Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this volume?

Anthony Gorman (AG): The book came out of an original idea that Didier Monciaud and I had for a workshop at the Mediterranean Conference of the European University Institute held at Montecatini some years ago. This brought together a diverse group of scholars who were working on different aspects of the history of the Middle Eastern press and provided a forum for a productive and reflective series of discussions on this important medium, both as a reflection and an agent of historical change.

We focused on the period 1850-1950 because this covers the critical time when the press began to emerge as an influential forum and became a critical space for the dissemination and debate surrounding many political, social, and cultural issues. Not merely reporting on matters, the press collectively would come to play an important role as an agent in both public (and political) debates, including the important contest between nationalists and the forces of imperialism.

In putting together the contributions for the volume, we were keen to include the work of scholars writing in French since we thought that Francophone scholarship is not always given due recognition in English language work. For this reason, four of the chapters in the volume (El Houssi, Ezzerelli, Monciaud, and Temimi) were translated from the original French versions. We must also record our thanks to Nicola Ramsey at Edinburgh University Press for agreeing to support the project.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AG: The volume comprises twelve detailed case studies examining different aspects of the history of the press in the Middle East before 1950. One of its central concerns is the notion of the press as a vehicle for the construction of a public voice that sought to represent particular visions of the nation, community, or dissident elements. Beginning with the Young Ottomans, who effectively used the press to criticize the Tanzimat regime, these studies explore the way in which these voices reflect different political perspectives, social orientation, and cultural values. In addition to the political debates of the late Ottoman period, they include Palestinian voices during the mandate, anarchist and labor activism in Egypt, and, during the interwar years, the contest between left and right in Tunisia and specific press titles of the Jewish community in Iraq and the Orthodox community in Lebanon.

In dealing with these themes, these studies highlight the role of those involved in the production and consumption of the newspaper. Foremost among these are journalists, who in the early period were most often political activists, intellectuals, or bureaucrats, but over time developed a more professional (and distinct) status as the field of journalism matured. Editors, editorial teams, caricaturists—not to mention readers—were also significant players in the lively and dynamic press of the period.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AG: I have always had a fascination with the press as a primary source and have relied on it considerably in much of my research. However, by taking the press itself as the central theme, the volume offered the opportunity to contemplate its multi-dimensional character in a more profound way. My own chapter on the anarchist press in Egypt is part of an ongoing larger study on the anarchist movement in Egypt before the First World War (a subject on which I continue to work), but editing this work and reading the final versions of the other contributors has greatly enriched my understanding of the press.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AG: Ideally the volume will be of interest to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate research students and academics concerned with the modern Middle East, its politics, society, and culture, but especially to those concerned with the press, whether as a cultural artifact, political forum, or social expression. I also hope that it will engage the interest of other historians of the press since the case studies here explore many themes common to the press as an international phenomenon, such as its relationship with the European form and the common concerns and difficulties of the press in occupied and colonized societies.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AG: I am continuing to work on different aspects of Middle Eastern society, exploring both the interactions and barriers operating between different ethnic, national, and religious communities. Following a workshop organized at the University of Edinburgh in 2015 and supported by the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW), I am currently co-editing (with Sarah Irving) a volume comprising a series of studies examining the diverse sources of cultural thought and practice in the Arab world in the period before 1950. This will ready for publication at the end of this year. I will then return to two topics which I have been working on intermittently for some time. The first is a monograph on a history of the Middle Eastern prison during the colonial period, a subject that is surprisingly neglected in the literature despite its lamentable prominence in the political life of many Middle Eastern states post-independence. The other subject is a more extended exploration of the transnational and multiethnic anarchist movement focusing on the Eastern Mediterranean before the First World War.

J: What particular aspects of the Middle Eastern press do you think require further research?

AG: Despite an already considerable literature, there is still a great deal of work that could be done to expand our knowledge of the history of the Middle Eastern press. In addition to engaging with the political, social, and cultural questions of the day, much remains unclear on aspects of newspaper management, working conditions, production techniques, readership, advertising, and other financial aspects of newspaper and periodical publication. There are of course some simple but significant difficulties of determining the survival of many lesser known titles but, where material is available, by exploring the diversity of the Middle Eastern press in terms of genre, language, distribution and readership, we can gain a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the importance of the press as an instrument of public communication, political agent, social medium, and cultural phenomenon.

