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Cairo’s House of Knowledge

Ekhlas Attallah

10 Aug 2016 11:59 am








Pedestrians in Downtown Cairo will not fail to see something of a festive atmosphere in the shop window of one of its major bookstores, Dar al-Maaref, literally ‘House of Knowledge’. Staring them in the eye is a figure of a smiling young man with hair in the form of an open book; the caption accompanying the figure reads: Khuthu al-maaref min Dar al-Maaref, literally: ‘Take knowledge from the House of Knowledge.’

Dar al-Maaref is the name of the printing and publishing house that runs the bookstore, and the figure and caption accompanying it have formed the motto of the Dar (House) and were printed on its publications. The slogan has lived on in the collective memory of Egyptian readers for over a century now; its reproduction close to life-size in the window shop of the Dar testifies to the establishment’s mission and the role it has played in spreading knowledge throughout these long years.

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Learning the trade

Dar al-Maaref is 125 years old this year. It marked its 125th anniversary in December 2015 but is celebrating its rich history all through 2016. It was established in 1890 by Najib Mitri, a Lebanese immigrant who settled in Egypt and sailed on a magnificent journey in the field of printing and publishing. His legacy was carried on by his two sons Edward and Shafiq, who succeeded in expanding his publishing business and turning it into the beacon of culture and knowledge that is Dar al-Maaref.

Najib Mitri was born in 1865 in the town of Shoueifat in Mount Lebanon where his early schooling took place. He then moved to Beirut to learn the art of printing and typesetting. Mitri became a master of the trade; his reputation transcended the boundaries of his homeland and reached another Lebanese immigrant, Aziz Zend, who lived in Alexandria and was a friend of Mitri’s brother. In 1884, Zend asked Mitri to come to Egypt and offered him the post of manager of the printing house of his newspaper Al-Mahroussa. At that time there was a cultural renaissance in Egypt which attracted many Levantine traders, craftsmen, writers and intellectuals who were dissatisfied with the Ottoman oppression and the ongoing Druze-Maronite unrest in their country.

In 1890, Mitri moved to Cairo with the dream of establishing his own printing house and bookshop. His financial resources, however, fell short of achieving his ambitious dream; so he partnered with Jurji Zaydan, another prominent Lebanese publishing pioneer, and established al-Ta’lif printing house. But this partnership lasted no more than a year. Zaydan kept the printing house and called it al-Hilal. A year later this blossomed into the well-known Dar-al-Hilal publishing house; while Mitri went on to establish a new printing house which he called al-Maaref.

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First office

The printing house was first located on the ground floor in al-Demerdash building at 70 Faggalla Street, also known as the printing houses’ street. It consisted of a courtyard and three simple rooms, and included a small manual printing press, another for printing proofs, and a few boxes containing the types. Mitri was renowned for his meticulousness and constant effort to develop and improve the art of Arabic printing. In the last decade of the 19th century he printed 17 books. In 1910 he rented a shop in the same building where his printing house stood and added a bookshop which he called al-Maaref bookshop.

Twenty-five years after its establishment, Mitri added to his printing house a book-binding section which used fine binding methods to cover the books in beautiful gilded covers. With this addition al-Maaref gained a reputation throughout the Arab World as the finest printing house that matched the highest European printing standards.

In 1904, the first Arabic translation of Homer’s Iliad was published by Dar al-Hilal. The epic Greek poem was translated by Sulaiman al-Bustani, a Lebanese statesman, poet and historian, and was met with great acclaim from the Arab cultural sphere. Celebrations went on for months during which writers, poets, editors and intellectuals competed in writing orations in praise of Bustani’s masterpiece. A national celebration was also organised in honour of Bustani. All these events and the works of art cited in them were compiled and published by Najib Mitri in 1905 in a 108-page large-format commemorative book entitled Haddiyat al-Iliatha (The Iliad Gift). This publication is still regarded as one of a kind.

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Centre of culture

Najib Mitri was a highly cultivated man who enjoyed strong ties with the thinkers, writers and politicians of his time; this had a great impact on his work.

