not mean al-Raid al-Tunisi was both pioneer and trend-setter. Subscriptions to the newspaper went from being regional, from the province of Tunisia itself as far afield as Alexandria and Beirut in 1860, to purely provincial by 1862. It is therefore unlikely that al-Ra’id al-Tunisi influenced other Arabic-language newspapers to begin publishing editorials or opinion pieces (Al-Ra’id al-Tunisi, July 24, 1861). It also does not exactly de-centralize Egypt, even though it clearly indicates that intellectual production aimed at the general public through the press was not unique to Egypt and predated Egypt’s rise as a print hub. Rather, the honor of decentralizing Egypt goes to a Lebanese Muslim living in the Ottoman capital.
Ahmad Faris Shidyaq founded al-Jawa’ib (The Answers) in 1860 in Istanbul, another unlikely Arabic press center. After all, Istanbul did not have the historic weight of Cairo or Fez as a center of Islamic learning, the bulk of which was done in Arabic and divided between different corners of the Muslim world. (That said, an argument can be made that Istanbul was a center for Islamic learning, primarily in the field of logic and rational sciences [see El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century].) But Shidyaq himself was intersectional by nature. He had familiarity with Maronite theology, the faith into which he was born in Mount Lebanon, before he converted to Protestantism, then to Islam, and he was fluent in several languages, including French and English. Al-Jawaib was not only modelled on the European newspapers Shidyaq would have been exposed to while in Paris and England (where he was associated with the short-lived Paris-based Arabic-language newspaper ‘Utarid), but took inspiration from Shidyaq’s time in Malta and Egypt working closely with Arabic printers (see Alwan). It took several years for al-Jawa’ib to break away from a strictly news-based model—divided into internal and external news—and adopt the editorial, but when it did in 1865, the editorial was used, not simply to act as a soapbox on pertinent political issues, but to forge al-Jawaib’s political identity as a major force of pan-Islamism and Ottomanism (al-Jawa’ib, October 2, 1872). Shidyaq’s Ottomanist leanings are not surprising: he was originally invited to Istanbul at the behest of the Ottoman sultan. Nor is his pan-Islamism astonishing, premised more on Muslim solidarity than political unity (which in many instances ideologically served Ottomanism). However, it is significant that Shidyaq used the press to convey his political stance and that he specifically used the editorial to do so, placing it front and center on the first page of every issue.
But again, we face the question of influence: did al-Jawa’ib really set the standards for format and style for the emerging Arabic-language press? Yes, Shidyaq is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the nahda—the Arab intellectual renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—and as the author of perhaps the first Arabic novel, Saq ‘ala Saq (Leg over Leg), published in 1855. But perhaps his legacy is better placed in al-Jawa’ib. The paper had tremendous reach (see Al-Jawa’ib’s subscriptions rates, indicate where newspapers had marketing agents, for September 16, 1861; May 19, 1868; March 7, 1877) and was cited across Arabic newspapers for both its opinion pieces and the original news telegrams it published. And yes, there is a high possibility the notion of an editorial came itself from the influence of the European press, but al-Jawa’ib demonstrated to Arabic-language journalists that Arabic readers would read editorials. The editorial ultimately defined the Arabic newspaper, distinguishing it from the majalla, the journal or magazine, the likes of which emerged in Arabic in the mid-1870s as a genre dedicated almost singularly to objective knowledge, or ‘ilm, until the early twentieth century. But in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the genres flipped, with more emphasis on news in newspapers and the majalla becoming a major site of critical thought and political debate.
But back in the mid-to-late 1800s, Cairene periodicals were rather stagnant, still largely centered on those established during the 1820s through the 1840s. They were essentially governmental papers intended for internal distribution amongst the various branches of the Egyptian khedival government. But the Egyptian press would soon emerge as a major force, with distribution across the Arabic-speaking world. But contrary to the historiography, the ‘provincial’ press would remain unprovincial. Arabic-speakers as far afield as Singapore and Argentina would not simply look to Egypt and the sheer volume of periodicals it produced, but would also contribute to the global Arabic press market, changing the center of Arabic-language intellectual history as they did.
N. A. Mansour is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies working on Arabic-language intellectual history. She is working on a dissertation on the history of the Arabic-language press.