Excerpt from Book:

[pp. 1-3, 10-13]

The press occupies a crucial place in the modern history of the Middle East and North Africa. Its interest and significance lies in its importance not only as a medium of representation that a society produces of itself but also of what a society produces for itself. An understanding of its historical development is therefore vital to an appreciation of many processes of political, social and cultural change and of the evolution of public opinion and the debates surrounding social and cultural identities in the Middle East. The Middle East and North Africa region offers a rich range of materials for a study of the press. In the hundred years from 1850 to 1950 it emerged as a medium of expression and chronicler of political developments punctuated by a record of dynamic contact and conflict within local societies and with European imperialism, initially in the latter nineteenth century and subsequently with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the decolonisation process that immediately followed World War II. During this time intensive, energetic debates were conducted and political struggles waged over the nature of political community, definitions of social classes and the character of cultural identity. The period sees the rise of nationalist movements where the press played a central role in supporting the nationalist cause but also a more complex part in articulating different perspectives on political, cultural and social questions. Essential to an understanding of political history and its representation, the press was also a participant in and subject to political circumstances, at times benefiting from the opportunities offered by free public debate while in other situations being subject to repressive legal regimes. Ultimately, the period ends with formal independence granted across much of the region when a rich tradition of political and cultural contest framed by a context of colonial domination and anticolonial struggle moves to a phase where newly installed national regimes sought to mediate and impose their own agenda on the role of the press. It therefore offers a rich opportunity to explore the press as a forum and an agent in a period of dynamic transformation.

The number of newspaper titles produced in the region over the period 1850–1950, while almost impossible to quantify precisely, is staggering in its profusion and diversity. From the late nineteenth century on, there was an explosion in publishing that took many different forms, of daily newspapers, weekly magazines, illustrated periodicals, high-brow journals and popular rags, of numerous fleeting and fewer long-established titles, variously scientific, literary or satirical in tone, from local papers to reviews, from community organs to political tribunes, from educational journals and professional beacons catering to specialised interests in politics, culture and economics, published in at least a dozen different local and foreign languages in single and sometimes multilingual editions. The context of the first age of globalisation in the nineteenth century integrating the region into the world economy and the rise of the colonial project created opportunities for these very different press endeavours.

This emergent print culture affected the transmission of ideas and knowledge despite modest levels of literacy across the region while the mass of published periodical material spoke of a series of connected societies that were redolent with a strong desire to express themselves, to give voice to their individual elements and constituents, and to consume news, commentary and various literary forms. This creative polyphony of social voices and kaleidoscope of published textures, of original material, of translations, reproductions, adaptations, of text, caricatures, illustrations and photographs provides a fascinating and multifaceted subject of study.

This volume emerged from a workshop held at the Ninth Mediterranean Research Meeting at the European University Institute in Florence in March 2008 which brought together a diverse range of scholars working on different aspects of the Middle Eastern press. The papers presented there, and subsequently developed and included here, share a common concern with the complex social, political and cultural aspects of the press in the period before 1950 and an engagement with its dynamic and multidimensional character. Based on a detailed reading of press material and drawing on archival research, they cover a significant geopolitical range with cases studies across the region, from the heartland of the Ottoman Empire to the post-Ottoman Arab world of Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and North Africa. Chronologically, they straddle the financial crises of the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s and the long confrontation with European colonialism, from the period of colonial expansion before World War I to the interwar period under the veneer of the mandatory administrations in Palestine and Iraq.


Scholarly research has developed and integrated the history of the press into a political and cultural history around three axes: the press as a vector of history, as an agent of history and as a source that allows an understanding of the transformation of societies. The circulation of regular published texts became a vital element in the constitution of a public sphere in Middle Eastern societies from the late nineteenth century through the gathering of ‘public’ communities in time as well as in space through the interaction with readers and the experiences of open debates. While the Habermasian conception of the ‘public sphere of society’ proposed the emergence of a hegemonic bourgeois public, and Benedict Anderson put forward the phenomenon of common text consumption supported by print capitalism as the foundation of what he called ‘imagined’ national communities, more recent conceptions of the public sphere have moved away from the construction of a hegemonic mainstream to a more complex model of overlapping, intersecting and competing publics.

