Arabic digital resources of National Library of Israel find audience regionwide

Special A French illustration of Makkah in the mid-18th century. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)
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A French illustration of Makkah in the mid-18th century. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)
Special Manuscript of Nur Al-Din Jami’s ‘Tuhfat Al-Ahrar’ - Persian - 1484. (Supplied/The National Library of Israel)
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Manuscript of Nur Al-Din Jami’s ‘Tuhfat Al-Ahrar’ - Persian - 1484. (Supplied/The National Library of Israel)
Special Muhammad Al-Busayri, The Poem of the Mantle. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)
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Muhammad Al-Busayri, The Poem of the Mantle. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)
Special Ottoman Hajj manual. (Supplied/ National Library of Israel)
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Ottoman Hajj manual. (Supplied/ National Library of Israel)
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Updated 10 February 2022

Arabic digital resources of National Library of Israel find audience regionwide

Tens of thousands of Arabs from across the region are exploring the digital treasures of the National Library of Israel. (Supplied)
  • The library, founded in Jerusalem in 1892, has digitized its collection of rare Islamic books and manuscripts
  • Last year, more than 650,000 people across the Arab world visited the library’s Arabic-language website

LONDON: In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the Middle East is changing rapidly, and the success of a bridge-building initiative by the National Library of Israel bears witness to a growing hunger for cross-cultural collaboration and understanding.

In summer 2020, Arab News reported that the National Library of Israel, founded in Jerusalem in 1892, was planning to digitize its large collection of rare Islamic books and manuscripts, as part of a cross-cultural drive to open its digital doors to Arabic speakers in Israel and across the region.

Back in August 2020, Dr. Raquel Ukeles, then curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at the NLI, said that the library was determined to play a part in eradicating what she saw as the “tremendous amount of ignorance about Islam, about Palestinian culture and Arab culture generally that has real repercussions on the political level.”

It was, she said, “very natural for us to be focusing on and investing in this material, to create space for Muslim culture in Israel and in the broader intellectual life, whether it’s in the Middle East or in the world, to enable greater understanding.” 




Manuscript of Nur Al-Din Jami’s ‘Tuhfat Al-Ahrar,’ - Persian - 1484. (Supplied/The National Library of Israel)

The response has been truly impressive.

“The truth is that I’m thrilled to see the massive increase in the use of our Arabic digital resources,” Dr. Ukeles, who is now head of collections at the library, told Arab News a year and a half later.

“It’s so heartening to see that people are willing to cross boundaries in order to gain knowledge.” 

In 2021, more than 650,000 visitors from across the Arab world found their way to the NLI’s Arabic-language website — an increase of 40 percent compared with 2020. There has been a dramatic increase in interest from Saudi Arabia in particular.

Most of the visitors, seeking out not only rare Islamic documents but also other archival treasures including a large collection of historic Arabic-language newspapers, came chiefly from the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Algeria. 

Worldwide, there was a 125 percent increase to 1.5 million visitors to the Arabic site. Within Israel itself, the number of visitors to the site jumped by 250 percent to a total of 620,000 users, while the library’s trilingual Hebrew-Arabic-English site as a whole registered 10 million visits in 2021.




Palestinian Arabs prepare for a pilgrim journey to Makkah from Hebron in 1972. (Supplied/Copyright © IPPA 08346-000-22 Photo by IPPA Staff)

There has been a dramatic increase in interest from Saudi Arabia in particular. In 2021, there was a 30 percent growth in traffic from the Kingdom to the NLI site, with more than 121,000 sessions by nearly 94,000 individual users. About a third of the visitors were women, and 60 percent of the total were aged between 25 and 44.

“When we launched our first digital archive of early Arabic newspapers from Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine in September 2016, we had an annual rate of about 5,000 users for the first few years,” Dr. Ukeles said.

“That number has now increased by about tenfold and, thanks to our talented Arabic digital team, this past year we had 1.5 million total users of our Arabic websites.”

It was, she said, the aim of the National Library of Israel “to allow people to gain access to their own culture and history,” but also “to stimulate curiosity and engender respect about other cultures.”

This seems to be working.

“Users from the Arab world are searching our collections of Arabic newspapers and Islamic manuscripts, but they are also interested in our historical maps and digitized materials about Jewish history and Israel.”




Opening page of a Qur’an manuscript from Isfahan, dated 1735. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

Thanks to technology, the priceless documents at the library are even more accessible online, where they can be seen in exquisite, close-up detail — far better than they would be if viewed in person behind the glass of a display case.

“Technology allows culture and the written word to cross boundaries and reach new places previously inaccessible,” said Yaron Deutscher, head of digital at NLI.

“The fact that so many people from across the Arab world are expressing such a high level of interest in the cultural treasures freely available via the website shows just how relevant these things are, even for the younger generation living in our region.”

