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Reading Palestine

Reading Palestine
Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948

Addressing an exciting aspect of Middle Eastern history as well as the power of the printed word itself, Reading Palestine describes how the sudden rise of literacy in Palestine intensified the role of literacy in every sphere of community life.

December 2004
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221 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 b&w illus. |

Prior to the twentieth century, Arab society in Palestine was predominantly illiterate, with most social and political activities conducted through oral communication. There were no printing presses, no book or periodical production, and no written signs in public places. But a groundswell of change rapidly raised the region's literacy rates, a fascinating transformation explored for the first time in Reading Palestine.

Addressing an exciting aspect of Middle Eastern history as well as the power of the printed word itself, Reading Palestine describes how this hurried process intensified the role of literacy in every sphere of community life. Ami Ayalon examines Palestine's development of a modern educational system in conjunction with the emergence of a print industry, libraries and reading clubs, and the impact of print media on urban and rural populations. Drawn from extensive archival sources, official reports, autobiographies, and a rich trove of early Palestinian journalism, Reading Palestine provides crucial insight into the dynamic rise of literacy that revolutionized the way Palestinians navigated turbulent political waters.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
    • Palestine in the First Half of the Twentieth Century
    • Recapturing Past Reading
  • Chapter 1. Literacy and Education
    • Education: Phases of Development
    • The Impact of Education: Profile of the "Literate" Community
  • Chapter 2. Texts: Imported, Produced, Viewed
    • Traditional Stocks: The Augury of Change
    • Impact of the Neighborhood
    • Local Production
    • Texts in the Public Domain
  • Chapter 3. Texts Accessed and Afforded
    • Conduits of Dissemination
    • Buying One's Own Book
    • Accessing without Buying: Libraries, Clubs, Reading Rooms
    • Accessing without Buying: Open Public Places
  • Chapter 4. Individual Reading
    • Individual Reading: Past Legacy
    • Mutala`ah in Twentieth-Century Palestine: The Comfort of Home
    • Private Reading in Public
  • Chapter 5. Collective Reading
    • The Old, Familiar Conduits
    • Vocal Reading: Bridging across Illiteracy
    • Vocal Reading: The Extra Benefit of the Collective Experience
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • Index

Ami Ayalon is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.


The tale of written texts and their use in twentieth-century Palestine is one of spectacular change. Like an engine shifting from first gear straight to fourth, Palestinian society moved within a brief historic moment from near-complete illiteracy to massive reliance on the written word. In Europe, popular consumption of printed products had evolved gradually over several centuries. By the time Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire began to lend ears to the voices coming from that continent, Europe had already developed a routine of enjoying the fruits of printing in endless ways. In certain parts of the Arab Ottoman region, a similar process started around the middle of the nineteenth century. But Palestine, like most of its neighboring lands, remained on the sidelines of these developments until much later. A handful of early precursors aside, the change it experienced was telescoped into a brief period in the twentieth century.


Only a few decades previously, no portent of this upcoming shift was apparent in Palestine. Under Ottoman-Islamic rule since the early sixteenth century, its society and other Arabic-speaking communities were living through one of the less productive eras in their cultural history. The marvelous Arab legacy of intellectual and scientific creativity had had its zenith in much earlier times. A variety of factors, not least political instability and bloody conflicts on domestic and foreign fronts, had undermined this cultural endeavor and diminished it in scope and quality. Intellectual activity did continue, but it was limited mostly to a small spiritual leadership and marked by a strong religious accent. Writing, reading, the retention and collection of texts—all remained the business of state officials, religious scholars, and an exclusive sociocultural elite. Other parts of the society had little use for such skills and objects. Mechanisms based on oral modes of communication functioned effectively in addressing all their daily needs; writing and reading were redundant. Books, precious and revered items, were irrelevant to the normal routine of most people.


