Arabic calligraphy flourishing in the West

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Updated 23 April 2014

Arabic calligraphy flourishing in the West

Even non-Muslims can’t help but fall madly in love with the beautiful Islamic culture and let it be part of their lives. After all, this great faith has so much enriching to offer to the world. And one such person keen to make it happen is Josh Berer, an impassioned American calligrapher whose heart and soul simply beats for Arabic calligraphy.
He believes that the Arabic script of all scripts brought into being, is by far the most flexible, versatile and capable of the greatest degree of creativity one can ever think of. As a matter of fact, it was a predestined journey for him that he would later stumble upon and find out what he really wanted out of life.
So what made him become a true devotee of Arabic calligraphy in the first place? “I first fell in love with this beautiful handwriting art as a 19-year-old graffiti artist who had just started learning Arabic. When I moved to college, I continued with my lessons in Arabic language and encountered Arabic calligraphy.”
And there it was! He was sketching a piece of graffiti, and it dawned on him that graffiti in Arabic was almost heaven-sent. “The flow of Arabic letters lends themselves so naturally and perfectly to graffiti that I couldn’t help but try it,” he says.
Looking closer enough, it occurred to him that there exist some obvious parallels between the two art forms, one which is ancient and traditionally rigid whereas the other seems modern and is in constant state of change. Besides, the switch from graffiti to Arabic calligraphy isn’t as dramatic as one might think. “The hand motions that a graffiti artist practices thousands upon thousands of times aren’t that dissimilar to those a student of calligraphy must follow in the same order until every letter comes naturally and produces a perfect result.”
Nonetheless, he knew that he will need to learn the traditional part flawlessly before jumping into an ultra-modern manifestation of Arabic calligraphy such as graffiti. Otherwise, it would be disrespectful. “I decided that to do graffiti in Arabic, I first must learn the calligraphy that would influence it. So I made up my mind to put Arabic graffiti on hold. However, graffiti will always have a pivotal role to play in my calligraphy and that is something I’m forever going to bring to the table,” he tells.

Growing up
Berer’s childhood was quite different from that of his friends. Thanks to his mother who is a professor of Islamic Art History, he grew up surrounded by Islamic calligraphy and other splendid arts of the Muslim world-ceramic, textiles etc. They spent time in Istanbul together. This way, he also came to know about the stories of the unimaginable beauty of Isfahan, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat. “I remember, as a young child, thinking “What a boring thing to study.” But I was wrong. After all, life has a way of bringing us full circle!
Right after his graduation that earned him a scholarship for excellence in Arabic studies, he flew to Sana’a, Yemen for six months in order to see for himself and understand the Islamic culture closely allowing him to gain solid advanced knowledge in traditional Arabic grammar, Islamic law including modern literature, Arabic calligraphy and oral poetry.
He follows two styles formally and these are Sulus and Nesih. Yet, there are many other styles that he practices in his work. Some of them are traditional ones, but most of them are contemporary ones, such as, many of his own creation such as Zoomorphic (art that is fashioned in animal form), Beladi, Figural and Massoudy.
In hindsight, there is a tricky procedure involved that makes what he does a bit more demanding. “The thing about Islamic calligraphy, particularly in America, is that it’s not just pen on paper. There is an entire canon of related arts that one must master as well. Even the tools that we use can’t be found here and must be made. I grind raw agate until it shines and then set it in a handmade handle of ash to burnish the paper. I grind raw pigments to make my marbled paper. I either make my own paper from raw pulp, or I dye commercial paper in a tank I made to accommodate large-size papers. I sourced the bamboo I use here in America so I wouldn’t keep having to bring it every now and then from Turkey, and for pieces that require a very large pen, I turn those pens from walnut on a lathe,” he says.
In his eyes, the idea of veracity comes first which he attains using a reed pen. He doesn’t use computer fonts or computer calligraphy for his work at all. “The ink I use is traditional soot ink that has been used in Arabic calligraphy for more than a millennium.”
If one seems to have an undying desire to learn about it, then he should keep it in mind that it’s not just one art that he can study in his spare time. Rather, it’s a vast department where one needs to spruce up his skills step by step. “You need to be familiar with the entire world of craftsmanship from creating a piece to putting every single aspect of the equation in order; the paper being hand-made, the marbling is your own, the gold work is hand-laid, and the last thing is the final assemblage that has to be looking seamless,” he points out. “It’s a holistic craft that requires discipline in every aspect.”
What does he get motivated by? “Nothing but deadlines,” he said. “I try and get everything to my clients within a week, so I’m often very late into the night doing draft after draft until I find the one that works.”
There are certain role models in his life that he looks up to. One of them is his own teacher, Mohamed Zakariya who is, in fact, the US’ foremost expert of Arabic calligraphy. He has been a source of inspiration for Berer for many years and it’s clear why. “I feel few would be able to achieve what he has even if they had two lifetimes to do it,” he says. “There is a cadre of teachers and master calligraphers in Turkey who are working to keep the excellence associated with this art alive and flourishing. They are my heroes.”
Moreover, he had been spellbound by the late great woodworker James Krenov on what it means to be a craftsman. Then, he cannot deny the precious role of his parents when it comes to exciting his curiosity toward Islamic culture. “My father is a master craftsman in his own right, and had it not been from his lessons in craft and my mother’s teaching in Islamic arts, I doubt I would be on this eternal path,” he admits.
Asked what his relatives and friends thought of his profession, he said, “Most didn’t know that “Arabic calligrapher” was a job-option. I didn’t either until a few years ago.”
In fact, it isn’t easy to achieve complete perfectness over this art. He thinks that one can be a master calligrapher, but he doesn’t think there is such a thing as a perfect piece. “We are imperfect beings striving for perfection in a divine art. To me, what we term a master calligrapher is more accurately a very, very, very good calligrapher. There is no completion, no point where improvement stops,” he says.
On his behalf, he has set a very good example by incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew in several pieces like one was a marriage contract for an interfaith couple, another was a birthday present for an 80-year-old Iraqi Jewish fellow. But the one for which he is best known is the Hamsa that he did for a company based in New York that wanted to have their mission statement written in both languages. “We chose the Hamsa because it is a symbol of protection and luck in both Muslim and Jewish cultures and we thought that the idea of intertwining culture would work very well on paper with intertwining calligraphy.”
Talking about his clientele, he said, “My clients range from corporate world seeking logos and branding work, to families seeking art to hang, couples looking for an emblem for their wedding invitations, and everything in between. I would say about sixty percent of my clients are Muslims, probably fewer than thirty percent are Arabs.”
Any advice for those who are aspiring to become a calligrapher? “Calligraphy is hidden in the teaching of a master and its constancy is maintained by much practice. Learning calligraphy is a lifelong pursuit. I think that learning calligraphy is by far the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I have ever done, and I encourage others to do it.”
But those who approach it thinking that after a few weekend workshops they’ll be producing complex compositions are in for a disappointment. “Also go to Turkey. Even if you can’t move there; if you’re serious about calligraphy, you should go to Istanbul for a couple of weeks a year,” he says.
No wonder he has future plans to execute. “My future plans are to complete my training in Istanbul first and foremost. I am working with a group of calligraphers here in America to create an organization to help spread calligraphy teaching in America, and help more people learn calligraphy. I would like to see that organization grow and spread in future years.”

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Line-up, jury announced for first Red Sea Shorts Competition

Updated 28 February 2020

Line-up, jury announced for first Red Sea Shorts Competition

  • Tim Redford to helm jury alongside Tunisian actress Najla ben Abdallah, Saudi screenwriter Ahmad Al-Mulla

JEDDAH: The Red Sea International Film Festival has announced Tim Redford as president of the jury for the inaugural Red Sea Shorts Competition.

The festival will run from March 12-21, and will screen 107 features and short films. Joining Redford as jurists will be Tunisian actress Najla ben Abdallah, and Saudi screenwriter and cinema pioneer Ahmad Al-Mulla.

Redford is a leader in the global short-film scene through his work with the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the Short Film Conference, and the Curtocircuito International Festival of Short Films. 

Mahmoud Sabbagh, director of the Red Sea International Film Festival, said: “Short films have a special place in Saudi film culture. It’s a format that allows for experimentation and expression.”

The competition “taps into a lively Arab shorts community to showcase the best of next-generation filmmaking,” he added.

“It’s exciting to welcome Tim Redford, with his global outlook, to helm the jury for the first Red Sea Shorts program.”

The competition, which is open to all Arab directors, represents the pulse of next-generation Arab creativity, with a curated selection of short films produced or directed by the most exciting contemporary voices. 

Redford has dedicated his career to diverse film organizations across Europe, especially those supporting short films.

Since 2015, he has been part of the executive team for the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, where he coordinates the international selection committee, the African Perspectives program, and the online submission platform Short Film Depot.

He also serves on the board of the Short Film Conference, the only non-profit worldwide organization dedicated to the short-film community.  

Born in Tunis, Ben Abdallah began her career in front of the cameras with TV commercials. In 2009, she featured in her first TV show, the Ramadan series “Donia.” Her first cinematic role was in “False Note.”

In 2015, she starred in the Tunisian film “Thala Mon Amour” by Mehdi Hmili. In 2019, she starred alongside Sami Bouajila in Mehdi Barsaoui’s film “A Son,” which had its world premiere at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, where it was nominated for best film.

A major contributor to Saudi cultural life, Al-Mulla is a poet, arts developer and cultural consultant.

He was director of the Saudi Film Festival in 2008, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019, and director of the Poetry Festival in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

He was executive manager and board member of the Dammam Literary Club from 2006-2010. He is currently a consultant to the Saudi Culture and Arts Society. 


Film overviews

‘...And When Do I Sleep?’

Husam Al-Sayed | KSA | Arabic | 16 mins

Cast: Mustafa Turkistani, Fatima Husein

In the dead of night, vision is warped by insomnia. Adam hears a woman call out, but there is no-one there. Dreamlike and eerie, as if being plunged into a twisted dream.



Manon Nammour | Lebanon | Arabic | 14 mins

Cast: Mounir Maasri, Camille Salameh, Rudy Ghafari, Christine Choueiri 

An aging man prepares for his grandson’s wedding in an ever-changing Beirut. This affecting and elegant drama moves beyond nostalgia to tackle constant transformation, memory and its loss.



Muzna Al-Musafer | Oman | Arabic | 15 mins

Cast: Bandar Al-Shihri, Hassan Al-Mashani, Amal Bait Noyra

A journey inside a tribal Omani society undergoing rapid transformation in 1978. Dablan faces pressure from his village to kill a leopard. Instead, he resolves to set the animal free.


‘Goin’ South’

Mohammed Al-Hamoud | KSA | Arabic | 14 mins

Cast: Fatima Al-Banawi, Ayman Mutahar, Alanoud Yousef

Newlyweds pay their first visit to the groom’s hometown. Despite a modern approach to dating, discovering they come from two different worlds, their relationship is put to the test.


‘The Return’

Charlie Kouka | Tunis/France | Arabic and French | 22 mins

Cast: Fares Landolsi, Salim Kechiouche, Sondes Belhassen

Returning home after seven years abroad, Tarek meets Khaled, who is everything he is not: Successful, handsome and helpful. Kouka immerses the audience into their inner turmoil, to explore the consequences of staying and leaving.


‘Ongoing Lullaby’

Hisham Fadel | KSA | Arabic | 12 mins

Cast: Sarah Taibah 

An intimate portrait of daily life for a lonely yet independent woman who is hounded by melancholic thoughts and doubts. A personal and moving performance by Taibah, meticulously captured by Fadel. 


‘So What if the Goats Die’

Sofia Alaoui | Morocco/France | Arabic | 22 mins

Cast: Fouad Oughaou, Moha Oughaou

Abdellah, a solitary mountain shepherd, discovers a village abandoned in supernatural circumstances that destabilize his most fundamental beliefs. A trek through an arid, mountainous landscape stresses an encounter with the fragility of human existence.



Farah Shaer | Lebanon | Arabic | 14 mins

Cast: Hiba Sleiman Al-Hamad, Lara Ayazri, Ghassan Chemali

With her marriage in turmoil, Mariam discovers she is pregnant. Trapped in a prison of lies and societal pressures, she yearns to break free. A blunt and uncompromising look at sheer perseverance in the face of brutal obstacles.


‘Sunday at Five’

Sherif El-Bendary | Egypt | Arabic | 17 mins

Cast: Hadeel Hassan, Khairy Beshara, Ayten Amin, Sedky Sakhr

Selfishness makes Hadeel unstoppable, even if getting what she wants is at the expense of others. Conflating fact and fiction, this is a tale of mind games and manipulation. 


‘The Ghosts We Left at Home’

Faris RJ | Jordan | Arabic | 21 mins

Cast: Nadeem Rimawi 

RJ patterns unfinished thoughts into a distinctive visual language in this fragmentary and brooding meditation on a man and a city, featuring an utterly compelling performance by Rimawi. 


‘The Girls Who Burned the Night’

Sara Mesfer | KSA | Arabic | 24 mins

Cast: Jana Qomri, Haya Almari

A small act of rebellion causes tension, then understanding, between teenage sisters Sasabel and Wasan. Impatient to grow up, they stay awake together through a restless night, exploring dreams and hopes.


‘The Other Cheek’

Sandro Canaan | Egypt | Arabic | 9 mins

Cast: Tarek Abdelaziz, Dora Youssef, Mohey Dorgham

After Nashaat’s daughter is viciously attacked by his neighbors’ dog, he is indignant to read claims that she provoked the attack and takes frustrations out on the perpetrator in this tale of guilt, repentance and revenge.


‘Ward’s Henna Party’

Morad Mostafa | Egypt | Arabic | 23 mins

Cast: Halima, Ward, Marina Victor

Halima, a Sudanese refugee living in Egypt, takes her 7-year-old daughter Ward to work, painting henna for a bride-to-be. The average day takes an unexpected turn when curious Ward sets off exploring.