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Volume 17, Number 6November/December 1966

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"We scribes are not needed anymore," he said. "All the young can write now"

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by S. M. Amin

In the town of al-Khobar in Saudi Arabia recently, two boys stopped before the stall of an old man named Rashid as-Salih and began to tease him.

"Write us a letter, ya katib!"

"Get on with you, you silly boys,"

"Here's a rival. Write for us," they laughed. "Show us how you can write!"

The old man frowned menacingly and pretended he was going to throw the paperweight at them. "Off to school with you! Learn your lessons and leave me in peace!"

The boys ran off giggling and Rashid as-Salih, a scholarly-looking man with deep-set eyes and a high forehead, turned to his visitor with a smile. "It wasn't always like this," he said. "Boys used to look up to a man who could write. It was a rare and honored skill but today, everybody can write. Today there is little need for a scribe and tomorrow there will be no need at all."

In Arabic the word for scribe is katib, a public writer. It is a good definition. Rashid as-Salih writes in public and for the public—as have most scribes since man developed writing as an effective means of communication.

Scribes were first employed by the military officers in ancient Egypt to record the names of recruits. Later, in Hebrew times, they progressed from mere copyists into interpreters and teachers of the law. During the great ages of Islam they kept alive not only the Holy Koran, but also the irreplaceable writings of the Greeks and Romans. In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages of Europe they preserved most of man's accumulated knowledge. So important was their role that Arab poets accorded the pen equal rank with the sword. Writing was a noble and essential skill and men who knew how to write were honored and valued. Even the invention of the printing press did not entirely displace them. Although books became more common, the ability to write them and read them did not. It is only in this century with the growth of public education that the number of scribes has begun to dwindle.

Each morning about 7:30 Rashid goes to a government building in al-Khobar and opens up his maktab (office). It is located not inside the building, but outside against a wall beneath a tall palm tree whose branches, he has learned, will bless him with shade until noon. On his "desk," actually a small green wooden table, he arranges his materials: a tile paperweight, a tin box full of orange and red fiscal stamps, a thick pad of lined paper (its cover adorned with the picture of a vaguely familiar Hollywood starlet of times past) and a green Parker pen. In a routine that is now wholly automatic he then proceeds to prepare enough maktub (a form letter) to last him through the morning. They are mostly the same: applications for passports and residence permits and petitions to local police officials. For each document that he writes the scribe receives one riyal, the equivalent of about 23 cents. They read about the same:

To His Most Generous Excellency, the Director of Passports and Nationality:

I greet you. And having greeted you I petition you to have issued to me a permit to reside in al-Khobar. I am called {name) and I am a {nationality) and I ask you to command the person concerned to grant me this boon according to the law. Good life. (Signature).

Since business does not begin until the government building opens Rashid then has time to settle back behind his desk, finger his string of amber prayer beads and gossip a little. These days there isn't much business even when it does open. As Rashid pointed out, scribes may have survived the printing press but they will not be able to survive public education.

"Go to the post office," Rashid said, "and you will see small boys writing telegrams and letters for their elders. Now there are only a few but when school is out they are thick as flies. All the young can write now. We scribes are not needed any more. They only use me here because I am convenient to the ministry."

For a moment, after the boys had gone away, the thought depressed him but then he brightened and added that, of course, it was a good thing. "My own son and daughter are both in school and at the top of their class," he said, "Soon they will be able to write better than I."

But doesn't all this affect his future?

"Yes, but God will provide," he answered stoically. Besides, he has recently moved across town to a location near a government night school. "I plan to improve my writing," he said. "Who knows, perhaps some day I'll have a desk inside this very building. But excuse me now; I have a client."

The client, a gray-bearded old man just off the desert, wanted a health certificate for a new job. The scribe had not prepared any forms for that, so he flipped through the pad to a clean sheet, uncapped his Parker and in his neat flowing script began to write, "To His Most Generous Excellency, the..."

Rashid as-Salih is not the only scribe in the Eastern Province. He may be in a vanishing profession but it hasn't vanished yet. Although public education is making great strides there are still numerous places where the traditional practices will last for many years—places like Dammam.

