Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

30 July 2015

On the road: some user guides to libraries and archives

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Over the last couple of years I have been tweeting the many notifications that I have received on users' experiences of archives and libraries. Even if an institution has its own website, readers' impressions can be very helpful. Twitter, however, has limitations so far as archiving data is concerned so I thought it could be useful to publish a list of the references I have collected so far. If readers have more uptodate information or know of additional archives and libraries, please let me know and it can be added in.

A travelling scholar monk carrrying a load of Buddhist scrolls. From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. 10th century AD (Stein collection Ch. 00380, BM 1919,0101,0.168) © Trustees of the British Museum

Most of these reviews were published during the last two years and came from the following sources:

For Middle Eastern studies, Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan Library, gives an excellent general overview and further references in her Manuscript Collection Research Guides and Online collections of digitized Islamic manuscripts.

For Chinese studies, Bick-har Yeung, Former East Asian Librarian, University of Melbourne, reported on visits in 2014 to major Chinese research collections in the UK, Paris and Singapore, in East Asian Library Resources Group of Australia Newsletter 65 (2015).

The following reviews are listed here by country:



Bosnia & Herzegovina      




















South Korea 








Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

27 July 2015

Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (IO Pali 207)

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In the Thai manuscript painting tradition, Gautama Buddha was widely represented in scenes of the events of his previous lives, known as the Jatakas. Special importance was often given to his last ten existences before he was re-born as Siddharta Gautama. This Thai manuscript (IO Pali 207) dates from the 18th century and is a fine example of how small collections of Buddhist texts were combined with illustrations from the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha in folding book form.

Given to the India Office in 1825, this is perhaps the earliest acquired Thai manuscript in a British collection. A note at the end of the manuscript states that it was “Presented by Ltt Coll Clifford by the hands of W Wigram Esqe, 9th Dec 1825”. Lt. Col. Miller Clifford served in the British Army during a long career beginning in the West Indies in 1794. In 1824 he was with the 89th Regiment of Foot in the first Burma war, which was where he must have acquired this fine Thai manuscript. Wigram was a director of the East India Company.

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Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka, symbolising the virtue of loving kindness. It tells the story of Suvannasama who looked after his parents after a poisonous snake caused them to lose their sight. While fetching water for his parents, the king of Benares was hunting nearby and accidentally killed Suvannasama. His parents pleaded with the gods to restore his life, and due to his extraordinary merit he came indeed back to life and the king was forgiven. The parents also regained their eyesight. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 6  noc

The illustrations in this manuscript are related to the main part of its text, the Mahabuddhaguna, which explains the ten Great Perfections of a Buddha. The Ten Birth Tales are symbolic representations of these Great Perfections. In addition to this text, which covers 37 folios, the book contains other selected short extracts from the Tipitaka.

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Scenes from the Candakumara birth tale, which stands for the perfection of forbearance, show a ritual plotted by evil court Brahmins to sacrifice Candakumara by burning him on a pyre, but Sakka (Indra) descends from heaven to interrupt the ritual and to destroy the evil Brahmins. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 14  noc

The Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha are well-known as Thotsachat or Sipchat  in Thailand. The last of them, called the Great Birth Tale (Mahachat) is the most important and best known. Its proper name, Vessantara Jataka, is after the name of its hero, Prince Vessantara. Its narrative embodies the greatest of all Buddhist virtues, that of giving or charity. Re-telling and paying attention to recitations of the Great Birth Tale are regarded as acts of  merit-making, and its recitation by monks is usually the occasion for a great celebration that lasts a full day and night, or even several days.

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Detail from the Vessantara Jataka, which symbolises the great virtue of charity. The Brahmin Jujaka, who asked Prince Vessantara to give him his children as servants for his wife, drives the two children away violently. Remarkable in this painting is the defensive gesture of the child who is trying to protect the other sibling from being hit. In the end, through the intervention of the gods, the children are re-united with their parents and grandparents. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  noc

The text in this book was written in Khom (Khmer) script, but in the Pali language. Altogether there are thirty paired illustrations in the late Ayutthaya painting style, which make this book a rare treasure of Thai manuscript painting. The paintings are simply composed, but the artist’s command of line and form, and composition and colour, are all exemplary. The first twenty pairs of paintings illustrate the last Ten Birth Tales, and the remaining ten paired paintings depict gods and heavenly beings, including Sakka (Indra) and Brahma, as well as scenes from a Buddhist funeral.

