His whole life, Walid Waked had been told that his great grandfather invented the Arabic typewriter. And then, one day, he learned that another family – the Haddads – believed they invented it. This week on Kerning Cultures: the contested history of the Arabic typewriter.
Thank you to everybody we spoke to for this story: Ahmed Ellaithy – for everything, and taking us down the rabbit hole with you – Walid Waked, Anis Waked, Alexandre Cordahi, Nagla Badran, Pascal Zoghbi and Titus Nemeth.
This episode was produced by Ahmed Ellaithy, Hebah Fisher, Nadeen Shaker, and Alex Atack, with editorial support from Dana Ballout, Tamara Rasamny, and Zeina Dowidar. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat. Fact-checking by Zeina Dowidar. Kerning Cultures is a Kerning Cultures Network production.
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.
HEBAH: Hey, I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures, stories from the Middle East, and the spaces in between.
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HEBAH: Today, we have a story about two rival inventors. Two men: one Egyptian, the other from what was at the time called Greater Syria. Both of these men claimed to have invented the Arabic typewriter. But, as inventions go, there’s only one inventor – right? So, what’s the true version of history? We’re gonna try and figure it out with you today.
Our story starts with a man named Walid Waked.
WALID: My name is Walid Waked. What do you want to know?
HEBAH: What do you do for a living? Where do you live?
WALID: So, I currently live in New Zealand. I’ve been living there for the past almost 10 years now and I work as a doctor, as an urgent care physician, but I was born in Egypt.
HEBAH: And growing up, Walid’s great-grandfather was something of a legend in the family.
WALID: He’s, he’s basically – to me – he’s, he’s a mystical character, that I’ve been hearing about him all my life… he was a very hard worker.
HEBAH: He also used to hear another thing…
WALID: ‘oh, by the way you know your great grandfather was the sole inventor of the Arabic typewriter’,
HEBAH: I think we all probably have a similar story – certainly in Arab families, there’s likely a recurring story you hear of how some relative was the founder of something big. It’s like that, certainly, in my family, and I think that’s what it was like for Walid growing up.
WALID: It kind of wasn’t as important to me back then… you know, my parents passed away when I was still a teenager, so it wasn’t until I became a little bit more mature – in my 20s – is when I rediscovered this, this whole typewriter stuff. And that’s mainly because I had moved to Egypt and was living with my grandmother.
HEBAH: And at his grandparents’ place, there was this old cupboard.
WALID: This was a cupboard that, you know, I had always known belonged to my Grandfather, okay? And it was always locked. I remember my Grandma had the key. And, I can’t remember exactly why, but I decided one day I just want to, you know, I had a moment of freedom and I was just bored and wanting to do something different. So I asked my grandmother to, to, to give me the keys so I can open it up.
And it was like, you know, discovering a treasure chest full of very important documents that, you know, I knew there was a typewriter but I didn’t know there was a patent patented in the U.S. of all places, I’m like what… why does it say, you know, Philip Waked, United States citizen? Certainly that didn’t pass down to me. [laughs] So that- the whole story just took a completely new meaning for me… And, as I read more and more through these documents I realized, oh my gosh, you know, this is, this is, this is way beyond what I had grown up to think this was.
And I was just struck, at the time. I, I quickly ran to my grandmother and said: do you, do you realize what’s, what’s going on here? She’s like, “oh yeah, yeah, that’s, yeah, that’s your, you know, your great grandfather.” I was like yeah– but do you realize what he did?
And I remember, just, I called up my uncle, I called up my brother, I called everybody that I can contact and say, hey, do you know what’s going on? This is… this is insane, you know? And I was really excited. So, I knew right then and there, you know, here I am, a descendant of Philippe Waked. Probably, had I not decided to go to Egypt, live with my grandmother, open that cupboard, this stuff would have been buried for life, you know? And nobody would have ever known anything about it, you know? I couldn’t sleep for days you know, trying to think, how am I going to – how am I going to, you know, share this?
HEBAH: He didn’t really know what to do, so he turned to Facebook.
WALID: So I created a, a page called the, called the Waked World, okay? Just to try to gather as many Wakeds out there in the world and to see if they have any information pertaining to whether the story is true; if it’s a known thing that he’s the inventor of the Arabic typewriter; if anybody has extra documents; if anybody knows where the typewriter is, you know? I was just trying to gather any information, really. But also just to, just to let the Wakeds of the world know: hey, by the way, you know, one of one of your own has done something in case you haven’t noticed.
HEBAH: Unfortunately, nothing really came from that Facebook page. So the Waked family history kind of got stashed back into that old cupboard at his grandparents’ home, and every once in a while Walid would mention it to his friends in passing.