Those treasures include some extraordinary documents, including an exquisite copy of Muhammad Al-Busayri’s famous 13th-century poem “Qasidat Al-Burda,” or Ode of the Mantle, written in praise of the Prophet.

Also online are maps, illustrations and photographs, and hundreds of thousands of pages of historic Arabic newspapers from Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine — invaluable “rough first drafts of history” published between 1908 and 1948.




Script from a 9th-century Qu’ran from North Africa. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

Newspapers and journals from the past “constitute one of the more clear-sighted vantage points for acquainting ourselves with bygone eras,” said a spokesperson for the library. 

“Periodicals are an important resource for scholars as well as a portal for anyone wishing to access history through the words of contemporaries.”

Among the most regularly viewed items are 73 issues of the weekly newspaper Al-Arab, published in Mandatory Palestine between August 1932 and April 1934. Its writers included prominent authors and intellectuals of the day, such as Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza, the Palestinian politician and historian whose contributions included the important article, “The Modern Awakening of Arab Nationalism,” and who was interned by the British in 1936.

The 167 issues of the bi-weekly newspaper Al-Jazira, published in Palestine between 1925 and 1927, is another invaluable insight into the politics of the day, while a fascinating snapshot of contemporary art and culture can be found in the rare three issues of the magazine Al-Fajr. Its purpose, as declared in its first edition, published on June 21, 1935, was “to represent all intellectual currents in literature, society, art, and science.”

It was, says the NLI, “a veritable storehouse of knowledge and included diverse writings (and) represented an important stage in the development of Palestinian culture.”

Al-Fajr lasted only two years. Along with many newspapers and magazines, it ceased publishing during the Arab revolt in Palestine between 1936 and 1939, and never returned to print.




‘The Outcomes of the Faculties and the Virtues of Qualities,’ a 16th-century Ottoman manuscript. (Supplied/National Library of Israel collection)

One of the oldest periodicals in the digital collection is the daily newspaper Al-Quds. First published in Jerusalem in 1908, the 107 issues in the collection cover the period from then until the end of 1913, offering fascinating insights into the prevailing social and political concerns on the eve of the First World War and the final death throes of the Ottoman Empire.

Social history aside, the most visually breathtaking treasures belong to the more distant past. Many of the documents and books contain unrivaled examples of Arabic and Persian calligraphy and illustrations.

The library attributes the rise in interest in its collections in part to the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreement signed between Bahrain, Israel and the UAE on Sept. 15, 2020, which saw the first Israeli embassy open in Abu Dhabi, and the first embassy of the UAE in Tel Aviv.

In May last year, the NLI signed a historic memorandum of understanding with the National Archives of the UAE in Abu Dhabi, committing the two organizations “to work together in support of mutual and separate goals and for the benefit of the international cultural and documentary heritage sector.”

The NLI said that the collaboration came “amid increased interest in regional collaboration in the wake of the Abraham Accords” and, in a joint communique, the new partners hailed the agreement as “a significant step forward.”

Both organizations, said the NLI, “serve as the central institutions of national memory for their respective countries and broader publics, and in recent years both have launched expansive and diverse efforts to serve scholars and wider audiences domestically and internationally.”




Muhammad Al-Busayri, The Poem of the Mantle. (Supplied/National Library of Israel)

For Dr. Ukeles, the collaboration advanced “our shared goals of preserving and opening access to cultural heritage for the benefit of users of all ages and backgrounds in Israel, the UAE and across the region and the world.”

Dr. Abdulla M. Alraisi, director-general of the UAE’s national archives, said that the collaboration reflects its determination to “spread its wings around the world to reach the most advanced global archives and libraries, to obtain the documents that come at the heart of its interest as it documents the memory of the homeland for generations.”

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in September last year, on the first anniversary of the accords, links that once would have been inconceivable are now being forged between individuals, as well as governments.

“There is a hunger to learn about each other’s cultures, to see new sights, to try new foods, forge new friendships — all experiences that have been impossible for so long and for so many, and now they’re making up for lost time,” he said.

“People are seizing the opportunity.”

Blinken ended by quoting the co-leader of the newly created UAE-Israel Business Council, who was planning to spend a month in Israel to learn more about its people and culture. 

“Everything is possible,” he said, “if we sit together and have a dialogue and understand each other.”


