Preserving Arabic Manuscripts

An international network of scholars works with resolve as time and political instability imperil the long Yemeni tradition of producing, owning, and making marginal comments in texts. Photograph courtesy Princeton University Digital Library

An international team of scholars is racing against time to digitize thousands of Arabic-language texts from Yemen—some dating to the eleventh century—and make them available online before the original manuscripts either fall to pieces or are confiscated or destroyed. The texts—law, history, literature, and grammar—reflect a tradition in Islam practiced by the Zaydi sect of Shi’ites. Some of the manuscripts exist nowhere in the Muslim world outside this Arabian Peninsula country, where the Zaydi tradition has been out of favor since Yemen’s current borders were established in the 1960s.

For two of the scholars, Ahmed Ishaq and Abdul Rahman Alneamy of the Imam Zaid bin Ali Cultural Foundation, located in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, it’s nothing short of a mission to preserve their cultural heritage, page by digital page. They’ve been laboring for more than a decade, obtaining manuscripts by donation, loan, or purchase from mosques and private collections. Even so, 10,000 manuscripts have disappeared during that span of time before they could save them, according to another team member, David Hollenberg, UO assistant professor of Arabic language and literature. “I’ve interviewed families who have had their entire libraries seized” by religious extremists, he says.

Hollenberg regards Ishaq, Alneamy, and the entire staff at their foundation as heroes. He learned of their work in 2006, while he was in Yemen as a doctoral student to conduct his dissertation research. At the time, they were only working with a simple digital camera. Four years later, when Hollenberg was an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, he teamed up with the digital collections specialists at Princeton University to obtain a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the foundation. The grant created the Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative (YMDI), which Hollenberg directs from his current post at the UO, where he has taught since 2010.

The grant money enabled the foundation to buy an archive-quality digital camera, lighting equipment, hard drives, and a generator, and receive professional training in archiving and cataloging. Nevertheless, many circumstances in Yemen make their work difficult, if not flat-out dangerous. For one thing, electricity is unreliable, which severely limits the amount of time they can devote to scanning. (“I was very lucky today, we had power for two hours,” Ishaq wrote by e-mail from Sana’a when contacted for this story.) They have the generator for when the power goes out, but that requires fuel, another scarce resource. Last year, when the wave of popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring, swept through Yemen and ultimately toppled a president who had held power for three decades, their work came to a halt because their foundation was located in the heart of the civil unrest.

Whenever they do manage to fill a hard drive with digitized manuscripts, there’s still the logistical challenge of getting it to Princeton, whose library houses the YMDI collection. Direct commercial shipping is out of the question, following a November 2010 incident when Yemen-based terrorists attempted to ship parcel bombs to the United States via the courier company DHL, causing DHL and other freight companies to discontinue service. So the first hard drive had to be routed through Saudi Arabia. They’ve found other resourceful methods, too. Clifford Wulfman, Princeton’s coordinator of library digital initiatives, says the Yemen-based members of the team once gave a hard drive to a man in Yemen who happened to be on his way to New Jersey, and Wulfman drove to the volunteer courier’s home to pick it up. “Since then,” Wulfman says, “we’ve managed to make contacts with the diplomatic corps” through a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who works at Princeton. The contact has enabled Ishaq to send material out via diplomatic pouch. (Diplomatic relations between the United States and Yemen have been strained since the DHL incident. Nevertheless, says Hollenberg, “the U.S. Embassy in Yemen has been very helpful to us.”)

When Wulfman receives the hard drives, he adds the images to Princeton’s already-extensive digital library of Islamic manuscripts, and catalogs their descriptive information (what digital archivists call metadata) so that search engines can find them. Here at the UO, Hollenberg teams up with the Wired Humanities program to convert them from static, read-only images into interactive documents that allow readers to click on sections of text, open pop-up windows, and log descriptive information such as the scribe’s name, when and where the manuscript was written, and who its various owners have been over time.

These technical operations may lack the intrigue and adventure animating the work of the people at the Imam Zaid bin Ali Cultural Foundation, who brave revolution and dodge the authorities to usher their culture into the digital age. But the YMDI is slowly building into a dynamic teaching resource that Hollenberg is thrilled to make available for students and scholars of medieval Islam. “This is like going back to grad school for me, because I’m reading everything again,” he says. This past winter term, students in his Arabic literature course began transcribing pages (in Arabic) to create word-searchable versions of the texts. During one class session, they had the unique opportunity to converse with a scholar in Yemen familiar with the manuscripts and their relevance in contemporary Zaydi society via a digital link provided by the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a.

Hollenberg’s fascination with these manuscripts lies in the Zaydi tradition of incorporating the commentaries of intervening generations of readers when interpreting the meaning and significance of texts. When he brings up some of the images on his desktop computer, this commentary tradition literally shows up in the form of notes handwritten on blank pages and crammed into margins at odd angles and patterns in every conceivable color of ink. They were written by the people who owned the manuscripts over the years—often centuries—since they were bound and published, and they offer interpretation and other commentary on text passages. Contemporary Zaydi adherents reading the manuscripts today, says Hollenberg, treat the commentaries as important insights that they have to know to understand the text. (Contrast this, he says, with a strict fundamentalism—in any religion—that insists on relying solely on the original text for meaning.)

Suppression of Zaydi texts in Yemen since the 1960s caused a decline in this commentary tradition, says Hollenberg. However, he adds, “a lot of young [Zaydi] scholars are picking up the mantle again,” and he believes YMDI has the potential to help this revival along. The means for doing this may cause academic purists to cringe, but Hollenberg is enthusiastic about the phenomenon of crowd-sourcing (à la Wikipedia and other public-input sites). He envisions the YMDI manuscript collection being accessed worldwide by readers of Arabic, who would be given free rein to provide online transcriptions. “Young Yemenis might be very interested in this,” he believes, especially those who are taking part in the Zaydi revival, and he plans to pass the word along if he ever gets another chance to visit Yemen. That could happen as soon as this summer if the situation there calms down, but friends have warned him that the current postrevolutionary atmosphere is too volatile to be considered safe.

That sounds like a much different David Hollenberg than the doctoral student who originally went to Yemen for some quiet research in a mosque library, and he admits to being inspired by the sense of mission driving his Yemeni colleagues. “This is an important moment in these peoples’ history, and I feel privileged to help with their aims,” he says. The manuscripts embody “a profound intellectual heritage,” he adds, and insists that “it would be a tremendous loss for everyone if these texts were to be lost.”

By Dana Magliari, MA ’98