AHMED: I vaguely have– I have a vague recollection of him mentioning it, mentioning something once. He was saying that his great grandfather actually had a patent.
HEBAH: This is Ahmed Elliathy, one of Walid’s childhood friends. Ahmed and Walid have known each other since the early 1990s when they used to play in a band together. Now though, Ahmed works at the American University of Cairo.
Ahmed, can you introduce yourself please?
AHMED: Okay. So, my name is Ahmed Ellaithy and I currently run the Technology Transfer Office at the American University in Cairo. And typically the question I get after that is what is a technology transfer office?
HEBAH: A technology transfer office, is basically where they deal with patents.
AHMED: I deal with inventions. It’s in any field. So typically, my typical let’s say beginning of a case, is an inventor or researcher walking through a door from any random field you can imagine and saying: “hey, I have invented this new molecule that could cure so and so”, or “this new method for manufacturing a steel component.”
HEBAH: Ahmed’s job in patents meant that he was kind of the perfect person to unravel what came next.
AHMED: what happened was a friend of mine called Mohammed (name unclear here), here in Egypt, basically, he was commissioned by the British Museum to set up a modern exhibit for Egypt. So he reached out to all of his friends, started asking, “Does anybody have anything that is worth putting up in the museum?” And I vaguely remember, like, I recollected that sort of these conversations or mentions by Walid so I reached out to him and he said, “Sure, get in touch with my uncle.” I got in touch with his uncle. We went to his old apartment. He opens this old cupboard and lo and behold he basically gives me this treasure trove of documents, and that’s really where things got a little crazy, I would say.
HEBAH: He kind of fell down a rabbit hole. He was spending his vacations searching government libraries, scouring archives, trying to get to the bottom of it all.
AHMED: It is a lot of like, late nights. It is basically like a lot weekends, as well. And, it was also vacation time. That’s the thing.
HEBAH: So, this is how it started. When Ahmed went over to Walid’s uncles place, to check out this old patent, that might make a good display for this museum exhibit.
AHMED: They brought me in, served me tea… I wanna say like, biscuits maybe, or something of the sort, and then he sort of sat down and he hands me the documents – he had them in a plastic bag – wrapped, and you know he makes me read through one or two with him. To him it was clearly very precious. He clearly had a very strong personal feeling or a, a connection about this.
I would say they probably numbered in the… maybe in the 40, 50 documents. I didn’t honestly count them but I’m sort of giving you a rough estimate here. I mean it was about a centimeter thick, if that’s a better measure. And it was a lot of letters, a lot of, like I said, receipts, a lot of blueprints.
HEBAH: And, the first thing he did was to lay out all the documents in chronological order.
AHMED: It’s really hard to make sense of them until – and I think this is what made a difference – you put them in chronological order.
HEBAH: And when he started to look through all of these papers, trying to map out this story that Walid’s great-grandfather, Philippe Waked, had invented the Arabic typewriter, Ahmed actually found another version of history… A rival version.
ALEXANDRE: No, no, no, no doubt it’s Selim Haddad. I mean it’s obvious that Selim Haddad was the first inventor. Nobody contests. Nobody contests. Oh… oh, I mean, I mean if the person contests then this person missed a point. The one who registered the patent was… Selim Haddad.
HEBAH: This is Alexandre Cordahi. His great uncle was cousins with Selim Haddad. He’s the closest living relative to Selim we could find.
ALEXANDRE: My name is Alexandre Cordahi. I am French. I was born in Egypt. I’m Lebanese too. And I also am a lawyer and professor. I speak very badly… five languages. I speak well French.
HEBAH: We spoke with him one evening, he was on his holiday,
ALEXANDRE: Yes, we are now, for these weeks, I’m in a Greek island… beautiful, [inaudible] Greek island. And by the way when you see me get heated I’m not angry. I’m in Greece and half-Greek half-Lebanese so I’m heated sometimes. [laughs]
HEBAH: So Alexandre started to tell us his version of who invented the Arabic typewriter.
ALEXANDRE: My grandfather who wrote to me letters and with whom I spoke – I must say that my grandfather was born in 1888 – and my great chance is that he lived till 1984. I mean, that was fantastic.
HEBAH: His grandfather would write to him stories of their family history, how their relative Selim Haddad invented the first Arabic typewriter, in a time in Egypt called al-Nahda, or the renaissance, in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
ALEXANDRE: there was a moment of takeoff of Egypt with the Egyptians of all confessions, sector, sects, with foreigners – Lebanese, Syrians, from the Ottoman place – and Egypt was taking off like Japan.