From 1891 to 1928, Najib Mitri excelled not only in expanding in Egypt and the Arab World but also impacted the entire publishing circle in Egypt with an abundance of cultural, literary, scientific and economic publications. Mitri’s publishing house became one of the most important on the Egyptian and Arab scene, a mecca for the most prominent writers and poets of the day. These included Egypt’s ‘Prince of Poets’ Ahmed Shawqi, ‘Poet of the Nile’ Hafez Ibrahim, and Lebanon’s ‘Poet of the two Lands’ Khalil Mutran. They, together with many others, sought to publish their books at al-Maaref.

Mitri died on 26 November 1928 at his house on Queen Nazly Street, now Ramses Street. All the writers, poets and politicians of the time wrote elegies commemorating the life and works of this great man.

Mitri had laid the foundation of al-Maaref printing house and its bookshop in the circle of writers and intellectuals and made it a lighthouse of knowledge and culture. His sons Edward and Shafiq carried the torch and elevated their father’s business to new heights. However, it is Shafiq Mitri who takes credit for the rise of al-Maaref, making it the number one publishing house in the Arab World. Najib Mitri had sent Shafiq to France, Germany and Austria to learn the techniques of printing and publishing, and after his brother Edward’s untimely death in 1935 Shafiq became the sole manager of the family business. He revolutionised his publishing house and, in the process, the entire Egyptian cultural scene.

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The golden years

The years 1928 – 1963 can be considered the golden years of al-Maaref publishing house. A new printing house was opened in Alexandria in 1941, and in 1944 Mitri changed the name of his printing house to Dar al-Maaref in Egypt. In 1945 Dar al-Maaref revolutionised the world of printing and publishing by acquiring the first Arabic monotype printing system (a printing system using hot metal typesetting from a keyboard) using new Arabic types; this was the first of its kind in Egypt and the Arab World.

Shafiq Mitri was an innovative publisher; he forged friendships with contemporary writers such as Taha Hussein, Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad, Antoun Jemayel, Fouad Sarrouf and many others. They advised him to publish specialised cultural series written by the best writers; the implementation of this project was delegated to Syrian writer Adel al-Ghadban. This is how Dar al-Maaref’s greatest publications were created: Iqra’ (Read); Thakha’ir al-Arab (The Masterpieces of Arabs); Nawabigh al-Fikr al-Arabi (Geniuses of Arab Thought) and Nawabigh al-Fikr al-Alami (Genuises of International Thought). As for children’s literature, Dar al-Maaref published, among others, Awladuna (Our Children); Alf Leila wa Leila (The Thousand and One Nights); Maktabat al-Tifl (The Children’s Library), and Al-Maktaba al-Khadraa’ lil Atfal (The Children’s Green Library), amounting in all to 35 series for children.

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Iqra’ was the first of series to be published. In his memoirs, Shafiq Mitri says that he first suggested the idea of issuing literary series to Taha Hussein, dubbed the Doyen of Arabic Literature, in 1942. Hussein (1889 – 1973), a blind writer and intellectual who was among the figureheads of Egypt’s enlightenment and education movements. The idea behind the project was to issue a series of monthly booklets at affordable prices yet well printed, originally written rather than translated by writers from the Arab World. Hussein replied that the Arabs were divided among themselves around their own interests and inclinations and that the only thing that could possibly unite them is a common intellectual fabric whose threads would be woven by the writings of their own intellectuals. It was Hussein who baptised Iqra’ with his own novel Ahlam Shehrazade (Scheherazade’s Dreams),the first book published in the series. Other prominent writers in this series included Muhammad Hussein Haykal, writer of the first Arabic novel Zainab; Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, intellectual and novelist; Suhair al-Qalamawi, pioneer researcher of the 1001 nights; Aisha Abdel-Rahman who wrote under the penname Bint al-Shati’ (Daughter of the [Nile] Bank); Ahmed Shawqi Dayf, Arab literature critic and historian; and Yacoub al-Sharouni, the pioneer of children’s literature in the Arab World.

A few years after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Egypt started to nationalise major factories and economic establishments. In 1963, Dar al-Maaref was nationalised; it passed from the hands of the Mitri family into the ownership of the Egyptian State. Mitri, who was at the head of a publishing house with an annual revenue exceeding EGP2 million, was given a meagre monthly allowance and was offered the position of supervisor. Devastated, he left Egypt for France where he lived until his death in 1994.

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Commemorative magazine

As a State-owned publishing and printing house, Dar al-Maaref continued to publish its by-now famous series, but not much was added in the sense of new material or ideas.