This benign equilibrium was upset, and eventually terminated, by powerful processes that unfolded in two waves. The first was the long-term encroachment of Western imperialism on the societies of the Ottoman Empire. By the nineteenth century, the challenge of Europe, with its lures and threats, had become plain enough in the Arab provinces to stir a response, both from rulers and from their more astute subjects. The reaction came in many forms, among them a vocal demand for cultural revitalization. Europe presented a wide range of attractive ideas and devices—from state-run schools to printing, from newspapers to eyeglasses—which could be borrowed and adapted to local needs. First in the region to experience changes in this field were the provinces of Egypt and Lebanon. The endorsement of printing, emergence of a periodical press, advent of literary societies, enhanced exchanges with foreign colleagues, upgrading of the educational systems—all were signs of the drive for a cultural awakening in them after the middle of the nineteenth century. Palestine was not a locus of such activities at first. But members of its educated elite, a thin social layer, soon became aware of these changes and embarked on a vivid dialogue with their counterparts across provincial lines. It was through this elite that the country first joined the trend that would transform its cultural reality. Involving only a tiny fraction of the people until after the end of the century, modern cultural activities were stepped up following the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, a historic earthquake of major magnitude that shook the region. In the Fertile Crescent lands of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, hitherto the periphery of cultural awakening, the new sense of opportunity inspired by political changes prompted lively cultural activity. The spread of printing and emergence of a local press in these places were two prominent marks of this new spirit. By the outbreak of the First World War, there were discernible signs of an upcoming cultural transformation in the region, including Palestine.


The second wave was far more intensive than the first. Indeed, more than a wave, it was a massive flood. The traumatic political transition after 1918, from Islamic caliphate to European tutelage, was coupled with the equally disconcerting influx of Zionist Jews, which posed an overt and growing threat to the Arab character of the country. The alarming developments at home were paralleled by fateful changes in the neighborhood, the hitherto familiar environment that was similarly being transformed. These rapid shifts generated a hunger for information that would allow the society to see where it was going. Specifically, the need was of one major kind: news and its analysis. It was this pressing demand for intelligence—now coming not from the elite but from the wide public below—that gave a considerable boost to the circulation of new forms of knowledge.


Information now presented itself in growing quantities, and for the first time in local experience it was offered chiefly in writing and largely in print. It appeared in many formats: books, journals and newspapers, party pamphlets, sidewalk posters, shop signs, commercial ads, rally banners, dissenter handbills. Most of these—indeed all, with the possible exception of books—would fall into the rubric of "mass media," that is, means designed to amplify messages to big crowds through extensive circulation. Accessing the many messages in their novel form required reading proficiency of a scope formerly unknown in Palestine, and the authorities responded with appropriate initiatives. Hesitantly begun during the final Ottoman decades, educational reform was markedly stepped up once a British mandate was established in the country. Governmental efforts combined with the public passion for information to transform the status of writing and reading in Palestinian society. Once an elite domain, written and printed messages came to enlighten and orientate increasing segments of the community. Reading ability became an important asset. A vital tool of navigation in changing waters, it also contained a promise for success in the new reality, a key to lucrative employment and to rapid social mobility.


The extensive introduction of written texts into Palestinian life and the advancement of relevant capabilities thus occurred in tandem. But there was a clear dissonance in pace between the two processes. The spread of written messages in their endless applications was much faster than the expansion of reading ability. This was perhaps inevitable, given the very low point of departure in education and the need to build up a training system almost from scratch. Palestinian society moved ahead tardily in employing the new tools, even though educational development was now considerably more dynamic than in the recent past. Progress was not only tardy; it was also uneven. Large sections of the society, indeed the majority, were left out of the process: members of the older generation who were already beyond school age, much of the rural society, nomads, and women. Moreover, among those who presumably joined the literate circle considerable gaps opened in the level of proficiency, with obvious practical implications. Such an unbalanced development during the early phase of mass exposure to written texts had taken place in other societies as well, of course. And like other societies, Arab communities, including that of Palestine, intuitively fell back on old practices that had hitherto served them for similar if more modest ends: oral communication, by which a single competent reader verbally conveyed written messages to a listening crowd and a single literate family member updated the rest. In Arab societies, relying on such mechanisms had persisted—and had evidently been deemed satisfactory—long after Western societies had adopted more individual modes of accessing written texts. These time-honored methods were now enlisted as temporary complements to the slowly spreading skill of reading, a kind of interim solution until universal literacy had been achieved. In those sections of society that were left out of the process of training at that stage, such traditional collective practices offered the only approach to the coveted information.


