The Khalidiyya Library, located in Palestine, is a newly digitized source for historic papers, emphasizing the importance of manuscripts.  

In my bag, there currently sits a collection of loose-leaf papers full of inconsequential lists and math equations, none of which I’ve given a second thought. In the Khalidiyya Library in Palestine, there currently sits a collection of loose-leaf papers full of ancient and historical insight, threatening to disintegrate at any moment. Luckily, the recently digitized collection of these family-owned Islamic manuscripts will live on, allowing for new discoveries of historic Palestinian life. 

To highlight the accessibility and significance of these papers, the Center for Palestinian Studies hosted an event entitled “Excavations in the Scrap Paper Basket,” featuring Ahmed El Shamsy, an Associate Professor at the University of Chicago, and Torsten Wollina, a Research Associate at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preußischer Kulturbesitz. It was perhaps only fitting that I attended this Zoom event centered around the Khalidiyya Library in Palestine, while perched in a green Milstein Library chair in New York City. 

The event began with a discussion led by Professor Shamsy about the word dasht. Much of the work done on the dasht at the Khalidiyya was initiated by Tahir al-Jaza’iri; al-Jaza’iri cataloged the Khalidiyya library and reconstructed some of the oldest texts from the library’s scrap paper cache during his lifetime (1852-1920). Dasht itself refers to these loose pages that are old, fragmentary, and threatening to disintegrate. In the 13th century, the word makhr-um was used to refer to these incomplete codecs that were not fully bound, whereas, in classical dictionaries stemming from Farsi, dasht referred to the desert, but colloquially meant “what is abandoned.” Later, in the 19th century, Ahmad Taymour wrote a lexicon on Egyptian colloquial where dasht was used as a technical term for “mixed-up” and “jumbled” papers.  

As these definitions may suggest, not everyone originally viewed these papers as valuable. If not stored or rebound, oftentimes pages of the dasht were sold to warraq (stationers, scribes) to produce pasteboards and bindings. Other times dasht was used as wrapping material. In the 19th century, a German man encountered his first piece of Arabic writing in the form of recycled scrap paper in a small German town; a cheese dealer had used these pieces of paper to wrap the cheese this German man had bought.  Additionally, other ignorant caretakers of mosques would carry baskets of loose papers and sell them to fruit sellers and greengrocers. 

This practice, Professor Shamsy explained, made it difficult for libraries to reconstruct books as many pages were lost or severely damaged. Professor Shamsy then circled back to the mention of Tahir al-Jaza’iri, expanding upon his instrumental role in the founding of several important libraries; Jaza’iri copied several of the manuscripts found in the Khalidiyya like those by Al Hariri of Basra. Al Hariri’s Manuscript 77 was a third-generation copy completed by al-Jaza’iri; the endowment record explains that this copy was “copied from a copy that was copied from the autograph,” emphasizing its age and the amount of effort put in transcription. Without al-Jaza’iri’s contributions, the possibility for meaningful insights and discoveries from the dasht would not exist. 

After presenting about the library and the importance of dasht, Professor Shamsy took questions from Research Associate Wollina. Wollina asked about the role librarians play and whether the definition of a “librarian” has evolved over time regarding the dasht. In return, Professor Shamsy emphasized that endowments are currently collapsing and librarians are no longer being paid properly, thus forcing librarians to sell manuscripts or find new jobs. These actions lead to a lack of librarians which, in turn, allows governments and other institutions to justify lessening endowments for libraries. 

It struck me then that all the work that goes into preserving primary source documents escapes me when researching for a history class; it is easy to consider an event within the time period, without thinking about how this information (or text) was preserved throughout history. Yet, even while attending the event, I could not imagine the library itself nor where in Palestine it was situated; the distance between myself and the library was too vast for me to comprehend. However, I appreciated the attention given to an aspect of Palestine not frequently talked about; rather than Palestine discussed in relation to something else, Palestine was at the forefront of a normal, non-politicized discussion that simply focused on one aspect of its history.  

Southern Palestine via Picryl