[P4952] Arabic-script typography: history, technology, & aesthetics

Created by Roberta L. Dougherty
Sunday, 11/19/17 8:00am


This interdisciplinary panel brings together scholars and professionals to present a range of papers around the theme of 19th-21st century Arabic-script typography. This under-studied area has received little attention at MESA and in the field of Middle East studies more broadly, and this panel is intended to spark interest and more sustained conversations around how a consideration of font, typography, and printing technologies might inform other scholars’ work.

The papers in this panel explore various aspects of the history, aesthetics, and technology of Arabic-script typography. The first paper explores the 19th-century efforts of Edward Salisbury to acquire and integrate sets of “Oriental” fonts into the Journal of the American Oriental Society, as a means of bolstering the society’s academic credentials to its presumed European readership, as well as tracing the history of the typesets after his death. The second paper examines typewriter manufacturers’ and amateur inventors’ efforts to develop workable Arabic-script typewriters in the late 1800s, and US consular and trade officials’ efforts to promote Arabic-script typewriters in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th century. It suggests moving the historical focus away from the typewriter’s delayed adoption in the region, and toward the role that it played in an American imaginary of a “modern”, pro-commerce Middle East. The third paper examines the challenges of recent efforts to digitize early Arabic printed texts. It pays special attention to the challenges posed by Arabic typography for the optical character recognition (OCR) software used to accelerate the digitization process. The fourth paper analyzes the handling of Arabic script within Unicode – the unique code point assigned to every letter, character, or symbol of every common writing system, which provides a foundational standard for the global Internet. While Unicode has aided the mutual legibility of various scripts across software and coding platforms, it replicates the history of movable metal type and left-to-right script dominance in its structural logic, necessitating digital “solutions” that can help push Unicode toward new modes of digital typography.

Collectively, these papers address key concerns of Arabic-script typography through the “long 20th century.” By putting 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century concerns together in one panel, they highlight the common challenges that characterize the script, from the era of matrices & punches, to linotype, and on into the digital era. By foregrounding Arabic-script typography as an arena for scholarly research, they hope to highlight the rich possibilities for future research.


Art/Art Hist; Comtns; Hist; Media Arts; Socio




Roberta L. Dougherty

(Yale University Library)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Dagmar A. Riedel

(CSIC & Columbia University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Discussant;

Andrea L. Stanton

(University of Denver)
Dr. Stanton is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and around the world. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes...
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

J.R. Osborn

(Georgetown University)
J.R. Osborn is a scholar and experimentalist of communication. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) graduate program at Georgetown University and Co-Director of Georgetown's Technology Design Studio....
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Sharon C Smith

(Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT)
Panel Participating Role(s): Chair;