Damrnam, as the booming capital of the Eastern Province, is a fertile source of documents and documents are a fertile source of work for the scribes who have set up their stalls near the government offices. These men, combining their basic ability to write with a knowledge of the official requirements and even acquaintance with the officials, have began to function as self-appointed, semiofficial bureaucrats. One is Imsawih Hbartha, a bearded man from Medina who sits daily at one of a row of tables lined up before the Ministry of Interior building and plies his trade in the shade of a black umbrella lashed to the desk.

Imsawih Hbartha has been a scribe for 18 years. His desk is blue and has a glass top and on it he keeps a little bowl of water with which to moisten stamps, and two pens, one plain like Rashid's, the other a black-and-gold Parker 51. The first is for ordinary documents, the second "for important letters to the Amir or to foreign countries."

Over the years Imsawih has developed a matter of fact style quite different from the usually ornate convolutions of Arabic. "Dear Mr. Fulan wa Fulart (Mr. So and So). Peace upon you and praise to merciful God. I want to tell you about such and such. This is the way it happened. I think the solution is to etc. etc. But first ask my brother to tell my father to ask his uncle what he thinks. Signed, Fulan ibn Fulan (So, son of So)."

There are scribes in Hofuf too. Hofuf, on the oasis of al-Hasa, is a much more traditional community than al-Khobar or Dammam. In the bustle of the Friday morning market, scribes still squat cross-legged on small carpets at the edge of the square. The desks are often wooden tea crates, with clipboards of squared paper and airmail envelopes from Hong Kong printed in French, English, Arabic and Chinese. In the box probably will be a tube of glue, a bottle of ink and a ball-point pen. Sharing the same curbstone will be sidewalk merchants selling ropes and donkey halters, locks, razor blades, shoe soles and fibrous sticks which serve as tooth brushes.

One scribe in Hofuf was interviewed as he labored over a letter during a busy holiday. He was wizened old man leaning close to the paper and writing with a gray Parker. Squinting painfully he read back what he had written, and then, dissatisfied, began to copy the letter again, following with one finger word by word, occasionally losing his place and muttering to himself as he searched for it.

"What do you write?"

"A letter to the Amir and one to the Wazir (the local governor and his viceroy)."

"How long have you been a scribe?"

"Wajid, A long time. I work a while. I travel to Kuwait or Basra; I come back."

"And how is business?"

"It goes well enough. I earn enough for meat on the table, for some apples and oranges. That's all I want or need."

"And your name?"

The old scribe smiled with his squinting eyes and tilted his head quizzically as though he suspected his curious visitor of being a tax collector.

"My name? Hmmm.'Well, my name is not important."

His attention was distracted at that point by a tall man with a blue suit jacket over his robe. The man wanted help in requesting a permit from the municipality to buy a plot of land and build a house.

"Two floors, eight rooms." The scribe without a name took one yellow stamp and one red stamp from a cough-drop tin and affixed them carefully. "That's one riyal," he said. Out of the crate he pulled a stamp pad soaked with purple ink and the client handed him a round metal seal hanging from a key ring. The scribe pressed the seal into the pad, dampened the paper with his finger and pressed the inked seal against the damp spot. He applied the seal and a fingerprint to four copies.

Meanwhile, two well-dressed young men had approached the scribe and asked for a petition, explaining that although both are secondary school graduates, they go to the scribe, "because he sells stamps, knows the correct form for a request, and is friendly with the people in the offices."

After them came a man who just bought envelopes. "Very cheap at half a riyal," the scribe told him, "and I include a rubber band." Another client appeared soon after asking for a receipt which a date merchant was to countersign so the client could send it to his brother in another village. "Two hundred pounds of good quality dates purchased this day for 600 riyals," the receipt read. They stamped it three times with the muhr— a signet ring on which the man's name is etched—before they had a clear rendering that his brother was sure to recognize.

At noon, as the shops began to close their shutters against the heat of the day, a woman approached timidly and asked the scribe to read a letter from her father, Her home, the scribe scribed explained, was many miles away but she had married a local merchant and now lived in Hofuf. She listened quietly at the scribe, peering at the unfamiliar handwriting, recited the news from home in a clear, dramatic voice. When he finished the woman asked him to send a reply at once. It was a simple letter, one that a homesick daughter might have written whether in Hofuf, Helsinki or Hartford: "Everybody here sends love to all of you there. We pray that God will see us all together again soon."

William Tracy is a free lance writer now lecturing in the United States on life in the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 6-7 of the November/December 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1966 images.