HEBAH: Think of a vibrant arts scene, intellectuals gathering in coffee shops to debate politics and religion. So much good literature and a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship.
AHMED: It really does paint a very, very vibrant picture of Egypt – and I’d even say the region – in, you know, that particular period of time. I’m very active with the entrepreneurial scene here in Egypt, for example, and in the region, and at least, in a lot of people’s imaginations, people tend to like to think that this whole movement, so to speak, started maybe in the late 90s with like the dot com sort of let’s say boom.
HEBAH: So here’s what we know. Selim Haddad – Alexandre’s great uncle’s cousin – was originally Syrian, born in 1864.
AHMED: I know that he was born in Damascus. And he basically was a painter there, and he felt that the market in Syria was not that great. So he moves to Egypt for better opportunity. He comes down to Egypt, he becomes very popular with the rulers there, the rich there, because he becomes a very famous painter who draws their portraits, and at some point he picks up an interest in typewriters, he starts working on them.
HEBAH: And – here’s what we know about Philippe Waked, Walid’s great grandfather.
AHMED: Philippe was born in 1871, January of 1871, in Beirut.
HEBAH: He moved to Egypt at some point, and by 1890 he was working for the Ministry of Interior there.
AHMED: And what I’m telling you right now is basically everything that I know from the notes that I got from his family. One of the reasons why I know a lot about the story actually is I would say thanks to an article; it was written in Al-Ahram in 1939. Philippe Waked passed away in 1919. And, you’d imagine that that would be the end of the trail for me. But in reality, what happens is that in 1939, Selim Haddad passes away and a journalist in Al-Ahram decides to basically give an homage to Selim Haddad. Tell – basically, tell the story of what he sees as the inventor of the Arabic typewriter.
HEBAH: It’s a tribute to Selim Haddad, published in Egypt’s biggest daily newspaper, Al-Ahram. In it, the journalist commemorates the life and contributions of Selim Haddad, as the inventor of the Arabic typewriter. It’s dated August 3rd, 1939. But then, a few days later…
AHMED: Two days later, I have basically a memo, or a letter, from George Waked, the son of Philippe Waked. Now basically, Philippe had four kids. His eldest was 18 years old – this is George Waked. He was studying at the time at the American University in Beirut.
HEBAH: And so George writes into Al-Ahram paper, with a kind of rebuttal. Like, “hey, it wasn’t Selim Haddad who invented the Arabic typewriter. It was my father, Philippe Waked.” This is Walid Waked again.
WALID: And, the person who had written this article about Selim Haddad pretty much credited all the work of inventing the Arabic typewriter to him without any mention of Philippe Waked. So, I think he just took it upon himself to, to try to set the record straight.
AHMED: And you could tell even from the tone that he was livid. He was basically – “this is absolutely not true. I must, basically, defend the honor of my father.” So it reads as follows:
[reading in Arabic]
HEBAH: “Dear kind Sir, I am an avid reader of your newspaper column about forgotten history. I read your obituary of Selim Haddad, and saw that you mentioned that he is the inventor of the Arabic typewriter. But this is an injustice to the real inventor of the first Arabic typewriter, so I wanted to write to you to let the real truth be known. The first inventor of the Arabic typewriter is my late father, Philippe Waked. He was mesmerized by the Western version of the machine and insisted on making an Arabic version. So, in his spare time, he would try to achieve this goal. He bought himself a Remington machine and made Arabic letters for it out of rubber, which he stuck onto the Latin letters, then connected the Arabic letters to each other.”
AHMED: So after this memo that George Waked sent to the Al-Ahram, what happens is, the journalist basically takes in George Waked’s notes and he actually writes an article detailing everything that was said. So, he basically reiterates what was written in the letter. And this basically appears on the 18th of October. On the 23rd of October, a third article shows up. Clearly the family of Selim Haddad read the rebuttal and basically sent another letter saying that, “no, here’s what the true – here’s the truth.” And obviously when you read through them you see that there are some facts that don’t add up. So somebody is – I’m not going to say – telling the truth. But these are two different viewpoints of the truth.
HEBAH: But then Ahmed learns that the plot thickens further. Let’s rewind to 50 years prior, in Chicago, in the United States. It’s 1893 and there’s an event called the Chicago fair. It’s a huge exhibition of technologies from around the world, each country has their own pavilion, and Egypt was one of the countries participating.