The story of print production and consumption in post-1900 Palestine is, thus, one of rapid but lopsided progress. By mid-century, the circle of those capable of independent reading was many-fold broader than at the outset, and continuously growing. Meanwhile, for those still without such training, or with imperfect abilities, the application of old modes to new ends remained an effective way of addressing their needs. Written texts of every kind came to play a central role in communal and individual life, much more so than in the past. It will be clear, however, that the half century explored here represents only one phase of the transformation; the process continued in full swing in subsequent years. But this was the formative and most exciting phase, during which priorities were set and directions took shape. By the end of this period, Palestinian society had come to have high regard for written and printed products as well as a fairly clear idea of how it was going to benefit from them.


Palestine in the First Half of the Twentieth Century


Palestine of the late nineteenth century was a secondary branch of an empire that had known better days. Administratively, its territory consisted of three districts (sancak or mutasarrifiyyah): those of Nablus and Acre, which formed a part of the province (vilayet or wilayah) of Beirut, and an autonomous district centered in Jerusalem, whose governing official was answerable to Istanbul. A hierarchical edifice of officials backed by gendarmerie governed the Ottoman control system. Palestine, and especially Jerusalem, had a special status of holiness in this Islamic empire due to its revered place in Islamic tradition, but the practical significance of this status was rather limited. The empire's efforts during the nineteenth century to reinvigorate itself were felt in Palestine in certain spheres of life; but here they were often feeble echoes of louder sounds reverberating elsewhere. It would not be grossly misleading to say that, on the whole, Palestinian realities were marked as much by continuity as by change until close to the end of that century.


The Palestine of 1900 had a total population of c. 600,000. Of these, roughly 75% were Muslim Arabs, roughly 10% Christian Arabs, and the rest were Jews and others. About two-thirds of the population was rural, living in some 800 villages of various sizes scattered throughout the country, mostly in its northern and central sections. Of the cities, most important were Jerusalem (locally referred to as al-Quds), with c. 40,000 people; and Jaffa (Yafa) and Gaza (Ghazza), with somewhat smaller communities. Other towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants were Haifa, Nablus, Hebron (al-Khalil), and Acre (`Akka), and there were half-a-dozen smaller urban centers: Lydda (al-Lidd), Ramlah, Tiberias (Tabariyyah), Safad, Nazareth (al-Nasirah), and Bethlehem (Bayt Lahm). By the turn of the century the country had already begun to experience some change, most noticeably in the economy, which would in due course modify its rudimentary modes of existence. At that point, however, its society still subsisted mainly on domestic agriculture, local handicraft, and limited-scale industry (mostly soap making, in Nablus and Jaffa). Road infrastructure was poor, reflecting but also perpetuating the loose ties between the country's different sections. Urban public services were of a very basic nature, and in the villages they were all but nonexistent. Official and other information was transmitted by the mosque preacher, town crier, and word of mouth; printing was still in the future. Cultural life revolved largely around religious institutions and traditional modes of popular entertainment. Finally, political life represented a variation of the familiar politics-of-notables pattern: prominent urban or rural families vying for local leadership, prestige, and government favor. Descent, wealth, and, to a lesser extent, scholarly eminence—the traditional keys to public status—were very much at play in this scene as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth.


But if pre-1900 Palestine experienced little of the conspicuous shifts that had taken place elsewhere in the region under ambitious potentates, there were nascent developments that foreshadowed future change. Borne by the Western expansion into the empire, multiple foreign initiatives began to reach Palestine in different ways. The leading states of Europe all opened consulates in Jerusalem as well as in Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre during the nineteenth century. These agencies catered to the growing number of foreign subjects or citizens who engaged mostly in trade and economic projects, and to the pilgrims and tourists, who likewise came in at an accelerated pace. Concurrently, the country was increasingly linked to the world economic system, especially that of Europe, with important implications for its own economy. During the last third of the century, a marked growth was registered in Palestine's foreign trade, which had a manifestly positive effect on its productive sectors (agriculture and industry), services, and infrastructure. Thus, a carriage road was built between Jerusalem and Jaffa in 1868, a few other roads were opened subsequently, and the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway was inaugurated in 1892. Post offices, another channel of international links, were opened in Palestine by several European states, starting with the Austro-Hungarian service in 1858. A development of a different kind, still seemingly insignificant at that stage but containing a grim omen for fateful future changes, was the arrival of Jewish immigrants as part of the Zionist enterprise. Their impact on the country's life would be as profound as that of any other factor.


