There was a time when writing with pen and paper offered ultimate satisfaction. That is until typewriters entered the picture. In today’s highly digitalised world, computers have further made handwriting dispensable. Calligraphy, however, has been one of those rare arts that combines the thrill of writing with that of visual aesthetics. To a layman, calligraphy may just mean having their names written in a ‘certain’ style. But the art goes much further. From architecture to public spaces and canvases, it is one of the most important markers of the Arab culture. Realising its potential, a range of artists from the region – some professionals, some amateurs – are constantly experimenting with the art to give it a new meaning and purpose. From light calligraphy to anatomic calligraphy and architecture, we meet some practitioners of the art form to understand what make it so special, so relevant to this part of the world.
Colourful canvases, stencils, pens and half-done sculptures. Bassem Zbeeb and Narjes Noureddine’s Mirdif residence is every bit an artist’s studio. There are words, ideas and messages all strewn neatly into their artworks. Together, the couple stand for all the things that calligraphy can possibly achieve – from beautiful brushstrokes to architecture and urban planning. Bassem, who hails from Lebanon, has carved a niche in the latter. As we sit down for a chat, he makes a convincing case for calligraphy in architecture. “Arabic calligraphy has always been the dominant element in historical buildings, palaces and mosques. My intention is to deliver a modernised calligraphy experience to integrate with surrounding contemporary architecture. New design techniques and tools as well as new construction methods allow us to be more creative. On the other hand, our architecture needs to reflect our identity somehow and not just copy buildings anywhere in the world,” he says, citing Alhambra Palace in Spain and Fatimid & Mamluk mosques in Egypt as examples.
Forty-four-year-old Bassem is right in architecture reflecting a cultural identity. This is where calligraphy plays an important role. “The strokes of the letters may create beautiful shapes that can be used in architecture and master planning,” he argues, while pointing out that this is not a call to write messages with building shapes but just creating buildings that can loudly say ‘I am Arabic'”.
Can such structures be sustainable in the long run? Bassem says their feasibility depends on the architect, technique and materials used. He cites an Arabic proverb to prove his point. “They say, ‘Give your bread dough to the baker!’ The architect who deals with calligraphy must be a calligrapher. You can’t use computer fonts designed for typing and fill them with villas. This was proposed by high-profile international architects. They failed in feasibility, function and aesthetics simply because they didn’t give their letters to an architect who knows a bit about calligraphy. A great opportunity was lost to design beautiful letters that serve the desired function.”
In a marketplace where someone at a kiosk in a mall can claims to be a calligrapher and so can someone with a robust social media following, how is one to identify a ‘good calligrapher’? Bassem admits it’s complicated. “There are so many intruders in the market, who promote themselves as calligraphers. They even get more likes on social media than excellent calligraphers. Public awareness and weak calligraphy education among new Arab generations, most of whom don’t even speak Arabic anymore, is the reason why most are not being able to distinguish between good and terrible calligraphy.”
He adds that calligraphy is practically a forgotten subject in most Arab countries. Going down the memory lane, he remembers a time when he started drawing as a hobby. A neighbour’s gift of a calligraphy book, along with an uncle’s present of a calligraphic pen, meant that Bassem would learn the art while fiddling around with his new possessions. What did his efforts lend themselves to? “Thousands of hours on drawing tables, creating geometric forms and exploring their beauties.” The hours came in handy when Bassem went to architecture school – the demands of long working hours was something he’d already gotten used to.
If a calligrapher is hidden inside every architect, surely there will be a need to express oneself artistically. “A calligraphic sculpture or installation is an artwork that adds a third dimension to the scene. In ordinary paper artworks, you always feel that some words are outstanding and dominating the composition. You achieve this literally in a 3D installation. Whether you’re working with steel, wood or clay, the challenge multiplies and so does the satisfaction with the artwork.”
In the past 10 years, Bassem admits there has been more of calligraphy in public art. “Public usually gets attracted to calligraphy-inspired designs, but we, as specialists, urge artists to learn the basics of calligraphy before flooding the market with immature examples.”
Narjes Noureddine was eight years old when her father brought home something that would change her life forever. It was a calligraphy masterpiece made by her father’s friend. The next couple of days were spent closely looking and exploring the work. It also provided her with an incentive to improve her handwriting just so she could draw every calligraphic work she came across. “My father noticed my passion,” she says, “and started giving me exercises, (all the while) criticising and advising me to be patient.”
If there is one valuable lesson Narjes learnt from that time, it was this – there is no substitute for patience. While it took her some time to turn her passion into profession, she went on to tick a few boxes of a conventional life by studying finance and later working in a bank. Calligraphy would only make a special appearance after a hard day’s work, until one day husband Bassem Zbeeb (who she had incidentally met at the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in 2004 and “within a month, we invited our colleagues who were calligraphers to celebrate our engagement in the Biennial itself”) advised – “Quit your job and keep your art”.
Keeping the art meant relearning several things. As she fine-tuned her skills, Narjes discovered a whole new world. Today, most of her artworks are in Jali Diwani style, even though she has practised many other styles as well. “It’s a royal style used for Ottoman Sultans exclusively. I like its smoothness, flexibility and curviness that suit my hand and imagination.”
As a contemporary practitioner of the art, one wonders about the liberties Narjes takes with her creations in terms of style. While she says she complies with most rules, she does leave that little room for personal invention. “Of a thousand participants writing the same verse in a calligraphy competition, you’ll easily pick up a hundred different amazing forms and artworks. This shows the unlimited capabilities of this art that will never stop surprising you,” she says. Reinvention is pretty much at the heart of calligraphy. Narjes points to several calligraphy masters who have developed new styles; there are also great researchers who have revived ancient beautiful styles that were lost for centuries, reinventing the missing characters and bringing the style back to life.
