DUBAI: This month’s Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which runs until Nov. 14, offers book lovers over 1.7 million titles from regional and international publishing houses.
London dealer Peter Harrington Rare Books is taking part in SIBF for the second time. The company was founded in 1969 and has built a strong reputation in the antiquarian book industry for its rare and valuable first editions and manuscripts related to travel, literature, history, science, and more.
“A lot of these books come from a period before cinema and sound recording. There’s no other way to access what life was like (then) except through books,” the firm’s senior specialist and head cataloguer of the SIBF catalogue Adam Douglas told Arab News. “Perhaps paintings as well, but — in the orientalist field — you’re not sure if you’re seeing a realistic view of life (in paintings); you’re seeing romanticized views. Books quite often have more details and realism in them.”
Peter Harrington Rare Books is showcasing 40 of its works hailing from or inspired by the Arab world in Sharjah. “We’ve taken on experts in various fields and we’ve been able to deal in those books related to Arabia generally. It’s been exciting and a learning curve for us,” said Douglas. Here, he talks us through four of the highlights.
Gulf Aviation photo albums (1948-55)
Photography and history enthusiasts will find these albums particularly fascinating and insightful. Containing more than 550 original color and monochrome images, they reveal the early days of commercial aviation in the Gulf region, Iraq and Persia at a critical time “when the region was just opening up to Western oil companies,” according to the firm’s fair catalog. Demonstrating the long relationship between Britain and the Gulf, one of the pioneers of regional aviation was British military pilot and engineer Freddie Bosworth, who set up his multiservice company ‘Gulf Aviation’ in 1950. It eventually developed into Bahrain’s national carrier, Gulf Air.
Aside from capturing landed planes and modest airport buildings, everyday scenes of locals and architectural towns are also portrayed in these photographs, which were taken with standard professional equipment by an unidentified British aviator. “He had a good eye and was going there at a key time for the foundation of aviation in the Gulf and of course, that’s really important now because there are major airports there. In his photographs, you can see small sheds and the contrast is fantastic,” explained Douglas.
‘A Pilgrimage to Nejd, the Cradle of the Arab Race’ (1881)
In the late 19th century, it was uncommon for a Western woman to travel in Arab lands. But Lady Anne Blunt, an aristocrat and passionate equestrian, was an exception. Blunt was born in England and spent the last years of her life in Egypt. This elegant pair of journals — accompanied by a foldable map and containing several sketches — tells the tales of her travels through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the vast desert area of Nejd in the central part of modern-day Saudi Arabia.
One charming illustration shows Blunt and her husband Wilfrid Scawen Blunt — who traveled with her and was also a writer — dressed in Bedouin garb and standing near an Arabian horse.
“They made a striking couple,” remarked Douglas. “What drew them to the region was (a search) for Arabian horses. They were part of a tradition which was prevalent at the time among a lot of English people who were fascinated by the region. The distance in language and in culture was so vast that it was really exciting to go and explore Arabia.”
Monumental Qur’an (1870/1)
In this massive, salmon-pink-toned manuscript, one can see rows and rows of miniscule Arabic writing, which actually represent the entire text of the Qur’an, marked with a few corrections. Douglas notes that it took one hand to carefully carry out this body of writing, executed in the Naskh style — one of the six major scripts of Arabic calligraphy. Meaning ‘copy’ in Arabic, the legible and simple Naskh format dates back to the 10th century and was commonly used by scribes to copy administrative, literary and Qur’anic texts.
With its repetition of shimmering gold floral motifs, there is a subtle decorative element to this approximately six-feet-wide wall hanging. Its place of production was Mughal India — probably Delhi. The Mughal Empire lasted for nearly three centuries and achieved a level of refinement in its artistic and architectural landscape under royal patronage. Looking at the manuscript’s lower part, the colophon suggests that it was made for the Mughal Empire’s last emperor, Bahadur Shah II Zafar, who was also a Sufi poet and calligrapher.
Varthema’s travel account (c. 1511)
Another travel-themed gem, described as “one of the most remarkable travel books of the Renaissance.” It was translated into Latin (having originally been published in Italian) during the 16th century. Its author is the intrepid Ludovico di Varthema, who was one of the first non-Muslims to enter Makkah. He disguised himself as a mamluk called ‘Yunus’ escorting a pilgrim caravan. In addition, Varthema’s travels led him to Yemen, India, Persia, Somalia, and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka).
“He was a great traveller and was as famous in his time as somebody like Marco Polo. He is so far in advance of any other description of Makkah by a Westerner — there’s no other printed account of Makkah that early,” Douglas explained. “There was a tendency in travel literature up to that date for people to cobble together travel narratives from different sources, so you never quite trusted those. Varthema actually went. And this is his sole narrative.” Aside from giving a first description of Makkah in Western literature, Douglas added that it also gives the first eye-witness account in print of what is now the UAE: "He mentions visiting Julfar — modern Ras Al-Khaimah. There is only one reference in print I can trace preceding that, which misdescribes Julfar as an island and is a compilation from earlier manuscripts by Fracanzano da Montalboddo, who did not visit the region himself." This work is also extremely rare. The firm claims it is “the only copy of the first Latin edition to have appeared at auction in 40 years.”