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Depictions of Brahma (left) and Sakka (right), both kneeling down in a respectful position. The gods repeatedly helped Gautama Buddha in his former incarnations that are retold in the Jatakas. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27  noc

The paper of this book was made from the bark of the Khoi tree (Streblus asper), a plant in the family of mulberry trees. It is of a dull cream colour, and the writing was done with black and red China ink and a bamboo pen. Thai manuscript painters at that time had only a limited range of colours made from locally available natural materials. Red and yellow ochre, as well as white were obtained from plants and minerals (gamboges, huntite, vermilion, red lead). Black was produced from carbon (soot) or crushed charcoal. Greens and blues were mostly produced from vegetable matter (for example Indigofera) or minerals (copper, emerald, kaolin). Malachite and ultramarine were imported to produce brighter green and blue shades. Gold paint, usually a mixture of gold with lead, mercury, copper, and other minerals, was used in this manuscript to enhance the appearance of the human and heavenly figures.  

This manuscript, IO Pali 207, has been fully digitised and can be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page by clicking here.


Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London : British Library, 2000
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London : British Library, 1989
Jo-Fan Huang: A technical examination of 7 Thai Manuscripts in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


23 July 2015

Out of the margins: Arabic literature in English

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The Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library this weekend (25-26 July) will showcase some of the most exciting voices in contemporary literature from the Arab world. Reflecting the range and diversity of contemporary Arab literature, the festival features authors and poets who write in English, French and Dutch as well as those who write in Arabic. 

Arabic literature in English has a long history; one of the first novels written by an Arab was Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), and Khalil Gibran achieved a following as writer of poetry and prose, including The Prophet (1923). But Arab literary works in English remained relatively few and far between until the 1980s. In Britain, Egyptian author Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the snooker club (1964) quietly took on a cult status and is still appearing in reprints, whilst Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s Hunters in a narrow street (1960) was widely translated and was reprinted in 1990. A breakthrough in popularity came with Ahdaf Soueif’s novels In the eye of the sun (1992) and The map of love (1999) which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, as was Hisham Matar’s In the country of men in 2006.

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Ghali, Waguih. Beer in the Snooker Club: London: A. Deutsch, 1964. Soraya Antonius The Lord. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986. Hisham Matar In the country of men. London: Viking, 2006. Rabih Alameddine: The Storyteller. London: Picador, 2009

From the late 1960s Arabic literature became better known to English readers through translations into English, with Heinemann publishing translations of the most prominent authors, including Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris and Tayyeb Salih. Denys Johnson-Davies led the way in translating novels, plays, short stories and poetry over a period of more than 40 years; this work has been of key importance in establishing a readership for literature translated from Arabic. The American University in Cairo Press also played a vital role in supporting the translation of Arabic literature, later joined by a range of publishers in the UK, including Saqi Press, Quartet, the Women’s Press, Garnet, Riad El-Rayyes, and Bloomsbury, as well as Banipal magazine. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 raised the profile of Arabic literature in English translation, and a wider range of titles became available, alongside works written by Arab authors in French as well as in Arabic. The establishment of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2007 has also done much to raise the profile of Arabic writing from across the Arab world.

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Yusuf Idris: The cheapest nights. London; Heinemann, 1978. Nawal El Saadawi: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. London: The Women’s Press, 1991. Andree Chedid: The return to Beirut. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989. Bahaa Taher: Love in exile. London: Arabia, 2008

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Salwa Bakr: The Golden Chariot. London: Garnet, 1994. Hoda Barakat: The stone of laughter. London: Garnet, 1995. Hamida Na’na: The Homeland. London: Garnet, 1995

Although relatively few Arab novelists wrote in English before the 1990s, Arab writers used English to reach out to an international readership through works of history, literary criticism and biography, as well as journals and essays. Among them, Raja Shehadeh first published The Third Way in 1982. He has continued, steadfastly, to describe life in the occupied West Bank to the present day, gaining prominence and international recognition.