Over 200 killed in Iran protests: top security body

Over 200 killed in Iran protests: top security body
Updated 58 min 2 sec ago

Over 200 killed in Iran protests: top security body

Over 200 killed in Iran protests: top security body
  • The country's Supreme National Security Council said the number of people killed during unrest sparked by her death "exceeds 200"
  • A general in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps this week, for the first time, said more than 300 people had lost their lives in the unrest

TEHRAN: More than 200 people have been killed in Iran since nationwide protests erupted over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, the country’s top security body said Saturday.
Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, died on September 16 after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s dress code for women.
Quoted by the official IRNA news agency, the country’s Supreme National Security Council said the number of people killed during unrest sparked by her death “exceeds 200.”
It said the figure included security officers, civilians and “separatists” as well as “rioters” — a term used by Iranian officials to describe protesters.
A general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps this week, for the first time, said more than 300 people had lost their lives in the unrest.
The security council said that in addition to the human toll, the violence had caused millions of dollars in damage.
Oslo-based non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights on Tuesday said at least 448 people had been “killed by security forces in the ongoing nationwide protests.”
UN rights chief Volker Turk said last week that 14,000 people, including children, had been arrested in the protest crackdown.


Iran’s hijab law under review: attorney general

Iran’s hijab law under review: attorney general
Updated 03 December 2022

Iran’s hijab law under review: attorney general

Iran’s hijab law under review: attorney general
  • Protesters have burned their head coverings and shouted anti-government slogans
  • "Both parliament and the judiciary are working (on the issue)", of whether the law needs any changes, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said

TEHRAN: Iran’s parliament and the judiciary are reviewing a law which requires women to cover their heads, and which triggered more than two months of deadly protests, the attorney general said.
The demonstrations began after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, died in custody on September 16 after her arrest by Iran’s morality police for an alleged breach of the dress code.
Protesters have burned their head coverings and shouted anti-government slogans. Since Amini’s death a growing number of women are not observing hijab, particularly in Tehran’s fashionable north.
The hijab headscarf became obligatory for all women in Iran in April 1983, four years after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed monarchy.
“Both parliament and the judiciary are working (on the issue),” of whether the law needs any changes, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said in the holy city of Qom.
Quoted on Friday by the ISNA news agency, he did not specify what could be modified in the law.
The review team met on Wednesday with parliament’s cultural commission “and will see the results in a week or two,” the attorney general said.
President Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday said Iran’s republican and Islamic foundations were constitutionally entrenched.
“But there are methods of implementing the constitution that can be flexible,” he said in televised comments.
After the hijab law became mandatory, with changing clothing norms it became commonplace to see women in tight jeans and loose, colorful headscarves.
But in July this year Raisi, an ultra-conservative, called for mobilization of “all state institutions to enforce the headscarf law.”
Many women continued to bend the rules, however.
Iran accuses its sworn enemy the United States and its allies, including Britain, Israel, and Kurdish groups based outside the country, of fomenting the street violence which the government calls “riots.”
A general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps this week, for the first time, said more than 300 people have lost their lives in the unrest since Amini’s death.
Iran’s top security body, the Supreme National Security Council, on Saturday said the number of people killed during the protests “exceeds 200.”
Cited by state news agency IRNA, it said the figure included security officers, civilians, armed separatists and “rioters.”
Oslo-based non-governmental organization Iran Human Rights on Tuesday said at least 448 people had been “killed by security forces in the ongoing nationwide protests.”
UN rights chief Volker Turk said last week that 14,000 people, including children, had been arrested in the protest crackdown.


Iranian state media: Construction begins on nuclear plant

Iranian state media: Construction begins on nuclear plant
Updated 03 December 2022

Iranian state media: Construction begins on nuclear plant

Iranian state media: Construction begins on nuclear plant
  • The announcement comes as Iran has been rocked by nationwide anti-government protests
  • The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion

CAIRO: Iran on Saturday began construction on a new nuclear power plant in the country’s southwest, Iranian state TV announced, amid tensions with the US over sweeping sanctions imposed after Washington pulled out of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The announcement also comes as Iran has been rocked by nationwide anti-government protests that began after the death of a young woman in police custody and have challenged the country’s theocratic government.
The new 300-megawatt plant, known as Karoon, will take eight years to build and cost around $2 billion, the country’s state television and radio agency reported. The plant will be located in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, near its western border with Iraq, it said.
The construction site’s inauguration ceremony was attended by Mohammed Eslami, head of Iran’s civilian Atomic Energy Organization, who first unveiled construction plans for Karoon in April.
Iran has one nuclear power plant at its southern port of Bushehr that went online in 2011 with help from Russia, but also several underground nuclear facilities.
The announcement of Karoon’s construction came less than two weeks after Iran announced it had begun producing enriched uranium at 60 percent purity at the country’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. The move is seen as a significant addition to the country’s nuclear program.
Enrichment to 60 percent purity is one short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Non-proliferation experts have warned in recent months that Iran now has enough 60 percent-enriched uranium to reprocess into fuel for at least one nuclear bomb.
The move was condemned by Germany, France and Britain, the three Western European nations that remain in the Iran nuclear deal. Recent attempts to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, which eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, have stalled.
Since September, Iran has been roiled by nationwide protests that have come to mark one of the greatest challenges to its theocracy since the chaotic years after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The protests were sparked when Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody on Sept. 16, three days after her arrest by Iran’s morality police for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women. Iran’s government insists Amini was not mistreated, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained
In a statement issued by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency on Saturday, the country’s national security council announced that some 200 people have been killed during the protests, the body’s first official word on the casualties. Last week, Iranian Gen. Amir Ali Hajjizadeh tallied the death toll at more than 300.
The contradictory tolls are lower than the toll reported by Human Rights Activists in Iran, a US-based organization that has been closely monitoring the protest since the outbreak. In its most recent update, the group says that 469 people have been killed and 18,210 others detained in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed.
The United States unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — in 2018, under then-President Donald Trump. It reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to start backing away from the deal’s terms. Iran has long denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, insisting its nuclear program is peaceful.


