The National Library of Israel’s Arabic digital resources find audiences across the region

LONDON: In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the Middle East is changing rapidly, and the success of a bridge-building initiative by the National Library of Israel testifies to a growing thirst for cross-cultural collaboration and understanding.

In the summer of 2020, Arab News reported that the National Library of Israel, founded in Jerusalem in 1892, planned to digitize its large collection of rare Islamic books and manuscripts, as part of a cross-cultural campaign to open its digital doors to Arabic speakers. in Israel and throughout the region.

In August 2020, Dr Raquel Ukeles, then Curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at NLI, said the library was determined to play a part in eradicating what she saw as “the enormous amount of ignorance about Islam, about the Palestinians”. culture and Arab culture in general which has real repercussions on the political level”.

It was, she said, “very natural for us to focus on and invest in this material, to create space for Muslim culture in Israel and in intellectual life at large, whether in Middle East or the world, to allow for greater understanding.”

Manuscript of “Tuhfat Al-Ahrar” by Nur Al-Din Jami – Persian – 1484. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

The response has been truly impressive.

“The truth is that I am delighted to see the massive increase in the use of our Arabic digital resources,” Dr. Ukeles, who is now collections manager at the library, told Arab News a year and a half later. .

“It’s so encouraging to see that people are willing to cross borders to gain knowledge.”

In 2021, over 650,000 visitors from the Arab world came to the NLI’s Arabic-language website, a 40% increase from 2020. There has been a dramatic increase in interest from Arabia Saudi Arabia in particular.

Most of the visitors, in search not only of rare Islamic documents but also of other archival treasures, including a large collection of historical newspapers in the Arabic language, came mainly from the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Arabia Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Algeria.

Worldwide, there was a 125% increase to 1.5 million visitors to the Arabic site. In Israel itself, the number of visitors to the site jumped 250% to a total of 620,000 users, while the library’s trilingual Hebrew-Arabic-English site as a whole recorded 10 million visits in 2021.


Palestinian Arabs prepare for a pilgrimage trip to Mecca from Hebron in 1972. (Supplied/Copyright © IPPA 08346-000-22 Photo by IPPA Staff)

There has been a dramatic increase in interest from Saudi Arabia in particular. In 2021, there was a 30% growth in traffic from the Kingdom to the NLI site, with over 121,000 sessions by almost 94,000 individual users. About a third of the visitors were women and 60% of the total were between 25 and 44 years old.

“When we launched our first digital archive of early Arabic newspapers from Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine in September 2016, we had an annual rate of around 5,000 users for the first few years,” Dr Ukeles said.

“That number has now increased by around tenfold and, thanks to our talented Arabic digital team, last year we had 1.5 million users in total on our Arabic websites.”

It was, she said, the goal of the National Library of Israel “to enable people to have access to their own culture and history,” but also “to stimulate curiosity and engender respect. towards other cultures.

It seems to work.

“Users in the Arab world seek our collections of Arabic newspapers and Islamic manuscripts, but they are also interested in our historical maps and digitized documents on Jewish history and Israel.”


Opening page of a manuscript of the Quran from Isfahan, dated 1735. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

Thanks to technology, the library’s invaluable documents are even more accessible online, where they can be seen in exquisite, up-close detail – far better than they would be if seen in person behind glass. a display case.

“Technology enables culture and the written word to cross borders and reach new places that were previously inaccessible,” said Yaron Deutscher, head of digital at NLI.

“The fact that so many people in the Arab world express such interest in the cultural treasures freely available through the website shows how relevant these things are, even for the younger generation living in our region.”

These treasures include extraordinary documents, including an exquisite copy of Muhammad Al-Busayri’s famous 13th-century poem “Qasidat Al-Burda”, or Ode of the Mantle, written in praise of the Prophet.

Also online are maps, illustrations and photographs, as well as hundreds of thousands of pages of historic Arabic newspapers from Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine – valuable “early drafts of history” published between 1908 and 1948.


Script of a 9th century Quran from North Africa. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

Newspapers and journals from the past “provide one of the most far-sighted vantage points for learning about bygone eras,” a library spokesperson said.

“Periodicals are an important resource for scholars as well as a portal for anyone wishing to access history through the words of contemporaries.”

Among the most consulted articles are 73 issues of the weekly Al-Arab, published in Mandatory Palestine between August 1932 and April 1934. Its authors included prominent authors and intellectuals of the time, such as Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza, l Palestinian politician and historian whose contributions included the landmark article, “The Modern Awakening of Arab Nationalism”, and who was interned by the British in 1936.

The 167 issues of the bi-weekly Al-Jazeera newspaper, published in Palestine between 1925 and 1927, is another invaluable insight into the politics of the time, while a fascinating insight into contemporary art and culture can be found in the three rare issues of Al-Fajr magazine. Its aim, as stated in its first edition, published on June 21, 1935, was “to represent all intellectual currents in literature, society, art and science”.

It was, says the NLI, “a veritable storehouse of knowledge and included various writings (and) represented a milestone in the development of Palestinian culture”.

Al-Fajr only lasted two years. Along with numerous newspapers and magazines, it ceased publication during the Arab revolt in Palestine between 1936 and 1939, and never returned to print.


“The Results of Faculties and the Virtues of Qualities”, a 16th century Ottoman manuscript. (Supplied/Collection of the National Library of Israel)

One of the oldest periodicals in the digital collection is the daily Al-Quds. First published in Jerusalem in 1908, the collection’s 107 issues cover the period up to the end of 1913, offering a fascinating insight into the social and political concerns that prevailed on the eve of World War I and the final agony of the Ottoman Empire. Empire.

Social history aside, the most visually stunning treasures belong to a more distant past. Many documents and books contain unparalleled examples of Arabic and Persian calligraphy and illustrations.

The library attributes the rise in interest in its collections in part to the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreement signed between Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates on September 15, 2020, which saw Israel’s first embassy s opened in Abu Dhabi, and the first UAE embassy in Tel Aviv.

In May last year, the NLI signed a historic Memorandum of Understanding with the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi, committing the two organizations “to work together in support of mutual and distinct objectives and for the benefit of heritage cultural and international documentary”. sector.”

The NLI said the collaboration came “against a backdrop of heightened interest in regional collaboration following the Abraham Accords” and, in a joint statement, the new partners hailed the agreement as “a step in before significant”.

Both organizations, the NLI said, “serve as central institutions of national memory for their respective countries and wider audiences, and in recent years both have launched extensive and diverse efforts to serve scholars and a wider audience. wider nationally and internationally”.


Muhammad Al-Busayri, The Poem of the Mantle. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

For Dr Ukeles, the collaboration has advanced “our shared goals of preserving and opening up access to cultural heritage for the benefit of users of all ages and backgrounds in Israel, the UAE and the region and in the world”.

Dr. Abdulla M. Alraisi, Director General of the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates, said the collaboration reflects its determination to “stretch its wings around the world to reach the most advanced global archives and libraries, in order to obtain the documents that are at the heart”. of its interest because it documents the memory of the homeland for generations.

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in September last year, on the first anniversary of the accords, once inconceivable bonds are now being forged between individuals, as well as between governments.

“There is a thirst to learn about each other’s cultures, to see new sites, to try new foods, to forge new friendships – all experiences that have been impossible for so long and for so many people, and now they’re making up for lost time,” he said.

“People are seizing the opportunity.”

Blinken concluded by quoting the co-head of the new UAE-Israel Business Council, who planned to spend a month in Israel to learn more about its people and culture.

“Anything is possible,” he said, “if we sit down together, talk to each other and understand each other.”

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