Khatt power: Keeping Arabic lettering alive in the digital age

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A shopfront in Sayida Zeinab. The signage reads: ‘Nassar Event Supplies and Rentals/Mansour Sayed Nasser.’ (Supplied)
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Basma Hamdy. (Supplied)
Updated 08 July 2019

Khatt power: Keeping Arabic lettering alive in the digital age

  • Egypt’s visual landscape is a vital source of expression of popular Arabic culture
  • Egyptian designer Basma Hamdy teamed up with photographer Noha Zayed to document Egypt's calligraphic landscape in a book

DUBAI: “Calligraphy is so strongly associated with Islam. It’s part of our culture. And we take pride in the Arabic language — not only from oral culture, but also from the written script. It’s so rich, but it’s concise. It’s complex and simple at the same time. And there’s a beauty to the script that I think is unique. Even someone who can’t read Arabic can appreciate how it looks. And Arabs take pride in that.”

Basma Hamdy is an Egyptian designer, author and researcher. Here, she is explaining to Arab News why she got involved in her latest book, “Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape,” which was released last year. In it, Hamdy and photographer Noha Zayed explored the ways in which Arabic lettering (khatt) — whether it be artistic calligraphy or spontaneous urban scrawl — continues to thrive in Egypt. And why that is important.

“We’re losing that (pride),” she continues. “I struggle with my own kids, even. They don’t want to learn to speak and write Arabic. It’s more ‘cool’ to speak English. But the more we feel we’re losing it, the more we’re trying to hold onto it.”

Hamdy is a self-professed devotee of khatt — “I love it,” she says — and is sad to see that digitized fonts are starting to take over from hand-written signage even in her homeland.

“Arabic calligraphy used to be huge in Egypt, back in the day,” she tells Arab News. “I grew up when things were still very much being written by hand: All the movie posters, all the billboards… but now everything’s been digitized and they’ve replaced everything with fonts — often badly designed fonts. So there’s definitely a feeling of nostalgia when you see hand-painted signs. There’s just a different quality. It’s more human. You’re more connected to it. And I think it needs to be documented before it goes extinct.”

“Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape” is a stunning attempt to do just that. The book is split into four sections: On The Move, which is all about trucks and transportation; Text Sells, about advertising; Mark My Walls, which covers various uses of lettering, from simple warning signs and directions to graffiti; and Manifested Glory, which focuses on religious quotations and adornments.

“I knew Egyptians were in love with type, but I realized just how much it is a part of everyday life in Egypt and how much pride they take in it (through this book),” says Hamdy. “When you gather the images together, you just realize it’s everywhere; even the street sellers and the little hole-in-the-wall shops have some kind of calligraphy or typeface on their shops or on their walls. It’s very rich.”



“Buying a truck is expensive in Egypt, not something many can afford, and therefore the object of great envy,” writes Noha Zayed in her essay “Trucks: A Moving Canvas,” for the book. “The truck is the driver’s most-prized possession: it is his source of livelihood and it is how he feeds his children. It is also his eternal companion … Driving a truck in Egypt is a dangerous business, both economically and physically. Egyptian roads are among the most dangerous in the world, and life and limb are at stake on every trip, along with the investment of the truck itself.

“It is rare to see a truck of any size that is not richly decorated. The decorations’ first objective is safety and protection from the evil eye, hence the use of written verses from (religious texts), or invocations for protection,” she continues. “All are attempts to protect the truck and its driver from the dangers of the road, envy, and the misfortunes of destiny.”

This truck, photographed on the Cairo Ring Road, has an abundance of text, reading: “This isn’t an abundance of money, this is to challenge the scoundrels / ‘With my almighty glory I will be generous with the helpless so that the conceited will wonder (sacred Hadith) / Doctor Reham, The pampered Ayah, Ali Pasha, and the young Aziz Pasha (the names of the driver’s children) / In the name of the Prophet, Praise the Prophet.”


Advertisements are painted on walls all over Egypt’s urban areas. The book seems to suggest that even the smallest grocery store would be considered incomplete without some kind of lettered adornment. While some are simply descriptions of the shops themselves — as with this example from Sohag, which reads “Al-aseel for mobile phone maintenance” (along with an illustration that perfectly sums up the dangers of using a “modern” image on your tech-store signage, as it rapidly becomes outdated; like all those outlets that added “2000” to their name a few years before the millennium) — others make lofty claims (“Loved by millions” on the shutters of a shabby, run-down store), offer consumer warnings (“The original Shahin, beware of similar names”), or spout sweetly naïve self-justification (“We have decorated it for the viewer”).


“There is a nostalgia associated with handwritten lettering that can never be replaced with a digital alternative. A nostalgia that is potent in Egypt,” writes Hamdy in “Language and Message,” her essay for the book. “You can see it in the faces of the people on the street … and read it in the words that adorn everything you see, words that weave the rich and complex tapestry that is Egypt.” In this image, a man smokes a shisha underneath the background scrawl, “Manlihood is not easy.”


Quotations from holy books and exhortations to god are some of khatt’s most important functions on the walls of Egypt. Hajj paintings are a subset of their own within that group. In villages along the Nile, Egypt’s pilgrims will often commission local artists to paint the walls of their houses celebrating their journey to Makkah.

“I think it’s rooted in ancient Egyptian art. I think that’s where they get the inspiration from,” Hamdy tells Arab News. “These painters… I don’t think there are many left, but it used to be this tradition that the father would pass on to their son, and there would be one painter in each village that would paint the houses. It’s like a mark of pride: ‘I’m now a Hajji.’

This house is decorated with the phrase: “May Allah accept your Hajj and forgive your sins / Hajj Mohamed Abdelaziz Mustafa, 2015.”

Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019

Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.