AHMED: So it was basically a reenactment of, basically, an Egyptian street. So think Khan el Khalili. But obviously very much sort of Disneyfied, I would say. So like, there were a lot of belly dancers, lots of camels. And, for whatever reason, they thought that they were going to put an Arabic typewriter there. So, it only shows up in a few travellers’ diaries, where they say that they were walking through sort of like, you know, the streets of Cairo, in Chicago, and they stumble upon, you know, this crowd that was just like, you know, completely bedazzled by something and were making all sorts of funny sounds.
HEBAH: The thing making weird sounds in the corner was an Arabic typewriter. An early prototype of an Arabic typewriter, actually, which was produced in the UK by an American company by people who, Ahmed suspects, didn’t speak or write Arabic. So obviously, the machine didn’t work.
AHMED: What seems to be – or at least my theory is – that it probably did not function very well. And also it’s very likely that the people who made it did not speak Arabic because at the very least I have not found any references to anybody who has made or who has contributed to making that particular machine.
HEBAH: Nevertheless, that machine on display in the 1893 Chicago World Fair was important. Because also at the fair that year, somewhere amongst the crowds of belly dancers and fake Egyptian street sellers, were our two main characters – Philipe Waked and Selim Haddad.
AHMED: So, my theory is that both of them saw it; both of them saw the potential, but also both of them saw the flaws in the machines and both of them came back and said we are going to work on something that’s better. And, I don’t know how big that Chicago Fair was but they must have bumped into each other.
HEBAH: There’s a bit of a gap in the timeline now; between 1893 and 1899, we don’t have any records to know for sure what the two of them spent these six years doing. But Ahmed has a theory.
AHMED: Maybe they were in, you know, their garages or, you know, the equivalent of a garage basically working on the machines this whole time and trying to figure out and trying to perfect it to a point where it was actually an improvement over what they saw.
HEBAH: When we left off, Selim Haddad and Philippe Waked had both been working away at their different typewriter inventions for about 6 years.
In August 1899 a patent for the first Arabic typewriter was filed… by Selim Haddad. Three months later, on December 1st 1899, a British patent was filed…by Philippe Waked. But – and this is kind of where things get interesting – Ahmed also found – in that box from Walid’s family – a letter that Philippe Waked had typed and sent to the Minister of Interior in Egypt, remember, one of his employers. It’s dated May 9th 1899, three months before Selim’s patent was filed.
AHMED: So, on May 9th, 1899, I have the first typed document to El Mostashar Michel El Akram. And if you’d like, I could read, actually, the document itself. Shall I?
HEBAH: Please, please. That would be great.
AHMED: Khalas, will do. So… it starts with the place and date. So it says –
[reading in Arabic]
HEBAH: “With respect, I present to you the first printed writing in Arabic. And, no doubt you can see that the writing hasn’t appeared as it should – I’ve been experimenting, and have grafted the Arabic letters onto a Latin machine – and after much effort, I was able to write down these words.” According to Ahmed’s research, this is the first document ever typed with an Arabic typewriter, by Philippe Waked – Walid’s Great Grandfather. It came three months before Selim Haddad filed the patent for his Arabic typewriter.
I think one of the things that struck us about this story is the fact that none of the history has been properly documented. Ahmed spoke to a lot of typographers and historians and the rightful title of inventor of the Arabic typewriter seems to be up for grabs.
NAGLA: I think like, even through the research, the reading, the patents and everything, it’s very hard to pinpoint one person.
HEBAH: This is Professor Nagla Badran, she’s an adjunct professor specialising in Arabic typography at the Ameircan University of Cairo.
NAGLA: Most likely it is both Selim Haddad and Philippe Waked.
HEBAH: Because here’s the thing. If we define invention by whatever came first, then it would be the clumsy Arabic typewriter that Selim Haddad and Philippe Waked saw at that Egyptian corner of the Chicago Fair in 1893. But that one didn’t really work, right? However, if we define invention by the first useful version of the machine, then it’d be either Selim Haddad or Philippe Waked, and who you pick depends on whether you believe the claim goes to the one who filed the patent first – Selim Haddad – or who made the thing that worked first – Philippe Waked, typing the first printed document in Arabic.
Anyhow, both men found success off the back of their typewriters. In 1904, Philippe Waked had started selling his, and by February of 1912, his shop on Meligy Street in Cairo had sold 100 of his Arabic typewriters.
ALEX: Oh, that’s not that many actually…
HEBAH: That’s producer Alex Atack.
ALEX: For some reason, I expected more. But is that a lot to you?
AHMED: I would say that is a lot. So, you do have to keep in mind that basically typewriters were not something that people would buy on their own. So, this wasn’t something that would be a personal machine. These were more for businesses and for government. And it seems that their primary clients were the government.
