- March 29, 2003 Protecting an Endangered Afghan Species: Books By FELICIA R. LEE From the pages of yellowed books bound by string, the words of Afghanistan sMessage 1 of 1 , Mar 29 6:16 AMView Source
NYTimes: applied anthropology
March 29, 2003
Protecting an Endangered Afghan Species: Books
By FELICIA R. LEE
From the pages of yellowed books bound by string, the words of Afghanistan's kings, poets and government officials are entering the digital age. New York University has just begun an ambitious project to digitize all the books printed in Afghanistan from 1871 to 1930, the earliest period of publishing there, and to catalog them and make them available electronically.
The effort to preserve and widely disseminate the rare Afghan books is a counterpoint to decades of destruction of the country's art, books and monuments. In the early 1990's alone, tens of thousands of books in both the Kabul Public Library and the Kabul University Library were destroyed under Taliban rule.
A Web site with a list of rare books, Afghanistan scholars from around the world said, will go a long way toward defining a country that for a long time has been shrouded in mystery.
"This is a very valuable resource for both serious academic interests and popular culture interests," said M. Jamil Hanifi, an anthropologist who specializes in Afghanistan and is a retired professor of history at Northern Illinois University.
"Symbolically, it's the best thing we can offer Afghanistan at this stage of reconstruction," Professor Hanifi continued. "It offers the past, and the past is the course to the present. We have some fantastic books that shed light on procedures, policies and ideas of the government, literature and geography."
For now scholars outside the country will benefit from the undertaking more than the people of Afghanistan, where the literacy rate is estimated to hover around 10 percent. But Richard L. Tapper, a professor of anthropology at the University of London who specializes in the Middle East, says that will change. "One of the main goals of reconstruction is to spread literacy," Professor Tapper said. "Afghanistan tends to get presented as a country of illiterate tribesmen. All sorts of things were destroyed. This is something that will be of enormous interest to Afghans abroad and an invaluable resource to Afghans in Afghanistan."
The number of books that will be available on a Web site and by CD-ROM is comparatively small, between 393 and 443, depending on what titles the bibliographic research unearths, said Robert D. McChesney, the temporary editor of the Afghanistan Digital Library project and a professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University.
That number is small because printing did not arrive in Afghanistan until 1871, because there was only one press controlled by the government and because under Islam, a handmade manuscript was considered far more valuable than a printed one.
The project ends at 1930 because books printed later are more widely available, said Carol A. Mandel, dean of the Division of Libraries at New York University. She said university officials had just begun raising the roughly $1.5 million the digital library will cost.
The material in the first phase (books from 1871 to 1900) includes the work of a 17th-century poet named Ayishah-i Durrani, many law books, at least one book on the regulations on prophets and prophecy and one on how to wage a holy war.
Four out of five of the books are in Persian (the others are in Pashto) and many of the early works reflect Afghanistan's efforts to create a cadre of laws and administrators for the state, Professor McChesney said. There are books on tax laws and marriage laws, manuals on accounting.
In addition to the books, the digital library also plans to include historic photographs, journals and newspapers, government documents and manuscripts.
"There has been all this material residing in bits and pieces all over the world," Professor McChesney said. "By bringing it together in one place where it can be preserved and can be accessible, scholars as well as people in Afghanistan don't have to rely on someone coming in to tell them that part of their history."
By way of analogy for Americans, he said, "Imagine if we didn't know there was a Constitution."
Mohammad Hassan Kakar, a former professor of history at Kabul University who fled to Pakistan in 1988 after being jailed five years by the government installed by the Soviet Union, agreed, saying, "It will be a good effort toward restoring a lost identity."
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