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Raja Shehadeh: The Third Way. London: Quartet, 1982. Strangers in the house. London: Profile, 2002. When the Bulbul stopped singing. London: Profile, 2003. A rift in time. London: Profile, 2010

Edward Said’s most important work, Orientalism, appeared in 1978. Said continued to write widely on literature, music, and the Palestinian experience until his death in 2003. Palestine occupied a central place in Arab writing in English, until 2003 when public opposition to the war on Iraq also brought greater attention to writing from Iraq. Notable was The Baghdad blog of Salam Pax (published in book form in 2003) which captured the imagination of a global audience as Baghdad’s people awaited the onslaught of bombs to bring an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of a new era of instability and violence. Ahdaf Soueif added works of political analysis to her literary output.

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Salam Pax: The Baghdad blog. Toronto: McArthur, 2003. Edward Said: Out of place. London: Granta, 1999. Ahdaf Soueif: Mezzaterra. London; Bloomsbury, 2004

The growing readership for Arabic poetry in translation was also linked not only to its intrinsic appeal and artistic expression, but also to its political context, including the Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, and the continuing Palestinian experience of exile and occupation.

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Mahmoud Darwish: The butterfly’s burden. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2007. Mahmoud Darwish: A river dies of thirst. London: Saqi, 2009. Mourid Barghouti: I saw Ramallah. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Mourid Barghouti: I was born there. I was born here. London: Bloomsbury, 2011

Whilst relatively few Arabs used English as a means of expression until recently, many more Arab writers have written in French, partly because of the length and intensity of French colonial rule in North Africa. Algerian writers published novels in French from the 1920s onwards, but from the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence in 1954, the novel in French became important as a means to express Algerian rejection of French colonialism. This period marked the birth of a vibrant and enduring French-language literature in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria – and many of these works have become available in English translation. As well as Kateb Yacine and Mohamed Dib, Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Algerian feminist Assia Djebar, are among the authors best known to English readers. Since 11 September 2001, there has been a sharp increase in the number and range of North African novels translated into English, both from Arabic and from French. 

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Kateb Yacine: Nedjma. Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia, 1991 (c. 1961) Mohamed Dib: The savage night. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Tahir Wattar: The earthquake. London: Saqi, 2000. Anouar Benmalek: The lovers of Algeria. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf, 2001. Yasmina Khadra: What the day owes the night. London: Vintage, 2011.  Ahlem Mosteghanemi: Memory in the flesh. London: Arabia, 2008

In the last decade numerous works by Arab authors have stood out on a world stage, and translations from Arabic or French have moved away from the margins. The Shubbak Festival will provide an opportunity to reflect on the changing reception of this literature in English. A key feature is the growing confidence and diversity of expression among younger writers of Arab origin in Britain, Europe and America, alongside those in the Arab world who are forging their own voice, and exploiting technological change, in ways that mark their difference from previous generations of writers.

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Ibrahim al-Koni: Gold Dust. London: Arabia Books, 2008. Alaa Al-Aswany: The Yacoubian Building. London: Harper, 2007. Elias Khoury: Gate of the sun. London: Vintage, 2006

Tickets for the Shubbak Festival of Literature (in association with the Shubbak Festival and Saqi Books) are still available from the British Library Box Office.

Further reading

Gana, Nouri (Ed.): The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013
Ghazoul, Ferial J. The Hybrid Literary Text: Arab Creative Authors Writing in Foreign Languages. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2000
Nash, Geoffrey: The Anglo-Arab Encounter: Fiction and Autobiography by Arab Writers in English. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012
Arabic Literature (in English), a blog by M. Lynx Qualey

Debbie Cox
Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publications