HEBAH: Mainly for administrative use, because at the time most government documents were still handwritten.
AHMED: Also, I would say that, they probably did a good living because they were selling the machines for 20 Egyptian pounds. It wasn’t an amount that basically a person would be able to afford… it’s clearly a lot of money. So, I want to say that cars were going for that much.
HEBAH: And around this time, there are papers Ahmed found indicating that Philippe Waked actually sued Selim Haddad for copyright infringement. But the documents don’t lead anywhere conclusive, and we’re not entirely sure what happened with that court case. But suffice to say, from what we can tell, the two men were definitely aware of one another, and clearly didn’t want to work together.
And this is how things carried on for the two of them. They worked in parallel, independently trying to bring their inventions into the world. Then, in 1919, when Philippe Waked was on his way back from a trip to the US –
AHMED: He catches cholera on the boat. He gets quarantined as he arrives in Egypt, and he dies.
HEBAH: Philippe Waked died in October of 1919. Selim Haddad died 20 years later in the hospital, in the summer of 1939. Selim was in his 70s. Both men had proven the commercial viability of the Arabic typewriter. So in 1919, when their original patents expired…
AHMED: What we see at that point is maybe six, seven, eight, even nine companies popping up. So all these Arabic typewriter businesses start popping up and, all what’s happening is, you know, now it’s in the open domain. All these developments that Philippe Waked and Selim Haddad developed.
HEBAH: And from there, as we know, the designs became better, the machines became cheaper, and Arabic typewriters became ubiquitous around the Arab world. And, as far as family legacy goes…
WALID: Prior to Ahmed’s research, everything was pretty binary to me, you know?
HEBAH: This is Walid Waked, again, Philiipe Waked great-grandson who found that box of documents at his grandmother’s house.
WALID: There was one Arabic typewriter. Somebody had to invent it. It was either Philippe Waked or Selim Haddad. But, the reality of it, you know, is quite different, you know? They were both innovators. They both added something to what we know of as the modern, you know, keyboard.
Look, I mean, I, I, I would love to boast and say, you know, my great grandfather invented the Arabic typewriter but, at the same time, the evidence is there and there are… there are patents. There are documents that prove otherwise. So, I guess my legacy is to, you know, take a snapshot of that part of history which I believe has been left out about Philippe Waked and just make it public and say, hey, yes there was Selim Haddad, but there was also Philippe Waked who… who had also a pretty major role.
I want to be able to do my job and say, hey, this is what we have about our great grandfather, great great grandfather. This is something to be proud of. And, this is something to also inspire you to want to be productive in life, you know? At least for me, just knowing that story, you know, it just puts me, puts me to shame when I think about what I’ve done in my life and inspires me to want to… to do something helpful, creative and to put it out there.
HEBAH: And as for Alexandre Cordahi, he’s pretty sure that his great uncle’s cousin, Selim Haddad was the rightful inventor – he was, after all, the first to file a patent. But Alexandre told us, inventions don’t come from a vacuum.
ALEXANDRE: We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. Don’t we say this? There’s a book of Nobert Elias on Mozart, and when he speaks of the birth of a genius. It’s a very small book, and he explains very well. What is the birth of genius? It’s – at the same time – it’s the relationship if you wish between the individual and the society; the person and the structure. It’s not out of the blues, if it comes somewhere, it is linked to the system, to the structure. However, thank God, the individual can do something, can invent.
HEBAH: This episode was produced by Alex Atack, Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar, Ahmed Ellaithy, and myself, Hebah Fisher. Editorial support from Dana Ballout and Tamara Rasamny, and fact checking also by Zeina Dowidar. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat. And, Bella Ibrahim is our marketing manager.
Thank you to everybody we spoke to for this story: firstly, for Ahmed Elliathy – for everything, and taking us down the rabbit hole with you. Walid Waked, Anis Waked, Alexandre Cordahi, Nagla Badran, Pascal Zoghbi and Titus Nemeth.
If you liked this episode, we have another one we think you’ll like just as much – it’s about a Lebanese type designer called Nasri Khattar who made it his life’s mission to simplify the Arabic alphabet to fit onto a Latin typewriter. He’s the generation after Selim Haddad and Philippe Waked, and you can think of it as the continuation of this story. Go back to March 2019 in our podcast feed and you’ll find it; it’s called The Perfect Renaissance Man.
Lastly, a very special thank you to everyone supporting us on Patreon. Our new patrons this month are Jamil, Reem, Taylor, Paolo, Tim, Hassan, and Myriam. You guys are making the production of these kinds of stories possible. Thank you so much.
Thanks for listening everybody. Until next time.
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