An important aspect of this widening Western influence was the growing presence of Christian missionaries of many denominations. Setting up cultural and educational institutions in towns and villages, they inspired their pupils with novel ideas and taught them new skills. In part thanks to them, the cultural-literary awakening begun in Lebanon around mid-century and later amplified in Egypt—the nahdah (revival)—started percolating into Palestine. Publications produced in the neighborhood reached the country as early as the 1870s, if not before, and members of the small educated elite eagerly opened themselves to the new knowledge and views. Families of this class began to send their children for education in nearby provinces or in places farther away, where they were exposed to similar cultural effects. None of these changes before 1900 was of major scope in itself; some were all but invisible. But after the turn of the century they would combine to generate a budding transformation.


The years between the onset of the century and the First World War were a period of more lively developments. The political ground was shaking, exploding in the summer of 1908 with a promise for reform and freedom in the empire and its provinces, but sustaining some aftershocks that served to cool down expectations. Still, constitutional life in the Ottoman capital was resumed, Palestine was represented, and government-sponsored projects moved ahead more energetically. State and foreign initiatives further boosted the country's economy. Exports and imports continued to grow, agricultural and industrial ventures expanded, and there was evident progress in communications, including the building of paved roads and railways and improvement of the Jaffa and Haifa seaports. These changes spurred a slow but palpable rise in the standard of living, especially in the cities. Evolving unevenly, as ever, these last shifts opened and increased socioeconomic gaps among different sectors of the society—another familiar mark of modernization. A person born in Palestine on the eve of the war was thus met with an environment markedly more dynamic than his predecessor a generation earlier, especially, again, in the urban areas. More dramatic changes lay ahead, after the war.


The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the British conquest that came in its wake meant more than the substitution of one yoke by another. It also marked the replacement of an Islamic order by a non-Islamic—and profoundly alien—one, making the changeover highly problematic. The mandate on behalf of the League of Nations was meant to prepare Palestinian society for self-rule in the modern world. But the British also had other motives in assuming the task, which sometimes took precedence over those pronounced by the international community, an approach for which Palestinian Arabs and others would censure them, often bitterly. At the same time, the three decades of their rule were also a period of undeniable progress and much gain in many areas, which Palestinians would explicitly acknowledge. To an extent, this may also be said of the expanding presence of Zionism in the country: it was a source of endless troubles for Palestine's Arab inhabitants, but indirectly also an impetus for material development and growing communal awareness. Palestine now departed from its secondary-province status and relatively calm routine of public life and became the focus of foreign concern and domestic agitation.


As so often happens, these changes were felt most prominently in the political arena. In the face of a mighty foreign government and the small but highly motivated Zionist rival, Arab Palestinian politics were transformed. In deviation from patterns known since time immemorial, a national leadership now emerged in the figure of Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem, who embarked on unifying the community in a passionate struggle against the invaders. Given traditional political norms and the intricacy of the challenges, such a new leadership could hardly have expected to remain without domestic opposition. Thus, alongside coordinated strife against external foes, Arab political action under the mandate was also marked by deep friction, pitting two large camps and many subcamps against each other. Political groupings organized themselves as political parties, a novel phenomenon in the country. On the whole, political life in mandatory Palestine was incomparably more intensive and passionate than during the late Ottoman era. A series of bloody encounters with the Jews—in 1921, 1928-1929, and, more dramatically, 1936-1939—served as major milestones of the period. Other historic benchmarks were born from the conflict with the British: the appointment of a Zionist Jew as first High Commissionaire in 1920 and periodic changes of his successors; a set of government "White Papers" designed to determine the country's fate, in 1922, 1930, and 1939; several inquiry commissions; and a British plan to partition the country, in 1937. With political realities changing so quickly and with the expansion of new media such as newspapers, posters, and written proclamations, increasing circles of the public came to be involved in these struggles, both actively and passively.


