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Post-doc Susana Molins Lliteras participates in a workshop on “Working with African Arabic script manuscripts”

17 Oct 2017 - 22:00
Photo: ISITA

Post-doctoral fellow Susana Molins Lliteras travelled to Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois USA) from 13-20 August 2017 for an innovative training workshop focusing on working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts.  The workshop was hosted by ISITA (Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa), co-organised with the Centre for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and sponsored by these institutions as well as the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (University of Hamburg).

The intense programme was divided into two parts, one geared towards training North American participants (professors, graduate students, librarians and museum curators) on how to work with these manuscripts; while the other concentrated on providing African curators of manuscript collections with practical expertise on different aspects manuscript curation, from cataloguing and digital databases, to preservation and digitisation. 

The first three days were aimed at the North American participants, who hailed from diverse institutions such as Columbia, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, and represented a range of disciplines, from history to art history and library sciences.  The days were organised into three parts: morning sessions focused on theory, specifically different aspects of the African Arabic manuscript tradition, after which there were presentations by African curators of individual collections - illustrating some of the aspects discussed in the morning. The days ended with a ’hands-on session’, working with manuscripts from the Herskovits collection at NW to provide a concrete experience of the topics discussed.

Monday’s theme was “African Arabic Script Manuscripts in Context,” with the following presentations: “What makes a manū scrīptus a manuscript? Content contained in context” (Graziano Krätli);  “Manuscript collection practices” (Susana Molins-Lliteras);  and “Reading between the lines: Ajami texts in Islamic manuscripts as signs of multilingual pedagogy and scholarship” (Dmitry Bondarev & Darya Ogorodnikova).  In the afternoon, the collections from Zanzibar and Mozambique were presented by Omar Khamis and Chapane Mutiua, respectively, followed by a lively introductory hands-on session with manuscripts.

On Tuesday, the focus shifted to the specific codicological features of Arabic Script manuscripts from Africa, with presentations on “Paper, watermarks, inks and binding” (Michaelle Biddle);  “Towards a typology of African script styles; decorative elements” (Mauro Nobili);  and “An introduction to esoteric elements in African manuscripts” (Paul Naylor).  Curators Saadou Traore (Djenne Manuscript Library, Mali), Hassen Mohamed Kawo (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia) and Moshood Jimba (Centre for Ilorin Manuscripts & Culture, Nigeria) presented their respective collections, concentrating on the codicological elements discussed in the morning session.  These same features were the focus of the hands-on session which followed, with participants able to utilise a light table and DINO Lite microscope to identify the watermarks and ink typologies of manuscripts.

“Working with texts” was the focus of Wednesday’s session, and included presentations on “Identifying texts: titles and variants, incipit and explicit; authors and variants of author names, transliteration” (Mauro Nobili & Charles Stewart);  “Marginalia and paratexts; reading colophons and dates” (Susana Molins-Lliteras);  and “Understanding the pedagogical functions of marginal and interlinear paratexts” (Dmitry Bondarev & Darya Ogorodnikova). The final collections to be presented were those of a family library from Trarza (Mauritania) by Mohameden Ahmed Salem Ahmedou and the IFAN in Dakar (Senegal) by Souleymane Gaye. The afternoon hands-on session focused on identifying marginalia and paratext, especially in African languages in Arabic script, with the help of a useful comparative table as a guide.

Wednesday evening ended with a lecture on “The Art of Islamic Calligraphy: Scripts and Transmission Methods” by Nuria Gracia Masip and Mohameden Ahmed Salem Ahmedou, covering both Western and Eastern Islamic lands. This part of the programme was the culmination of a practical calligraphy workshop during the two previous evenings, which gave participants an opportunity to experience the practicalities of writing the Arabic script calligraphy they had been discussing and reading in the morning sessions.

The second part of the workshop, geared towards African curators, began on Thursday with presentations on finding manuscript citations—hand-lists, inventories, catalogues, bibliographies—both in Africa (Mauro Nobili) and in the wider Islamic world (Laila Hussein Moustafa). This was followed by an introduction to the principal scientific techniques for manuscript analysis and their applications (Claudia Colini). The day continued with a field visit in smaller groups to different museums, libraries and collections across Chicago in order for participants to observe different curating techniques and strategies in situ.  We regrouped for a workshop dinner in Chicago in the evening, having an opportunity to break from the heavy schedule of the previous days.

Friday’s session centred on the importance of metadata (Gratziano Krätli) and on the presentation by Charles Stewart of the AMMS (Arabic Manuscripts Management System). This is a digital database of African manuscript catalogues and manuscripts which has recently been updated and aims to provide a centralised repository for easy access to such materials. In the afternoon, participants worked on imputing data from specific manuscripts, and discussed problems and glitches of the system as well as possible solutions for the relaunching of the site later in the year.   

Finally, Saturday morning offered two practical sessions on approaches and best practices adapted to local needs of both preservation (Michaelle Biddle) and digitisation (Daniel Gullo & Claudia Garradas). The afternoon’s wrapping-up session provided an opportunity to reflect on the workshop itself, its accomplishments, suggestions for improvement, as well as its replicability in different locations in Africa.  There was a heated discussion on open access, led by Bruce Hall, as well as a presentation on strategies for approaching foundations and other entities for financial support. These were a fitting end to a workshop which very successfully combined the theoretical and practical aspects of working with Arabic script manuscripts in Africa.