The press was a crucial site for the proposal and dissemination of these new agendas. Processes of dialogue and discourse entailed ideas which eventually culminated in political platforms, ideologies and national or subaltern awareness. New identities took shape in the heat of a time of huge change with the protest against colonial powers and the development of nation states. Competing counter-publics or subaltern perspectives sought to challenge or complement mainstream conceptions of the public. The emergence of a women’s press serves as a prime example. The first publications dedicated to women’s issues appeared during the Tanzimat period but a women’s press first appeared in Egypt in the 1890s, which promoted new images of women in society, from conservative to liberal voices, discussing a broad range of issues such as gender roles, feminism and political rights. By the early twentieth century female activists such as Malak Hifni Nasif in Egypt could participate much more easily in debates mediated by print than ever before. Other subaltern voices would establish their own press: labour and political movements, and religious and community associations. The periodicity of newspapers created a special kind of relationship between readers and a particular publication. Unlike other printed forms, the newspaper is both fixed and changing. Its features, such as its title, format of text and serialisation of material, have served both to distinguish and to establish a continuity between its separate issues. The relationship thus established between and among senders and receivers of ideas and information, as well as the mechanisms of reception and the perception of media forms, is an important dimension to this dynamic. In this equation the public was neither homogenous nor passive.

The press in the Middle East therefore offers a great diversity of research themes, some already well established in studies of political history but others relatively new, such as the phenomenon of the local, community and oppositional press, the construction and contest between social norms and cultural trends and the character of journalism. The contributions in this volume speak to a number of these overarching concerns and themes that recognise that the press, far from being restricted to the narrowly defined political field, extends to a wide spectrum of representation that engaged with issues of cultural values, community identity, gender roles and social status and has served as a forum for the exchange, contest and consolidation of ideas. Fundamental to an understanding of political history and its representation, the press has played a seminal role in the construction and transformation of culture. As a regular source of public information it allowed new urban populations to find their way in metropolitan spaces, to participate in social life and to equip themselves with a memory of events. From the end of the nineteenth century, the logic of an emerging industrial culture increasingly provided tools that established or consolidated cultural practices and collective imaginations in Middle Eastern societies. Such a critical role calls for an examination of how the press constituted a relatively autonomous sphere and favoured the emergence of norms and representation of ‘society’, and yet also provided a forum for those norms.

In this process, the press was not only a vehicle for the representations emerging from these debates but also an actor in expressing national interests and aspirations (Karagöz-Kızılca, Booth, Kabha, Lawson), community voices (Bashkin, Slim) and non-elite networks (Gorman, Monciaud). Despite or because of the broad social and cultural spectrum within which it operated, the relationship of the press with state authority remains a critical theme. State strategies of surveillance, censorship, suppression and other forms of harassment were regularly adopted to deal with unwelcome criticism. As the studies here show, the state adopted a variety of postures towards the press, from its use as a tool to justify government policy (El Houssi) to a repressive attitude towards those critical, dissident voices that sought, or were perceived to have sought, to undermine its legitimacy (Moreau, Gorman, Monciaud) or ultimately be coopted by it (Ezzerelli). Its practitioners have been variously fined, imprisoned, deported and rewarded for their efforts. Language serves as a fundamental element of political and cultural representation. Collectively the volume engages with a number of press languages, including those of the majority population of the region (even if underrepresented among the literate public), namely Ottoman Turkish and Arabic, as well as Greek, Italian, English and French, which were published by local resident communities or operated as a function of imperial influence. In some contexts Ottoman Turkish (Karagöz-Kızılca) and Arabic (Booth, Kabha) was the language of emerging national publics in response to colonial interests and foreign pressures. The ways in which different languages were employed suggest a much greater complexity of politics and culture than a simple indigenous– foreign dichotomy. Italian, French and Greek could be the language of anti-state, anti-capitalist internationalist discourse (Gorman), English the language of local nationalism (Lawson), Italian of politically opposed interests (El Houssi); Arabic a language of labour affirmation (Monciaud), of community and diaspora (Slim), community and nation (Bashkin), or of political compromise (Ezzerelli).

Never wholly separate from political currents, social attitudes or cultural values, the emergence of the professional journalist represented a process of maturation that brought influence, social status and a relative autonomy to its best practitioners. In the studies presented diverse profiles of newspaper men are featured, from the committed activists of the earlier period – the commentariat of the Young Ottomans (Karagöz-Kızılca) – to political agents (Moreau), dissident labour militants (Gorman, Monciaud) and aspiring public intellectuals (Ezzerelli). In time and with greater specialisation, journalism came to recruit from a broader spectrum from middle-class men of letters (Bashkin) to political and economic commentators (Lawson, Slim) and journalistic dynasties (Kabha) who became more securely established as members of a recognised profession, or more specialised, as feature writers, reporters, cartoonists with their work regarded increasingly as a familiar literary genre (Temimi).

Anthony Gorman and Didier Monciaud, eds., The Press in the Middle East and North Africa, 1850-1950: Politics, Social History and Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).