Sweden extradites outlawed PKK member to Turkiye: report

Sweden extradites outlawed PKK member to Turkiye: report
Updated 03 December 2022

Sweden extradites outlawed PKK member to Turkiye: report

Sweden extradites outlawed PKK member to Turkiye: report
  • Mahmut Tat, who was sentenced to six years and 10 months in jail for PKK membership in Turkiye, fled to Sweden in 2015

ISTANBUL : Sweden has extradited a convicted member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkiye as Ankara presses Stockholm for further steps in return for its membership in NATO, state media reported on Saturday.
Mahmut Tat, who was sentenced to six years and 10 months in jail for PKK membership in Turkiye, fled to Sweden in 2015 but his asylum request was rejected.
Tat arrived in Istanbul on Friday night having been detained by Swedish police, the Anadolu news agency reported.
He was taken by Turkish police soon after arriving at Istanbul airport and referred to court on Saturday, the private NTV broadcaster reported.
Turkiye has accused Finland and Sweden in particular of providing a safe haven for outlawed Kurdish groups it deems “terrorists,” and held back on ratifying their NATO bids despite an agreement in Madrid in June.
Finland and Sweden dropped decades of military non-alignment and sought to join NATO in May, after Russia invaded Ukraine.
The decision requires a consensus within the US-led defense alliance, but only Turkiye and Hungary are yet to ratify their membership.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held trilateral talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts on the margins of a NATO meeting in Bucharest this week.
“The statements (coming out of Sweden) are good, the determination is good but we need to see concrete steps,” Cavusoglu said.
Ankara has said it expects Stockholm to take action on issues including the extradition of criminals and freezing of terror assets.


Conservative women join Iran protests for Amini

Conservative women join Iran protests for Amini
Updated 03 December 2022

Conservative women join Iran protests for Amini

Conservative women join Iran protests for Amini
  • Canada slaps more sanctions on regime

JEDDAH: Black-clad women in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province on Friday joined nationwide protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death.

Online videos showed dozens of women on the streets of the provincial capital Zahedan holding banners that declared “Woman, life, freedom” — one of the main slogans of the protest movement that erupted in mid-September.

“Whether with hijab, whether without it, onwards to revolution,” women dressed in body-covering chador garments chanted in videos posted on Twitter.

Women-led protests have swept Iran since Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, died following her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the country’s dress code.

Security forces have killed at least 448 protesters, with the largest toll in Sistan-Baluchistan on Iran’s southeastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based non-governmental organization.

“It is indeed rare,” IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said of the protests by women in Zahedan, which has seen men take to the streets after Friday prayers for more than two months.

“The ongoing protests in Iran are the beginning of a revolution of dignity,” he said.

“Women and minorities, who have for more than four decades been treated as second-class citizens, are empowered through these protests to come out to the streets and demand their fundamental human rights.”

Baluchi women were among the “most oppressed” in Iran and their protests were the most organized by them so far since demonstrations broke out across the country, Amiry-Moghaddam added.

Scores of men also took to the streets again on Friday, chanting “we don’t want a child-killing government,” footage posted online by activists showed. Security forces were seen opening fire with bird shots and tear gas on male protesters in Taftan, a locality in Sistan-Baluchistan, in a video published by IHR.

A prominent Sunni cleric said it was wrong to charge protesters with capital offenses. Molavi Abdolhamid, a powerful dissenting Sunni voice in the Shiite-ruled country, said it was wrong for the hardline judiciary to charge protesters with “moharebeh” — a term meaning warring against God — which carries the death penalty.

Meanwhile,  Canada has issued additional sanctions against Iran over its denial of rights for women and girls and for cracking down on peaceful protests, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly said.

The latest sanctions target four individuals and five entities that Ottawa said were tied to Tehran’s “systematic human rights violations” and actions that “threaten international peace and security.” She added that Canada “will not stand idly by while the regime’s human rights violations increase in scope and intensity against the Iranian people.”