Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948

Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948

Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948

Reading Palestine: Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Did the invention of printing mark the beginning of a “revolution”? If so, has it been properly acknowledged as such? Scholars passionately debate these questions. But even those who feel uncomfortable with the label for one reason or another do not dispute the immense historic importance of the new device. Indeed, it is hard to think of any aspect of human existence that has not been profoundly influenced by it. the mass popular access to texts, which printing made possible, affected political relations by furnishing rulers with better tools of control while availing their subjects of channels for voicing their own views. Printing had an impact on social relations by turning knowledge of new types into a vehicle of social mobility and status. It modified relations between the community’s spiritual pastors and their disciples and, more broadly, changed the role of religion in society. It also transformed modes of transmitting knowledge, managing daily affairs, and spending leisure time. Such changes occurred in all societies in which printing was introduced. in the Middle East, the changes were perhaps the more dramatic because of the condensed process in which they took place. Everything happened within a short spell: the adoption of printing, the massive production of written texts, the emergence of a periodical press, the development of distribution channels, the mass imparting of reading skills, and, consequently, the turning of the written word into a central organizer of people’s daily routine. All of these changes appeared more or less simultaneously, as one package that was offered to these societies after having evolved more gradually in other places.

Historians of Arab societies have hitherto given limited attention to some vital aspects of these processes. the cultural realm within which written texts and their reading acquired such an essential functional value is yet to be charted: the manifold levels of literacy, the uneven circulation of printed and other texts, the evolution of access mechanisms such as bookstores, literary clubs, public and lending libraries, and the various modes devised by largely uneducated societies for circulating the written knowledge that came flowing in large quantities. the present study seeks to address some of these questions in twentieth-century Palestine, here treated within its man-

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