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181: Modern Arabic Writing, part II

June 16, 2014

Back in November 2013 I did a post on the cover designs of the American University in Cairo’s Modern Arabic Writing series circa 1990s (you can see it HERE). I thought I had dug up most of the covers from the series, but since then I’ve found another have dozen, so I thought I’d post this follow-up. Like the initial eleven I shared, these all have a common overall design by Naim Atef, although the contents of the frame he created are filled by a much more diverse set of visual ingredients. But we can start with Yusuf Idris’ The Cheapest Nights, a companion volume to Rings of Burnished Brass. It also features an intricately detailed illustration by Atef, yet this drawing is much more loose and unfinished feeling. This works given the subject matter, with the loose line paralleling the sense of impromptu building, scaling it’s way up a hillside in the background of the image. Like most of the covers I showed in November, and that are featured below, what is so striking to me about this is how unlike contemporary book design it feels. The illustration has the sense that it exists in it’s own right, and it’s need to sell the book to a reader is secondary to it’s own composition.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon a handful of titles in the series at a used bookstore in Pittsburgh, including the two calligraphic covers below. Leila Abouzeid’s Year of the Elephant features an image (not surprisingly) of an elephant, but upon a closer look, you can see that the animal is constructed of Arabic letter forms. It’s a neat concept, but not knowing Arabic, I’m not sure if it spells out the title, or author’s name, or simply the word “elephant.” It also feels a little heavy, and stiff, which in some ways might be appropriate for the weight of an elephant, but also cuts down on the dynamism of the overall design.
Adonis’ An Introduction to Arab Poetics has none of these problems. The calligraphy is used as abstract pattern here, and the 30 degree angle it is on gives strong movement and power to the design. This is one of my favorite designs in the series.

The cover of Tawfiq al-Hakim’s autobiography The Prison of Life bucks the illustrative trend of the series, instead using the series style to frame a simple black and white portrait of the author. This cover in particular shows the strength of the overall design, where a not particularly compelling photo is bolstered by the frame, creating a conservative yet respectably interesting cover design.
I found a couple more Mahfouz titles, one with the heavily used illustration of the author by Wagih Moner, the other with a photograph by R. Neil Hewison. Both books’ covers follow the overall series design, changing it up with color and image choice. The color choices for The Time and the Place are particularly striking, the pinkish-purple and dim green capturing a mood of nostalgia and time frozen.

For comparison’s sake, below are two other Modern Arabic Writing books, from just before and after the design series I’ve been focusing on. Hutchins’ Egyptian Tales and Short Stories is from 1987, and has the simplicity of the 1990s series design, but none of the clarity or flourishes of Naim Atef’s designs. Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat has a cover from 2004, with an illustration by Omar Jihan and overall design by Andrea El-Akshar and the AUC Press Design Center. This cover is typical of American University in Cairo titles from the 2000s, which feature illustrations from a broad group of Arab artists, with symbol designs dropping the author’s names and book titles on top. Overall they work, but once again lack the distinction of the 90s series.


Leila Abouzeid, Year of the Elephant (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1992). Cover design unattributed.
Adonis, An Introduction to Arab Poetics (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1992). Cover design by Naim Atef.
Tawfiq al-Hakim, The Prison of Life: An Autobiographical Essay (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1993).
William M. Hutchins, Egyptian Tales and Short Stories of the 1970s and 1980s (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1987). Cover illustration by Evelin Ashamala.
Sonallah Ibrahim, Zaat (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2004). Cover illustration by Omar Jihan, cover design by Andrea El-Akshar/the AUC Press Design Center.
Yusuf Idris, The Cheapest Nights and Other Stories (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1990). Cover design by Naim Atef.
Naguib Mahfouz, The Time and the Place (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1990). Cover photograph by R. Neil Hewison.
Naguib Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1990). Cover illustration by Wagih Moner.

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