x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Historical manuscripts get new life from Dr Document

Old books, texts and other documents dating back centuries are restored at the Juma Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage in Dubai.

Mohammad Nidal Kalla, head of the restoration section flips the first page of a newly restored 300 year-old Egyptian manuscript.
Mohammad Nidal Kalla, head of the restoration section flips the first page of a newly restored 300 year-old Egyptian manuscript.

DUBAI // They call him Doctor Document. Holding the ancient manuscript between the tips of his fingers, he examines the tiny holes that have been gnawed through it.

It takes Dr Bassam Daghestani only moments to diagnose this "patient".

"It is a bad case of silverfish," he says.

Dr Daghestani is the head of the preservation, treatment and restoration clinic of the Juma al Majid Center for Culture and Heritage, where old and rare documents, manuscripts and books from the region and beyond go for treatment.

"We are the hospital for sick paper," said the Syrian expert, 51, who holds a PhD in Arabic studies and manuscripts. "And most often we receive the most hopeless of cases of damaged or deteriorated manuscripts and we try to find a way to save them."

With more than 30 years' experience in the field of paper restoration, 20 of it in the UAE, Dr Daghestani has been running the specialised lab with a staff of 22 since it opened in 1999.

On average they treat 5,000 books and 40 manuscripts each month, receiving them from private collectors and governments across the world.

"The worst patients come in from the hottest countries, as heat and humidity are paper's worst enemies," said Dr Daghestani.

Some of the patients are hundreds of years old, shipped in from the Levant countries and north Africa, their subjects a vast range, including religion, mathematics and grammar.

The UAE documents date back 150 years, most of them letters between rulers, contracts, deeds and documents from the pearl diving industry.

"We restored several pages of pearl diving itineraries that had everything written in them, from the time the boat left the shores to the number of divers that survived, and those that didn't," said Dr Daghestani.

"Documents that may seem insignificant now become priceless for future generations. So we try to save everything that comes our way."

Each piece of paper that passes through the clinic is photographed and documented for archival purposes, diagnosed and then put through a three-step treatment that takes about a week to complete.

First, the paper is sterilised by placing it inside a vacuum, where several gases including nitrogen kill any biological matter inside the book or manuscript.

The experts then dry-clean the paper, dusting off any obvious dirt either with their hands or a special machine that blows light puffs of air onto the page.

It is during the actual restoration that staff turn to Dr Daghestani's creation: the "al Majid" machine.

"It is our secret technique, where through a special mixture of cellulose, fibres, and water, we fill in the holes and cracks in the paper," he said.

Each expert in the clinic works diligently, either binding loose pages or smoothing out rolled-up manuscripts. Any missing words are filled in on copies; the content of the original documents is left as found.

Not all that comes in can be saved, said Dr Daghestani, especially those documents with fungi, or what he calls "cancer of the paper".

Although the non-profit institute costs millions of dirhams to run each year, the treatments are provided free. The institute also offers a month-long course to researchers interested in learning preservation techniques. The centre itself opened in 1991 with funding from one of Dubai's most prominent figures and businessmen, Juma al Majid.

It also houses a library with more than 500,000 items, including 70,000 manuscripts as well as books, periodicals and even recorded oral history - both local and international.

"His motto is to save every book, regardless of its origin, religion or language," said Sheikha al Mutairi, 30. As the head of the National Heritage department of the centre, and an expert in Arabic language and manuscripts, Ms al Mutairi has set up four halls in the centre dedicated to local history.

Two halls are filled with photos of prominent local figures and historic moments. One is dedicated to the "palm tree" and its many uses, while the other is packed with documents and books.

But Ms al Mutairi's first passion is manuscripts. When she found one on Islamic jurisprudence that was more than 200 years old in her family home, she immediately took it to the clinic. "I wanted to make sure it is treated and saved for at least another 200 years," said Ms al Mutairi.

"I was lucky it wasn't diagnosed with anything serious - just a few bookworms."

rghazal@thenational.ae

For a look inside the preservation, treatment and restoration clinic of the Juma al Majid Center for Culture and Heritage, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia