Islamic artist finds peace in his work

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Updated 26 July 2012

Islamic artist finds peace in his work

The calligrapher of the Prophet’s Mosque, Shafeeq uz Zaman, is from Pakistan.Since 1990, he has been doing calligraphy work (in the Thuluth script) on the mosque’s 177 domes.He won second prize at the International Calligraphy Competition in Istanbul, Turkey.He has also won several competitions at national and international levels. Hundreds of Arabs and Turkish people are students of Ustadh Shafeeq. It is astonishing that he learned calligraphy on his own and calls himself the spiritual student of the renowned 20th century calligrapher, Ustadh Hamid Al-Amidi.Ustadh Shafeeq thinks in the period of computers, calligraphy’s importance will not fade. He also says he finds peace while doing calligraphy in the Prophet’s Mosque and cannot find this anywhere else. He shared his experiences and achievements in an interview with Khalid Khurshid.

AN: Do you think that calligraphy is a full-time job? How did you get interested in calligraphy?
SZ: Since childhood I was devoted to calligraphy and drawing. I think when I was six there was no paper or wall in my home that had been left untouched by my drawings and calligraphy. Whatever I got hold of chalk, pencil and colors, I made use of it. I used to get beaten by my parents but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for drawing and calligraphy. After one scolding too many, I took my brush and paints outside and started to draw and write on the walls of my neighborhood. In the beginning, my parents were against my work and were also very harsh with me. After a long time passed, an elder in my family saw my work and was astonished. He told my parents that I was doing wonderful work.
If there was any free period or lunch break at school, all my classmates went outside to play but I didn’t. I used to do calligraphy and sometimes draw on the classroom blackboard. When my teacher and classmates used to go into the classroom they used to be stunned and because of this I became well-known as a calligrapher and artist at school.
I won an interschool handwriting competition and I was also successful in handwriting competitions were held in Karachi. When I was in the fifth grade, I made all the boards and signboards at school. My art teacher used to tell me that one day I would make it big.

AN: We heard that you were employed to work in Saudi Arabia while you were working on a street.
SZ: While I was creating signboards using text from the Holy Qur’an for a company on a street in Karachi, a Saudi sheikh was passing by. When he saw my work, he immediately stopped and asked me to work for his company. At that time, my passport had not been issued, but the sheikh ensured I got one quickly and took me to Saudi Arabia. I worked for a long time in Riyadh as a calligrapher. I designed and made hundreds of signboards and plastic boards and I have also done screen paintings.

AN: Who was your teacher for calligraphy?
SZ: I learned calligraphy on my own. The Almighty Allah blessed me with the skills of calligraphy. At the beginning, I did this for fun but later I learnt from books.
My hard work and tireless calligraphy studies were the key to all my successes in life. During my stay in Madinah, I had the chance to meet the best calligraphers of the world and also saw their glorious work. I think I am most impressed by the magnificent work of the best calligrapher of the 20th century, Ustadh Hamid Al-Amidi of Turkey. You can call me his spiritual student. I always tried to maintain his standards and methods in my work. If we compared my work with his, no one would be able to tell the difference.

AN: How did your appointment as calligrapher of the Prophet’s come about?
SZ: I used to visit Masjid Al-Nabawi many times. I was deeply impressed by the calligraphy done on the domes of Prophet’s Mosque during the Turkish era and used to examine it for hours. While in Riyadh, I got an offer from Madinah to work for a signboard company, which I accepted immediately.
In 1990, the holy mosque’s constructing company Dallah announced a worldwide calligraphy competition because most of the original work on the domes had worn off.
They were searching for a calligrapher who could retrace and correct the calligraphy. Nearly 400 pieces of work were showcased in this calligraphy competition. I was declared the winner, but the competition judges thought the winner would be a Turk or Egyptian. They were shocked to learn I was from Pakistan.
Their selection is a blessing from the Almighty Allah. When this competition was announced, I didn’t want to participate. An Arab friend of mine convinced me otherwise. Even those who visit the mosque are shocked to learn the calligraphy was done by a Pakistani. It’s an honor not only for me but also for Pakistan.

AN: Describe the work you are restoring in the Prophet’s Mosque.
SZ: The construction of the Prophet’s Mosque can be divided into three parts: the Turkish era construction; construction during King Saud’s reign; and construction during King Fahd’s reign.
The Ar-Rawdah, Al-Riyad Al-Jannah, Prophet’s Minbar and Ashab Al-Sufa parts of the Prophet’s Mosque were constructed during the Turkish era.
This construction was carried out during the reign of Turkish Sultan Abdul Hameed Khan. He said every mason should have learned by heart the Holy Qur’an. Every mason had to do ablution and then begin construction.
At that time the construction industry was not that developed. To build the mosque, the Turkish made the use of all resources available at that time. For the pillars, they melted metals. For the interior decoration, the sultan invited the most reputable calligrapher of the time, Ustad Abdullah Al-Zahidi from Turkey.
The sultan himself was a great calligrapher. For a long time Al-Zahidi did the calligraphy work and sketching on the mosque’s domes.
In the book “The Art of Turkish Calligraphy,” it is written that when Al-Zahidi finished his work, whoever then saw it refused to believe that it had been carried out by a mere mortal. Al-Zahidi’s calligraphic work remained on the domes for about 250 years.
The chief judge of the committee that selected me as the calligrapher of the Prophet’s Mosque was Ziauddin Ibraheem. He was the student of Ustad Hamid Al-Amidi and has been living in Madinah for a long time.

AN: What are the differences in the Turkish calligraphy style and yours?
SZ: There are about 177 domes constructed during the Turkish era in the Prophet’s Mosque. Each dome’s diameter is about 11 meters and the pen used for calligraphy is about 18 millimeters thick.
The modern style of carrying out calligraphic work is that one or more ayahs (Qur’anic verse) can be written but it should start and end on the same dome.
But the Turks did not do that. If an ayah was not completed on the same dome, they stopped and continued on the other dome. This is not easy because some domes are small and some are big. It takes about three to four months to write an ayah on a dome and sometimes longer.
Engraving was also carried out. All calligraphy was done in the Thuluth script. The writing style used in the Turkish era is called Rasm Amlai, but now the adopted style is called Rasm Usmani.
The mosque’s supervisor said as Rasm Usmani is used by all Islamic scholars, that is the style all calligraphy work should use.
My work is a little bit different from Al-Zahidi. Saudi Arabia’s reputable calligrapher, Usman Taha, who has also written Saudi Arabia’s Holy Qur’an, used to read the calligraphy written on the domes of Masjid Al-Nabawi for a long time after Fajr. He has shown appreciation for my work.

AN: How long will it take to finish the calligraphy work on the 177 domes?
SZ: When the calligraphy began to spoil, the authorities retraced it with the help of a schoolteacher, calligrapher or painter. Whoever did the repainting for sure didn’t have knowledge of the Thuluth script.
Because of this the original calligraphy started to get ruined and the words began to mix up. When I became the Prophet’s Mosque calligrapher, I was asked to restore the calligraphy done in the Turkish era.
It was then decided new calligraphy should be written on all 177 domes constructed by the Turks in the Prophet’s Mosque.
So far, nearly 80 percent of calligraphic work on the domes has been completed and the rest will be completed within four to five years. It can take more than three months to complete a dome.

AN: Carrying out calligraphy work on the domes is very difficult. How is calligraphy done?
SZ: First the size of the dome is measured. The ayahs to be written can be short or long. The method for writing a big ayah is to ensure the words do not look congested and the method of writing a small ayah is to ensure there are no spaces left between the words.
The most complicated part is to write a complete ayah on a dome.
After measuring the dome, I then make a rough sketch of the ayah to be written on the dome using a blackboard. The rough sketch is then transferred to traceable paper.
Then, the script is refined according to the rules of the Thuluth script. The words are then transferred onto the dome through a special process using zinc. After this, we complete the calligraphy work on the dome using a special kind of paint that lasts for about 200 years.
The calligraphy work is carried out at the night and requires a lot of patience.

AN: Many of the Turkish call you Shafeeq Thani. Why?
SZ: Ustadh Shafeeq Bay was a reputable Turkish calligrapher of his times. He carried out the calligraphy in Al-Aqsa Mosque.
This means the first Shafeeq had the honor of doing the calligraphy in Al-Aqsa Mosque while the second Shafeeq had the honor of working in the Prophet’s Mosque.
This is why the Turkish call me Shafeeq Thani. Our work is similar because we use Jali script, but I have more control over my art.
Nowadays calligraphers write with a pen about 1 to 1.5 cm thick and using a computer enlarge the text by about 20 to 100 percent more before writing the text again.

AN: This period in time is also known as the computer age. What is the future of calligraphy in your view?
SZ: All names on the doors of the Prophet’s Mosque like the King Fahd Gate, Salaam Gate, Rehmah Gate and others have been written by my own hands. The offices as well. No computers were used.
For the names and boards of the offices inside, the engineers created about 200 computer samples but none were approved, even though software using the Thuluth script was available.
For this type of work the only thing that is important is the creative mind. To write an ayah by hand in a particular style is remarkable cannot be achieved by a computer.
I am sure that in this computer age, calligraphers are not fading. They have no shotage of work. If computers could do this work, why would people come to us?

AN: Are you satisfied with your work? Did you teach your knowledge of calligraphy to others?
SZ: There are hundreds of my students living in Pakistan. I also have hundreds of students in countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and others. Saudi calligraphers Bashar Alawa, Abdul Aziz Rasheedi, Badr Rasheedi and Abdul Hakeem are my students. The head of Madinah University and King Fahd Qur’an Complex created a school for learning calligraphy. I was a teacher of this center for a long time.

AN: How do you intend to raise awareness of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan?
SZ: I hope to establish a calligraphy academy in Pakistan. I am trying very hard to get government support. I think we require such an academy in Pakistan so Islamic calligraphy becomes more important in society.
There are many such institutes in Pakistan but they are not of international standard. Calligraphy can be learned no matter how old you are. The thing is, you should have the interest, obsession and ability to learn calligraphy.
The need for an academy in Pakistan is important because it will be better for both student and teacher to be in one environment.
The two important things you have to learn in calligraphy are how to handle a calligraphy pen and alphabet style. I will also try to invite renowned Islamic and Arab calligraphers and calligraphy teachers to Pakistan to teach in the academy.

AN: For you, being the calligrapher of Masjid Al-Nabawi is a really big honor. Why didn’t you get any award at government level in Pakistan?
SZ: The thing is, I didn’t wish for such things in my life. My day and night starts and ends with calligraphy. I have lived about half of my life in Madinah. I love to be alone and do not crave media attention.
But people who understand calligraphy and also know me compliment my work. I don’t want to comment on those people who have received calligraphy awards by the Pakistani government.
I am always satisfied with my work. I cannot find the peace I get while doing calligraphy in the Prophet’s Mosque anywhere else and I thank Almighty Allah for that.

AN: What do you wish to fulfill in the future?
SZ: I have so many projects that I will try to fulfill in the future. It will take time to establish my dream projects. Being the calligrapher of the Prophet’s Mosque is already a really big honor.
I want to do something really special for Pakistan that would attract people worldwide.
All well-known calligraphers from Turkey, Iraq and the rest of the Islamic world have stored their calligraphy works in museums, mosques and art galleries. They are still keeping their history alive.
Last year in Madinah the King Fahd Printing Press organized an international calligraphy competition featuring the work of about 600 calligraphers. The judges announced me the winner of the best calligraphy work. This year in Riyadh and Jeddah, the Pakistani diplomatic mission organized an Arabic calligraphy exhibition under the name “Alama Bil Qalam.” Prince Sultan bin Salman, chairman of SCTA, purchased four of my calligraphy pieces.
Saudi Arabia’s renowned calligrapher Nasir Mehmood visited this exhibition and referred to me as a teacher. My calligraphy work is also showcased at Sharjah Museum, UAE.

Mark Lowey, known by his Saudi friends as AbuJack, offers never seen images of the real Saudi during the 1970s

Updated 20 min 23 sec ago

Mark Lowey, known by his Saudi friends as AbuJack, offers never seen images of the real Saudi during the 1970s

  • A US oil engineer’s treasured photographs reveal a love affair with the Kingdom stretching back four decades
  • After working for two years in Saudi Arabia, Lowey took 12 months off to travel, including a trek in Nepal and India, and visits to Australia and New Zealand, before returning to California in 1981

DHAHRAN: From San Francisco, the hippie heartland of 1970s American counterculture, to Abqaiq, Aramco’s gated community and the largest oil facility in Saudi Arabia — Mark Lowey’s love of adventure took him on a journey that later defined his life. 

After graduating with a science degree specializing in construction engineering in 1977, Lowey was offered a job in San Francisco. But when the 21-year-old engineer heard that a friend had received an offer from another company that planned to send him to Saudi Arabia, he decided to take the leap.