The Arab population of Palestine, Muslim as well as Christian, more than doubled during the first half of the twentieth century, reaching c. 1.3 million by the end of the mandate. This was an unusually rapid growth rate, occurring largely thanks to improved sanitary conditions and a concomitant decline in deaths, and marginally also due to immigration. There was a clear trend toward urbanization: the relative share of urban population in the Arab community (Muslims and Christians) grew from 27.5% in 1922 to c. 36% in 1946. The expansion was particularly felt in the biggest cities: Jerusalem's Arab population grew from 28,000 in 1922 to 65,000 in 1946; in Jaffa it grew from 27,000 to 61,000; and in Haifa from 18,000 to 71,000. In that, there was no symmetry between Muslims and Christians: while only 28-30% of all Muslims lived in towns and the great bulk of them in villages, the great majority of Christians, about 75-80%, were urbanites. The rising importance of the urban centers was not merely a function of their growing size but also of the ever closer ties between cities and their respective rural hinterlands. Whereas in the past such relations were loose, more and more villagers were now coming to the towns for employment, study, even entertainment. Simultaneously, urban commercial endeavors and cultural products found their way into the countryside. Meanwhile, the country's Jewish population increased dramatically, from c. 80,000 on the eve of the First World War to c. 610,000 at the end of the mandate, mostly due to Zionist immigration—nearly an eight-fold increase that perforce had a mighty impact on every aspect of the country's daily realities.


Rapid demographic development went hand in hand with accelerated economic progress. Between 1922 and 1947 the economy of Arab Palestine grew at the impressive rate of 6.5% annually on average. According to one study, in terms of average per capita growth it ranked second among the world's economies during the period (the first being the economy of Palestine's Jewish sector). With urbanization, industrialization, and upgrading of the services sector, the share of agriculture in the economy was gradually reduced, from c. 65% in 1922 to c. 54% in 1945. Though Arab Palestine continued to rely on agriculture as its largest economic sector until the end of the mandate, this was clearly a period in which the economy dynamically moved toward structural change—a trend whose particulars are beyond our concern here.


The British brought with them new standards of physical infrastructure and public services. They built paved roads all across the country, increasing their total length more than four-fold during the mandate. They replaced the anarchic array of parallel postal services by one central system in 1920-1921 and connected Palestine by telegraph to London, Cairo, and Beirut in 1921. Telephones came to be used in the country in the middle of 1920, and by 1921 a few newspapers and other businesses were proudly publicizing their two- or three-digit telephone numbers in their announcements. Electricity was first introduced in private homes in the large cities in the mid-1920s, but the process was slow and the most common residential lighting devices throughout the decade remained oil or gas lamps, or, for those who could afford them, residential generators. In smaller towns and in the villages, these would remain the only means of lighting until mid-century and often beyond. Cinema entered the country in the early 1920s, and by the second half of that decade newspapers were regularly publicizing theater schedules. Stationers, opening after the First World War, began marketing typewriters from the early 1920s and, as one ad suggested, these machines quickly came to be used "in all banks, offices and government departments." Early in the following decade, when radio broadcasting began in neighboring countries, businesses in Palestine started marketing battery- and electricity-operated receivers. The inauguration of broadcasting from Cairo, on 31 May 1934, provided an opportunity for promotion, and Palestinian newspapers regularly carried the Egyptian radio broadcast schedule. This was followed, in early 1936, by the launching of Radio Palestine.


