For centuries, the covers of Arabic books did not advertise the nature of their contents. The leather bindings that protected hand-copied manuscripts were decorated with circular motifs, almond-shaped medallions, stars, stamps, and occasionally flowers, as Adam Gacek describes in Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers.
When book production shifted to print, starting in Cairo in the 1820s, these early printed books borrowed cover-design motifs from their manuscript cousins. The covers of books printed in the 1830s and 1840s feature crescent moons, flowers, and decorative patterns.
“The idea that there was an obvious link between the cover and the content of books was not yet established,” said Moe Elhossieny, founder of the Arabic Book Cover Archive (ABCA) project.
The ABCA’s focus is the next phase of Arabic book-cover design: the shifts and movements in the 20th century. The project is under the umbrella of the Design Repository, supported by the Swiss Art Council’s Pro Helvetia Cairo. The core team is made up of four designer-researchers based in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine: Elhossieny, Nourhan El Banna, Omayma Dajani and Yaman To’meh. Together, they are working to collect and organize a wide-ranging digital archive of Arabic book-cover images and information.
The ABCA’s searchable website isn’t set to launch until 2021, but when the group started posting select covers to Instagram in February of this year, they attracted immediate interest from authors, publishers, bibliophiles, and designers.
Some of this attention may be fueled by nostalgia. Yet there is also a clear interest in filling in the gaps in knowledge about Arabic book-cover design. Currently, Elhossieny says, there “isn’t enough to connect the dots between different moments in [cover-design] history, between the past and the present.”
In the early 20th century, printed Arabic literature began to reach new audiences, and book covers underwent a major shift. By the 1940s, some book covers continued to feature calligraphy and patterned design, while others served as brightly colored advertisements for the stories within, reaching out to catch a reader’s attention.