Among its most important publications in the post-nationalisation period is the weekly October magazine, founded in October 1976 and given a name to commemorate the 1973 October War in which Egypt finally crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai which had been occupied by the Israelis since 1967. The crossing led to negotiations with Israel that in turn led to Egypt regaining Sinai in full and signing a peace agreement with Israel. Renowned writer Anis Mansour was appointed the magazine’s editor-in chief and Head of the Board of Directors. Mansour decided to obtain his inspiration for the new magazine from international magazines and periodicals, while at the same time adding to this a distinctive local flavour. Because President Sadat issued a special presidential decree to launch the magazine, he gave it every possible support and granted it the special privilege of publishing his memoirs which were met with huge interest at that time. The first issue of October magazine was packed with articles by prominent writers and journalists and the editorial was written by President Sadat himself.

The first generation of the magazine’s editors recorded their precious testimonials of this event in a special issue published in October 2015. Their articles registered not only the history of the magazine but also of the history of journalism in Egypt and the names of those who wrote on its pages, names which shone in the world of journalism and literature.


Question over nationalisation

Not everybody, however, thought that nationalising Dar al-Maaref was a sound decision. In an article he wrote in Al-Ahram newspaper in 2004, the journalist and prominent literary critic Ragaa al-Naqash (1934 – 2008) suggested nationalisation was a mistake committed against this great beacon of culture and knowledge. He wondered why, although Dar al-Maaref was not the only publishing house which existed at that time, none of the other establishments was nationalised. By handing over this highly successful and profitable business to State ownership and government red tape, it became “enchained and turned into a jumbled government establishment”. Moreover, Naqash said that dedicating Dar al-Maaref’s resources to the publishing of October was another major faux-pas. There was a big difference, he wrote, between a publishing house and a journalistic establishment with respect to the way each of them operated. Journalism was a fast-paced, time-and effort-consuming field; whereas publishing follows a slower operating and management rhythm.‏ A magazine of the size of October deserved to have its own establishment and to follow a more adapted management policy rather than eating up all the resources of Dar al-Maaref without achieving the sought-after results.


Loyal deputy

Dar al-Maaref was kept alive, however, thanks to the efforts of not only its renowned writers and editors-in-chief such as Anis Mansour, Salah Montasser and Ragab al-Banna, but also to the contribution of one of its main executives, Shafiq Mitri’s former right hand-man, the Syrian writer Adel al-Ghadban.

Ghadban originally worked as a translator in the mixed courts, but after these were closed down he tried to set up a publishing house with one of his close friends but the project was short-lived and, in 1941, Ghadban joined Dar al-Maaref. Shafiq Mitri’s expert eye noticed his ethics, competence and multitude of skills and appointed him cultural supervisor, which meant that he was responsible for selecting the cultural material that deserved to be published. Although this great man often preferred to keep a low profile, he is considered one of those who had the greatest impact on Dar al-Maaref during its golden years and after nationalisation. He died in 1972.


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Fourth in the world

The 125th anniversary on the establishment of Dar al-Maaref was celebrated at a grand reception at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo on 28 April.

In our modern times, however, it is not enough to brag about the glories of the past; to be successful in the world of publishing, one must follow the latest innovations and state of the art technology. For its 125th anniversary Dar al-Maaref issued a commemorative book telling the story of the publishing house, which in its heyday was topmost in the Arab World and the fourth worldwide, according to the book’s author, Ihab al-Mallah. Future plans to regain the glory of the past and follow the latest trends in the publishing business were also revealed.

The first of the future projects is to introduce Dar al-Maaref to the world of digital publishing. A protocol of joint cooperation was signed with the UAE’s Ministry of Culture with a focus on digital publishing. Other agreements were signed with Arab publishing houses to market Dar al-Maaref’s publications throughout the Arab World. In parallel, all the employees in Dar al-Maaref’s various departments attend training courses to enable them to comply with the latest trends in publishing.

Last but not least, Dar al-Maaref works constantly on modernising the main departments which are the pillars of any publishing house; these are publishing, domestic and international marketing, and the printing press which is a publishing house’s main artery.

Said Abdo, Dar al-Maaref’s current Head of the Board of Directors, said during the 125th anniversary celebrations: “Our dream for the future may appear ambitious, but it is not impossible; dreams are made reality by men capable of defying the odds.”



Watani International

10 August 2016




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