Residential electricity, telephones, radio receivers, gramophones, typewriters—these were affordable only to the small sector of the well-to-do, mostly, again, in the better-off urban neighborhoods. Endorsing such technology was slow not merely because of the expenses involved. It also required departing from past habits of benign convenience and accommodating to a new, more dynamic routine—a shift that occurred slowly. "As for telephones," a foreign visitor to Jerusalem noted early in the period, highlighting a cultural constraint, "who that can shout from roof to roof and down the echoing streets should trouble himself to whisper into a funnel?" Still, the impact of these changes gradually reached beyond the wealthy urban residences. The appearance of novelties such as electrically lighted spaces and radio in public places made them accessible to many that did not have them at home. This included villagers in growing numbers, whose visits to towns brought them in touch with the changing conditions. Even in faraway corners there was a nascent sense of transition.


There were two other important spheres in which considerable shifts occurred, beginning in the late years of Ottoman rule and accelerating under the mandate. One was the proliferation of printed texts, once the exclusive province of the learned few but gradually becoming public property. The other, involving the government as a central agent, was the laying of solid foundations for a modern schooling system, which placed Palestinian society on the road to comprehensive literacy. These changes and their repercussions will be at the center of discussion in the chapters below.


Recapturing Past Reading


Intellectual history was once dominated by the study of abstract ideas—the literary output of eminent thinkers and writers and their public impact. More recently, scholars have moved to probing a hitherto neglected aspect of the cultural endeavor: modes of reading and the transmission and assimilation of written products. For several decades now, students of cultural history in different eras, mostly exploring Europe and its offshoots, have been seeking to reconstruct patterns of text assimilation in the past. Studying writings while ignoring the readers, they have come to reckon, would be as smart as analyzing an economic system by focusing on producers while ignoring the buyers. It has become clear that the interrelationship between a written text and its consumer is a vital part of the text—its contents, style, and impact. First addressing their probe to questions of circulation, scholars focused on readership size, social composition, and geographical distribution, hoping in this way to gauge the popular influence of certain writings. This entailed scrutinizing book title lists, lending-library records, and files of book dealerships (when found), as well as assessing literacy levels. More imaginative search then called attention to historic changes in the very mode of reading itself, which carried substantial implications. In different times and places, it was shown, people had read under different physical and mental circumstances, and with different intents. The techniques employed in the practice had also varied, and the results had, quite likely, varied accordingly. Studying these circumstances and techniques came to be deemed essential for a closer assessment of the public impact of written products. In recent years, therefore, students of the history of reading, by now a well-recognized subdiscipline of cultural history, have centered largely on the issue of "how"—the manner in which people read. This kind of search has been expected to carry us to the very essence, the protons and electrons, of the experience of writing and reading. Raising these questions has often invited micro case studies that have dealt with small communities during short periods of time, or even with individuals. Studies of this nature have lately permeated the small but animated field.


Questions of this last kind in particular, but also other issues in this subdiscipline, confront the historian with an intricate challenge. Evidence is ever a problem; more often than not it is partial, fragmentary, and murky. As repeatedly noted in introductions to such studies, students of literary history have texts lying ready for their analysis, while the practice of reading is rarely documented. Extracting its tale from the sources thus requires, beyond erudition, some detective instincts and imagination. Still, testimonies do exist, sometimes even in substantial quantities and surprising quality. In many cases they are of an inadvertent nature, hidden in clues, popping up as unintended details in a narrative whose concern is elsewhere, or veiled in suggestive anecdotes that need to be decoded inventively. When uncovered and put together, the findings sometimes make it possible to reconstruct the main contours of the story of texts and reading in a given society—and occasionally even more than that. In a great many cases, however, the picture would suffer from gaps, leaving room for inference and speculation.


Considerable progress has been made in this subdiscipline, mostly, again, in the study of Western societies. To a large extent, the achievements resulted from the availability of sources that students of non-Western societies can only envy. Scholars have embarked on the task by putting forward a set of intriguing questions: not only how many people read, what they read, and who read what, but also where they read; when; how; in what circumstances and physical setting; to what end, and with what effect. Some of these questions have been easier to answer than others. But they have all been examined, spurring creative investigation. Students have screened lists of estate inventories, library sales catalogues, reader records of public and personal book collections, private individual reading diaries, autobiographies, readers' letters to authors and editors, even police (and the Inquisition) interrogation files. Relevant economic aspects have also been examined: prices of written texts and their affordability to various social groups; availability of suitable physical conditions such as comfortable quarters, sufficient lighting, and adequate furniture; and the architecture of spaces intended for reading, potentially hinting to modes of the practice for which they were designed. Other types of evidence have been exploited: artwork and belles lettres depicting situations of reading, useful sources when treated with due caution; and the physical shape of written texts, including handwriting or typeface quality, page layout, use of illustrations, which can be searched for clues about the intended audience. Dealing with such queries has brought historians closer to sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers, on whose arsenals of methods and jargon they have come to draw for weaving their stories together. These efforts have helped in producing quantities of evidence whose very bulk has often compensated for limitations in quality. In such cases the results have been quite impressive.


