Print History: A visit to a Kabul print house

After a turbulent decade, a resurgent Afghanistan seemed to enjoy a period of stability in the early 1930s. The infrastructure was being strengthened in many areas and print was no exception. A Kabul travelogue provides a first-hand account of the city’s largest printing press

29 Mar 2022 | By Murali Ranganathan

Cover pages of the literary journal, Majallah-i Kabul from 1931/32

Caught between the imperial ambitions of Russia and Britain, Afghanistan had been a pawn in the Great Game as it unfolded in the decades before the First World War. However, the years between the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars, from 1879 and 1919, had been a period of relative political stability for Afghanistan. From 1919, the next ten years were tumultuous with rulers being assassinated or exiled, rebellions being fomented, and kings being poisoned. It ended once Mohammed Nadir Khan, having won the Afghan Civil War (1928–29), inaugurated the reign of the Musahiban dynasty.

Mohammed Nadir Khan, king of Afghanistan, 1929–1933

Nadir Khan (1883–1933) was born in India where his family, a subsidiary branch of the ruling Barakzai dynasty, had been exiled since the 1880s. Nadir Khan was invited back to Afghanistan as a young man and soon gained prominence in the Afghan government successively becoming a minister, a diplomat and a military general. He led the Afghan army when it attacked British India in 1919; though the encounter was a stalemate, it was considered a military success for Nadir Khan. After becoming king, Nadir Khan walked the tightrope between modernization and conservatism. He laid the foundation for institutions which would help create a new Afghanistan. The country was being criss-crossed with a network of motorable roads, opening up hitherto inaccessible places. Kabul University had been established in 1931; cultural organizations like the Anjuman-e Adabi were thriving; new textbooks were being written; and numerous newspapers and magazines were being started. The underpinning of all these initiatives was print. The printing infrastructure in Afghanistan was rather basic and concentrated in Kabul. The other major cities like Herat and Kandahar had one or two print establishments.

Even after returning to his native land, Nadir Khan continued to nurture his relationship with the land of his birth—India. In October 1933, three eminent Indians were on the guest-list of the government of Afghanistan for an event marking the completion of four years of Shah Nadir Khan’s reign. The state guests from India included Allama Mohammed Iqbal (1877–1938), widely acknowledged as one of the leading poet-philosophers of his generation; Sir Ross Masood (1889–1937), a career educationist who was then vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University; and, Syed Suleiman Nadwi (1884–1953), a theologian and writer. In the 1930s, the three were considered the crème de la crème of Indian Muslim intelligentsia. All three of them were intimately connected with education, literature, and the reformation of Islamic culture. Their Afghan hosts, under the personal direction of Nadir Khan, were eager to consult them on issues related to education, publishing, and religion. Their ideas could help mould the institutions which were being nurtured in Afghanistan.

Syed Suleiman Nadwi was the head of Darul Musannefin [House of Writers] at Azamgarh, an organization founded in 1916 to promote historical scholarship and publication in Urdu. It had been publishing a monthly magazine Ma’arif since July 1916, which was edited by Nadwi. Its in-house printing press, Matba Ma’arif, was used to print the magazine and other books. Like in most other Indian presses, which then printed Urdu and Persian, lithography was preferred to typography. Lithography was cheaper than typography as it required lower capital investments. Also, the design of types used to print the Perso-Arabic script still left a lot to be desired. For lithography, scribes could write the textual matter in a careful, sometimes tightly-spaced, hand and in a variety of font sizes. The readability of the text depended on the skills of the scribe and those employed by the Matba Ma’arif were some of the best in the trade. Nadwi thus had considerable experience of managing a printing press and was clearly interested in new developments in print technology.

Though the Indian guests had been invited to attend the celebrations on 13 October 1933, none of them could get passports on time as the necessary security clearances from the British Government were not easily forthcoming. They could eventually leave in ones and twos from the seventeenth. They first travelled to Peshawar by train from where they were driven to Kabul. Syed Suleiman Nadwi could finally set his papers in order and depart from Lucknow on 17 October 1933.

The three travellers in Kabul, October 1933: (from left) Mohammed Iqbal, Syed Suleiman Nadwi and Ross Masood

At Kabul, the visitors were swept into a whirlwind of engagements including audiences with Nadir Khan, meetings with his ministers, banquets with royal personages, and confabulations with local scholars and theologians. They also visited the historic sites of Kabul; the sparse and roofless tomb of the Mughal emperor Babur contrasted starkly with the grand monuments of his successors in India. Amidst all this, Nadwi found the time on 19 October to visit the modern institutions of Kabul such as the museum, government motor garage, the aerodrome, the school of fine arts, and numerous other educational institutions, both old and new.

The highlight of the day was a visit to the printing press run by the government. As he notes, “After visiting the educational institutions, I went to see the printing press, the second pillar of modern civilization.” It was earlier known as the Matba-i Tipografie when typography was introduced but had been renamed Matba Umumi [The Public Printing Press] in 1929. Nadwi included a long account of his visit to the press in his travelogue which was serialized in Ma’arif from December 1933 to November 1934. He begins with a short history of printing in Afghanistan.

