Restoring Precious Manuscripts [Archives:1998/02/Culture]

January 12 1998

Mr. Ronald Kon works in Leiden University and teaches Arabic at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Netherlands.
Q: What is the project you are working on in Yemen? A: It is a project to further develop Al-Ahqaf library in Tareem in the Hadhramaut valley. This is a form of a cultural present which has been given by the Dutch government to the Yemeni people to congratulate them on the unification of Yemen. We are trying to develop the library in such a way that the Islamic manuscripts will be preserved for future generations. We are also trying to develop the personnel working there so that they will be well aware of modern preservation techniques, using computers to retrieve information and things like that.
Q: What work do you perform in this project? A: I evaluate the collection as it is to see which manuscripts are the most interesting. We do this together with the local library. With Mr. .Abdulah Al-Aidros, a key figure, together with the director Abdulrahman Al-Saqqaf, we have been able to work very nicely on the manuscripts. Within this phase we have been doing a lot of work to manage, to organize, to re-do the infrastructure of the whole collection. We should be able to really start the scientific work in a second phase and to teach the people how to make use of the material which is in the manuscripts.
Q: How long will this project take? A: Last year, two of my colleagues spent three months initiating the project. Their work had mainly to do with the pre-infrastructure of the project. This means to try to make the building in which the manuscripts were kept, a place where scientists could work. Now the project is finished and one of the main tasks was to re-formulate the project in order to be able to continue.
Q: Who funds this project? A: The Dutch Embassy and the local public authorities have been very helpful until now. We can try to get more funds for this project in the coming years. We cannot exactly see for how long that will be, but we are very optimistic that it will continue.
Q: How important are these manuscripts for researchers? A:The manuscript tradition is still very much alive. For example, we bought photocopies of a book in a book shop called Al-Jawher al-Shafaf. The original is owned by someone from Jeddah and the same text is also available in the Tareem library. People still want to read other copies of the same texts.
Q: Are people generally aware of the importance of conserving these manuscripts? A: People here consider it to be part of the heritage of Tareem. They feel it very much part of themselves. I mean they really are eager to help during the work. They offered all kinds of services which we think are necessary. The people in the library are friendly and eager to help too. The place is not just a local mosque. People from Egypt, Singapore and Indonesia make their way to Tareem to study these manuscripts. From a conservation point of view, everybody can read manuscripts. But if we can scan them electronically, it is much easier to have them available from more people locally and worldwide on the Internet.
Q: Do you think the library as a building should be renovated? A: The building is not bad. It is a part of the mosque. However, the roofs and infrastructure have been repaired and a generator was installed for a continuous electricity supply. If you work with electronic equipment you can not tolerate power cuts. We try to attract tourists, they are very much interested in Tareem. We want to give them a nice display of the beautiful manuscripts.
Q: What should be done to help continue the process of preservation? A: Foreign aid should also concentrate more on cultural aspects. Yemen is so culturally rich, both before and after Islam. So what we would advice is to give a person like Abdulrahman Al-Saqqaf who is working there in his library as much assistance as possible in terms of training of his personnel. More facilities can really be installed to make it a nice center.
Q: Would you like to add any thing? A: Tareem has always been a very famous center of learning. So what we are trying to do is to develop the Tareem library to put Tareem back on the intellectual map of Yemen.
Mr. Hans Van Der Meulon teaches at the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Leiden University, Holland
Q: Could you tell us a bit about the Ahqaf library? A: The library is located on top of the mosque of Tareem. There are about 3300 manuscripts which contain more than 500 texts on different subjects. The most recent one is from about the middle of this century and the oldest, dates back to the fourth century after Hijra.
Q: What is your main task in this project? A: Before I studied Arabic, I worked in the Dutch telecom company as a technician and this has helped my main task in installing computers. I also do book binding and am making a data base for the library. This is very useful because we are also putting this on the Internet for the whole world to see.
Q: What else does the work involve? A: We try to describe Arab scripts, identify the author, the man who made a copy, the date it was made, and other essential data. Also, the dimension of the manuscript is very important so as to know the number of lines, what type of handwriting, and what type of paper was used. There are some medical books and most of the texts are just known by name and author but work still needs to be done to know what the real subjects are because many scholars are unknown in the world.
Q: In what conditions are the manuscripts now? A: Their condition is quite good because it is very dry in Hadhramaut.
Q: Are all manuscripts going to appear on the Internet A: The catalogue will be on the Internet. Not all of manuscripts will be on the Internet, just the most important ones.
Q: Do you think tourists are interested in seeing these manuscripts? A: In the month we were there, we saw several hundred tourists coming to the place. They are really amazed. We are now preparing a booklet as an introduction to the library and postcards for the visitors to take home.
Q: Would you like to add anything? A: I want just to say I agree with Mr. Ronald Kon and I think it is important that the library get as much support as possible from the government and also our government should inform the local people as well.