A good illustration of the potential inherent in this variety of sources is James Smith Allen's study of reading in France between 1800 and 1940. Allen starts by posing some standard questions, such as the size of the public that had access to education and acquired literacy; the number of titles that were printed, including their print run and circulation; and the activities of lending libraries. He was able to procure data on the numbers of students attending school in each stage of education throughout the period; the number of books printed every year, with a breakdown by genre; circulation data for specific journals at different points in time; the numbers of school libraries and details on the volumes they lent each year; estimates on the number of active readers in France during the period; and profiles of reading audiences of specific authors. To reconstruct these last profiles, he had at his disposal more than 10,000 letters written to leading French authors of the period, filling many boxes in the archives, out of which he only used a modest sample of some 1,500. Allen then moved on to probing additional sources that shed more light on his statistical findings. He examined works of art—paintings, lithographs, sketches—depicting reading in every conceivable condition by people from all walks of society: aristocrats and peasants, priests and shopkeepers, men and women, adults and children. A corpus of no less than 500 of these was available to him for the period. His study of these artworks revealed a gradual shift over time in certain typical features of the practice, primarily from collective to individual mode, as well as many other details on the physical conditions in which reading was conducted. Literary novels were another rewarding source of describing reading experience at different stages in life, from childhood to old age. Private diaries and memoirs, often recording daily routine, exposed other facets of the reading habits of authors and their family members. Having gathered all this wealth of testimonies and employed it in charting the story of text production and consumption in France, Allen could offer an interpretive discussion of his rich findings, in the second, more analytical, part of his book.


Studies like Allen's have shown not only what the sources can teach us if capably exploited, but also what they usually cannot. As has repeatedly been demonstrated, it is easier to conduct such a probe into the better-educated segments of society—the urban, upper-class, more conscientious consumers, who are more likely to leave a record of their experience. It is harder, sometimes impossible, to study the less sophisticated (and often much bigger) parts, about which we inevitably know less. Another limitation that has been exposed lies in the fact that any evidence one can procure on the subject, even when rich and elaborate, as in Allen's study, would perforce be indirect and "extraneous." At its fullest, it usually comes short of conveying the infinitely varied human experience at the moment of reading, with its emotional and intellectual effects. Such lacunae would be particularly significant for studying reading in group, as in the traditional mode: the makeup of the forum, the physical setting of the place, the quality of the reader's voice, the reader-audience encounter in the course of the session—all are factors that produce a quality which accounts rarely reveal. To a somewhat lesser extent, this is also true of instances of individual reading. Both limitations no doubt restrict our ability to fathom the experience of reading and hence to assess its full impact. They should be kept in mind as borderlines circumscribing the potential scope of the field. Within these confines, however, it is still possible to tell a meaningful story.


In nineteenth-century France, the interior ministry demanded periodic reports on the use of local libraries, arranged by categories of readers. Painters, primarily but not exclusively of the Impressionist school, took special interest in human conditions and recorded them artistically. Writers conducted correspondence with thousands of readers and preserved their letters, which were subsequently deposited in archives in Paris and elsewhere. A student of the cultural history of the Middle East, by contrast, can only dream about such a corpus of evidence. In the Ottoman Empire, of which the Arabic-speaking countries had been a part from 1516-1517 onward, printing was introduced only in the eighteenth century (certain non-Islamic minorities had started earlier). It became an important way of producing texts only in the second half of the following century, and that only in a few locations: Istanbul, Egypt, and Lebanon. Other places had to wait until the twentieth century for that development. A local periodical press, the most important medium of exposing the wider public to the written word, was consequently a late product in the region. Similarly, organized systematic education, initiated by the state or by missionaries, began for the most part around the middle of the nineteenth century, a fact with obvious implications on the local level of intellectual skills. Consequently, public and lending libraries, as well as bookstores and stationers, appeared in these places only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.