While following rules and inventing new styles, the Emirati calligrapher says she does find that balance where she can express herself as an artist. This is done through colours and layers of artwork, she says. “For instance, the curving and intersection of letters and the meanings they carry. Some artworks recite a written message, Quranic or poetic verses, and others just present the letters and words in their abstract forms. When there’s no readable message, the message is the letterform itself – its beauty, proportion and composition.”
Today, gender has become a prism to map one’s journey through different walks of life. So, it is inevitable to ask her if women calligraphers have it tougher than their male counterparts. Unlike other fields, says the 43-year-old calligrapher, women find themselves luckier here. “My colleagues and I were greatly supported by the Ruler of Sharjah and were encouraged in every way. The UAE consulate in Istanbul took good care of us when we were studying there. I’m not sure gentlemen receive the same support. The circumstances may vary with women after marriage. But then both men and women are often under job pressure and find themselves unable to give sufficient time for calligraphy.”
Bassem and Narjes, in that sense, are a rare artist couple who complement each other perfectly. Together, they develop ideas, themes and concepts. “Many of my artworks need fabrication and installation; it’s Bassem who follows up in factories and workshops. I do the calligraphy by pen and he takes care of digitising, laser-cutting and fabrication. We cannot leave this to others; all have to be done with high sensitivity to calligraphy.”
In his love for literature, Khaleellulah Chemnad discovered a life-long passion for calligraphy. As a child studying in a madrassa in Kerala, he was taught Arabic language. But his real love was for literature. Hidden underneath the textbooks would be literary works in the language and the many Arabic magazines that his father brought from the UAE and several other countries. It is in the pages of these books that Khaleellulah discovered his love for calligraphy. “When I was 14 years old, I received national-level recognition for my caricatures. Around the same time, I started drawing calligraphy. But my ambition still was to become as famous writer.”
Writing took a backseat as Khalellulah began to explore calligraphy as an art form. Today, after two decades of being in the field, he has acquired a niche for a particular style called anatomic calligraphy. “Anatomic calligraphy is a new style in which the portrait of a person is drawn using their name in Arabic or the words describing any other specialities of the person,” he explains. Most of his subjects thus far have been rulers and leaders of states. In fact, one of his most famous drawings has been that of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. The life-size artwork took three years in the making.
Today, Khaleellulah has more than 100 portraits to his credit, and says he can make one within a couple of hours. “Arabic calligraphy is characterised by flowing patterns and intricate geometrical designs. In a broad sense, Arabic writing is merely calligraphy, a tool for recording and communicating, but in the Arab world, it is an art with remarkable history; a form with great masters and revered traditions. Beauty alone distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting. Writing may express ideas, but to the Arab world, it must also express the broader dimension of aesthetics,” he says, adding that it is in this art form where he found synchronization of writing and drawing. Today, he uses the craft for both commercial as well as art projects – having worked on life-size anatomic calligraphy in Al Seef while creating 10-metres-long works in Al Diwani for two hotels in Palm Jumeirah and participating in the prestigious Kochi Muziris Biennale.
One would imagine the world of a high school student, on his way to a university in the UK, would comprise many dreams. For Shamoil Khomosi, one of those is to perfect the art of calligraphy. It’s something the 18-year-old isn’t sure if he’d take up fulltime, but insists that his pursuit of learning new scripts will continue.
It was four years ago that Shamoil took to calligraphy. Having closely observed – and admired – works of seasoned calligraphers such as Ajman-based Diaa Allam, his keenness to learn the craft increased manifold. In the absence of a teacher, that meant falling back on an unlikely platform – Instagram – for learning the modern techniques of calligraphy. Primary inspiration, however, came from the Holy Quran. One of his very first sketches was an aayat from the Holy Book. Looking back today, he credits his genes for his love of calligraphy. “My grandfather was good in English and Arabic scripts. So that was an early exposure to the script. Also, I had been learning Arabic in our community madrasas from a very young age. I first learnt the Thuluth script, and it took me two years to perfect it. After Thuluth, I started learning the Naskh script. So, it has been about learning one script after the other.”
A fulfilling experience with bamboo pens (Shamoil prefers the good, old traditional ones as opposed to the chiselled-tip markers) also led him to try his hand in light calligraphy. This is a form that primarily recreates shapes of letters with light, alongside a technique called exposure photography. Shamoil, who admits to being fascinated by the visual aspect of calligraphy, found himself drawn to this genre after watching well-known light calligrapher Karim Jab in action at Wafi Mall. A relative, who is a photographer, was called, and thus Shamoil recreated some names using this technique. Going forward, he wants to try his hand at 3D light calligraphy.
As a 23-minute conversation draws to its end, Shamoil, an otherwise shy and reserved teenager, says his love for the art is not rooted in the aesthetics alone but also the message that practically every calligraphic artwork imparts. This is why he hopes to sharpen his skills by learning new scripts, even though a university education is likely to eat into much of his time. If there is one thing he would warn aspiring calligraphers against though, it is that imitation is not always the best form of flattery. Citing a time when he recreated an artwork he saw in a studio and the artist eventually finding it on Shamoil’s Instagram page, he says it’s something most young artists need to keep themselves away from. Another advice comes for proportions. “If you look at calligraphy, it’s about the right proportion. In the art itself, the unit for measuring is called nukhta. So, one needs to take that into account.” A great metaphor for life too, isn’t it?