“I was looking for adventure and ready to travel the world,” Lowey told Arab News. “It was pure luck that a company wanted to hire a graduate and send me to Saudi Arabia.”

For three months, he worked for Santa Fe International, a subcontractor, before being assigned to a remote job site in Abqaiq.  “We were building gas and oil-separation plants in Ain Dar and Shedgum,” he said. “The plants we built at that time still had flare shacks to burn the separated natural gas. Aramco’s gas-gathering program would begin 15 years later.”

As a project control engineer, Lowey was responsible for monitoring the progress of construction and scheduling work to be completed to a strict timetable.

Below left, the camel souq in Al-Ahsa in 1978.

With no direct flights at the time, Lowey’s journey to Saudi Arabia took more than 24 hours, with connections in Atlanta, New York and London before arriving at today’s King Abdul Aziz air base, formerly known as Dhahran International Airport.

Fresh off the plane, Lowey was uncertain where to go as crowds of passengers crowded the airport. He walked into the arrivals hall where he spotted a man holding a sign bearing the company’s orange-colored Santa Fe International logo.

As the two men waited for other employees to arrive, Lowey observed different nationalities from the Arab world passing by. While some women were covered in black, others wore trendy, colorful clothing. 

“At Dhahran airport for the first time, I saw women wearing all kinds of clothes — modern and traditional. Many had niqabs (a piece of cloth that covered half of the face, revealing only the eyes). I think it was a time before wearing the niqab and hijab became a common trend,” he said.

Days before his trip, Lowey took time to study and learn about Saudi culture, history and its people. He found it fascinating that some Saudis lived in tents out in the desert. “It was the romantic version of the Arab culture I was expecting,” he said.

Lowey lived in the Abqaiq contractors camp, in a single room in a prefabricated modular building across the road from the Aramco community, where thousands of men from different countries worked for contracting companies supporting Aramco were housed.

Mark Liwey with with Abdulhadi Alsyari and his sons in their desert encampment in Fazran. 

“There were Americans, Canadians, British. Other workers were from Thailand and the Philippines. There were Somalis and Egyptians. There were very few Saudi workers,” he said.

Living in the eastern deserts, Lowey wasn’t oblivious to events occurring in the region, but he recalled one memory that still stands out for him. “I was in Abqaiq when the shah of Iran fell in 1979. One American friend had fallen in love with a young woman from Tehran and was in Iran at that time. He had to leave his fiance and run away, over rooftops, to escape the ayatollah’s guards. He escaped back to Saudi, somehow. Much later, the woman was able to join him in the US and they were married.” 

Since 1979, the trend has been toward more traditional and conservative dress for women in the Middle East, he said.

“The Arab Spring in 2010-11 further accelerated the trend toward conservatism. Only now are we moving toward a more progressive Middle East.”

Growing up in California during the 1970s, life was easy and there were fewer rules. Arriving in Saudi Arabia, Lowey knew that there would be restrictions. He was worried that local people might dislike him and question why he was here — that feeling of discomfort familiar to those living in a foreign country. 

The Mystery Man in Blue: Bathan Mohammed Al-Ulayan Al-Marri, one of the Eastern Province's most famous water-well driller, responsible for finding more than 50 wells in the EP and Rub’ Al-Khali. 

Lowey had a friend, Rob Hardesty, who was in Alkhobar working for an irrigation company. Lowey looked him up, and found that he, too, was interested in exploring and meeting local people. “He introduced me to some of his Saudi friends and helped me get acquainted with the Kingdom.”

On one of their days off, the two men decided to venture into the desert in Hardesty’s pickup truck to test a new camera, an Olympus OM-2, which Lowey had bought in Alkhobar’s electronics souq.

“Both Rob and I were keen to become good photographers. We wanted to go out on weekends and experiment and take lots of photos,” he said.

Photographing people was not a simple matter, since some Saudis were not open to being photographed. The duo were discreet, however. With the Olympus hidden in a large bag, Lowey would take a picture and then quickly hide the camera from sight. “One time, my friends and I were in the women’s 

market in Hufof looking at some of the objects on display. I would say, ‘Hey, Rob, smile,’ and pretend to take a picture, but would photograph the woman behind him.