Studying the history of texts and reading in Arab societies from the mid-nineteenth century onward is, thus, akin in some ways to exploring that field in Europe during the decades following the invention of printing. Indeed, many of the Western cases that inspired the discussion in this book deal with that period in Europe. But even for the era of printing, exploring text production and consumption in Arab societies is ever problematic. The age-old tradition of careful manuscript collecting did not apply to the preservation of such publications as newspapers and printed pamphlets—ephemeral yet centrally important items in the local history of printed texts—and a great many of them disappeared without a trace. Nor was there a demand for, or a routine of keeping, user registers in the few libraries that existed. Records of text circulation, book catalogues, and library reader lists are therefore extremely rare. Nor yet was there a habit of artistic documentation of human situations; and private memoirs, even novels, describing such situations are similarly scanty. On top of it all, in most places the political and socioeconomic circumstances during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were inhospitable to the preservation of evidence on individual and collective daily life. Such was the case in twentieth-century Palestine, where stormy events had a devastating effect on the retention of the country's written legacy.


Still, if a far cry from the situation in Europe, the state of sources for the modern history of Arab writing and reading is not hopeless. For some sections of the scene it is even quite promising. State, colonial, missionary, and local archives contain information on education in these societies—on schools, teachers and students, curricula and textbooks. Books in private collections, few as they are, and those in the libraries of religious institutions (which in some cases have been surveyed and catalogued), reflect fields of interest, acquisition policies, and sometimes even preservation standards and norms of usage. So do inventory lists of estates endowed as Waqf (religious endowment), which often contained books. The periodical press, of which a partial corpus does exist, represents an arena of vivid dialogue, open or implicit, between writers and audience. Designed for mass circulation, it comprises ample clues about readers' fields of concern and often also about ways in which they transmitted the knowledge they acquired. Ads in the papers—for printing presses, imported and locally produced publications, and bookstores and libraries, as well as reading-related devices such as lamps and typewriters—are another useful source, as are notices on the literary activities of clubs and associations. Even the language of these publications, their vocabulary and style in addressing the potential customers, often contains clues about readers' education level and the manner in which they expected to receive information. Autobiographies and memoirs, though few, likewise include relevant descriptions—on educational experience, modes of access to texts, family and public routines of conveying news and knowledge, and the practice of reading, collective or private. Accounts by foreign observers, recording what they considered curious Middle Eastern habits, frequently bear useful allusions. All of these may be complemented, for recent decades, by a focused gathering of oral testimonies. Finally, photographs, present in the Middle East since the mid-nineteenth century, contain pleasant surprises for the probing scholar—from evidence on the existence of texts in public places, such as shop signs and bulletin boards, to scenes of newspaper reading in cafés. None of these sources is sufficient in itself for this kind of inquiry, and all too often they are too patchy or shaky to teach us much. Carefully gathered and cross-checked, however, they may add up as a basis for a useful picture.


The present study relies on an exploration of many of these types of sources. Being a preliminary foray of its kind into this territory, it does not pretend to be comprehensive either in its findings or in the range of questions it poses. As already noted, pre-1948 Arab Palestine is a particularly difficult trail to blaze because of the 1948 destruction and its horrendous impact on the evidence. Questions that would have been tricky to address anyway have become so much more intricate that they are often impossible to tackle. This study aspires to identify and chart the main constituents of the evolution of printed texts and their reading during the era of rapid change in Arab Palestine. It certainly leaves much room for further exploration and elucidation.




“Superb. . . . Ayalon's work is not a fresh look at an old topic, but is a successful innovative product portraying how and when Palestinians used and read printed texts and the pace with which those texts influenced multiple aspects of Arab society in Palestine. It is masterfully presented.”
Kenneth W. Stein, William E. Schatten Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies, Emory University


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