After visiting the Darul Uloom [House of Knowledge], I went to see the Matba Umumi. Though the printing press had arrived in Afghanistan during the reign of Amir Sher Ali Khan, the advent of newspapers and journalistic activity can be dated to the times of Amir Habibullah Khan. Lithography gave way to typography when it was decided that the official newspaper Seraj-ul Akhbar should be printed to the highest quality. After Amir Amanullah Khan came to power, more investments were made in this sector and a well-equipped printing press by the name of Matba Umumi came into existence. Surprisingly, in this age of propaganda, while almost all other government departments in Afghanistan fell victim to the chaos of relentless revolution, this printing press continued to operate without interruption and its importance was recognized by every succeeding ruler. During Amanullah Khan’s time, the press published the newspaper Aman-e Afghan while during the rebellion of Bache-e Saqqa [Habibullah Kalakani], it issued Habib-ul Akhbar. Later, after Shah Nadir Khan ascended the throne, a newspaper named Islah was started and this newspaper continues to be issued under the same name.

Book printed at Matba Umumi: Qamus-i a’lam-i jughrafiya’i-i Afghanistan, 1948/4

Nadwi then provides a detailed account of the press and its various departments. He emphasizes the usage of typography, as opposed to lithography, for printing in Persian. He is particularly impressed by the various processes used to print illustrations, which was still beyond the scope of most presses in India, and especially so for those presses which were printed in Urdu and Persian.

The Matba Umumi is located near the Ark-e Shahi, in fact, it is adjacent to it. It consists of two buildings which face the road with a broad path between them. I got down from my motor vehicle on the road and walked into one of these buildings. I first noticed treadle presses, that is, typographic presses operated by feet. I then saw other large machines powered by electricity in operation. About eight to ten such machines were working. All these machines seemed to be new and of the best quality and latest technology. Besides government stamps, registration papers, postal stamps and other documents, the Matba Umumi also prints official publications, the books and magazines issued by the Anjuman-e Adabi, and the daily newspaper Islah.

When I visited the press, one machine was printing registration papers, another was being used to print the literary journal Kabul, and a third was printing the Holy Koran. This edition of the Koran, an official publication of the government of Afghanistan, was being printed with utmost care under the supervision of the Afghan Majlis-e Ulama. When I was there, two signatures of the book had been printed.

I then went to the other building which housed the graphics department. Zincography, photography and other fine art techniques were being used to print images of the highest quality. A dark room had been constructed using black curtains to process negatives. I could also see the machinery used to make blocks from photographs and print illustrations from them. Most of the staff in the press were Afghans. The chief officer is Sufi Abdul Hamid Khan who, in spite of his rather frail body, is very skilled in the print trade. I noticed a couple of Germans working in the graphics department while the head of zincography was a Turk.

Nadwi’s visit to Matba Umumi provoked him to contrast its infrastructure and working conditions with those that generally prevailed in Indian printing presses where cleanliness was not at a premium.

As far as I am concerned, the three highlights of this printing press were, first, its machinery was new and of the latest technology; secondly, the print work was very elegant; and thirdly, the press and all its employees, and even the entire physical environment, was very clean. Not a stain anywhere, no rubbish on the floor, in fact, I could not even spot any waste paper lying around. I was informed by Sufi Saheb that His Excellency Nadir Shah has ordered a lot of new machines for the press from Germany and they were expected to arrive soon. Once installed, it would double the capacity of the press.

Though he does not mention the make, it is likely that they were Heidelberg Platen Presses. While recalling his visit to the Matba Umumi, Nadwi also lists the few newspapers and magazines which were then in existence in Afghanistan. The newspapers included the government newspaper Islah (a four-page broadsheet printed at Matba Umumi in Naskh type); the weekly Anees, also from Kabul and independent of the government; Ittefaq-e Islam (Herat); Bedar (Mazar-i Sharif); Talou-e Afghan (Kandahar); and, Aitehad (Khanabad). Of the magazines, Nadwi was particularly impressed by the Majallah-i Kabul.

Majallah-i Kabul: This is the organ of the Anjuman-e Adabi and contains articles related to literature, history, and knowledge. It is published monthly. All the leading writers and poets of Afghanistan contribute essays and poetry to it. Moreover, it includes translations of scholarly articles published in other languages. It also prints high-quality photographs and illustrations. It has been printed for the last three years and the subscription costs half a pound.

After a week’s stay in Kabul, Nadwi travelled to other cities in Afghanistan including Ghazni and Kandahar. He returned to Lucknow on 7 November 1933 by train via Quetta, Multan and Lahore. His mood was optimistic and he, like many others in the group, shared the hope that Afghanistan, under the rule of Mohammed Nadir Khan, would peacefully evolve into a modern nation without having to compromise on its religious values and mores. However, it was not to be. The very next morning Nadwi heard rumours, which were soon confirmed, that Nadir Khan had been assassinated.  This threw the nation into turmoil but the accession of his son, Zahir Khan, to the throne marked the beginning of a period of relative tranquillity in Afghanistan. The Matba Umumi moved to new premises in 1966 and continued to play a major role in the printing industry in Afghanistan. 

Sair-i Afghanistan by Syed Suleiman Nadwi (Hyderabad, Deccan, 1945); all quotations translated from Urdu by the author.