“We were probably a bit reckless, and if we had been seen by police or the Mutawa (religious police), they would object,” he said. “But I hardly saw any religious police in the Eastern Province during the 1970s. They were more common during the early 2000s.”


  • In 1978, while on a desert stroll with his friend Rob Harvesty, Mark Lowey encountered this Bedouin man walking alone near the Fazran Gas Oil Separation Plant. They stopped, exchanged a few words in their limited Arabic, and after he agreed to let Lowey photograph him, they went in opposite directions.
  • Throughout the years, Lowey wondered about this mysterious man in the navy-blue jacket, his story and and his tribe. When he returned to Saudi Arabia decades later, he asked his friend, Quriyan Al-Hajri, to help him solve the mystery. Al-Hajri was able to track down the man’s family, who told his story.
  • His name was Bathan Mohammed Al-Ulayan Al-Marri, and he was a famous water-well driller, responsible for creating more than 50 wells in the Eastern Province and Rub’ Al-Khali. “He would make water walls all around the desert,” Lowey explained. “Because the Bedouins had to have water, and before Aramco, there was no drilling of wells, they had to dig them by hand.”
  • Sadly, Lowey wasn’t able to meet Al-Marri, because he passed away in 2005.

Lowey wouldn’t have his photos developed in the Kingdom. Instead, he sent rolls of film out with friends going on vacation to the UK, US or Far East, and they would bring back prints. “Imagine the difference between seeing your photos on a digital camera or iPhone instantly. In 1978, I had to wait weeks to see my prints.”

After working for two years in Saudi Arabia, Lowey took 12 months off to travel, including a trek in Nepal and India, and visits to Australia and New Zealand, before returning to California in 1981.

“After living in Saudi and my Asia walkabout, I was changed. I had incredible experiences. I had met and become friends with people from so many different cultures.

“I thought of Saudi Arabia a lot. I loved my photos of the places I had visited and, especially, the pictures of the Bedouin.”

Lowey stayed in the US for five years, got married and then, as a newlywed, moved to Kuwait for a new job. He spent three years working in Kuwait, and his first son, Jack, was born there. In 1988, Lowey and his family left Kuwait and returned to the US.

Lowey never thought that one day he might return to Saudi Arabia. But his final project before retirement brought him back to the place where he first started working. In 2013, three decades after leaving the Kingdom, Lowey landed in Dhahran.

“My last project was representing the Projects Department as OE (Operational Excellence) representative and implementer. Starting in 2015, Aramco began using OE principles and methods to improve quality and reliability in the company,” he said.

Right, Faleh Al-Hamra, renowned in Abqaiq as a “camel whisperer,” with his first-born son Bdah, swaddled according to Bedouin tradition. Bdah, now 41, is a shift supervisor at Aramco’s Shedgum gas plant.

During his time in Aramco, there were Bedouin families who lived near his job site. Lowey enjoyed watching them and was keen on getting to know them. “I frequently met Bedouin, either passers-by traveling on the migration routes, or families who camped for extended periods near the site, attracted by Aramco’s permanent water supply,” he said.

His brief encounters often involved nothing more than a simple wave, a smile and the traditional Arabic greeting.

“It wouldn’t be long before my minimal abilities in Arabic would be put to the test. I would soon embark on a lasting friendship with two Bedouin tribes — a friendship lost and rediscovered more than three decades later.”

Lowey returned in 2013 and again in 2016, and was reunited with the some of the same families that he befriended in the late 1970s.

“They were just overwhelmed with joy that I remembered them. I took the effort to become friends with them again, and they welcomed me as a brother and as a son. I am part of their family. They honored me with the title Abu Jack (father of Jack). I love the name.” 

After returning to the Kingdom, Lowey saw how much the Bedouin culture had changed. “The big difference has been the nomadic lifestyle. It has disappeared now, pretty much.”

Lowey said that living and working in the Kingdom during the 1970s would have been similar to the Old West in America during the 1800s. “A young guy like me, as a graduate, I could easily go and find work and make business as there were fewer regulations. I could succeed, learn a lot, and contribute to the economy and society,” he said. 

When Lowey and his wife visited Saudi in March this year for an Aramco expats reunion, he was able to witness the changes first-hand, including women driving, greater public freedoms, and the return of music and theater.

“We had been following the progress initiated by the late King Abdullah and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is refreshing, and we hope good and positive progress continues,” Lowey said.