How calligraphy became an integral part of Arab identity — and how it can remain so

How calligraphy became an integral part of Arab identity — and how it can remain so
Wissam Shawkat is an Iraqi calligrapher. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 22 March 2020

How calligraphy became an integral part of Arab identity — and how it can remain so

How calligraphy became an integral part of Arab identity — and how it can remain so
  • The first in a regular series of features to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s Year of Arabic Calligraphy

DUBAI: The Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat is sitting quietly at a cafe in Dubai, patiently explaining the intricacies of Arabic calligraphy.

“In Latin the letters are separated,” he says. “In Arabic the word is connected, so that creates a lot of ligatures and adds a layer of beauty to the script. One of the reasons Arabic calligraphy is beautiful is that kind of flow and connection.”

A combination of art, practice, patience and passion, calligraphy is at the heart of both Arab and Islamic identity. It is cherished for its beauty, clarity and harmony, and has been enhanced and developed over the course of a millennia.




Calligraphy is at the heart of both Arab and Islamic identity

Its origins lie in the preservation of the Qur’an, and the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE, which spread both Islam and the Arabic language across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. It would eventually flourish into its current system of discipline and elegance during the Islamic Golden Age.

“I think Arabs — or Muslims — look at calligraphy as an identity,” says Shawkat, who is drawn to the graphical element of calligraphy. “This is the one thing that is pure for us. This is the real thing.”

The art of Arabic calligraphy developed from two major styles: Naskh and Kufic. Originating in the Iraqi city of Kufa in or around the 7th century CE, Kufic is the earliest example of a universal calligraphic style. Defined by its long vertical lines, pronounced angularity and proportional measurements, it became the favored script for transcription of the Qur’an. Its geometric construction also meant it was particularly well suited to architectural decoration.




The art of Arabic calligraphy developed from two major styles: Naskh and Kufic, . (Supplied)

Over time, other variations of Kufic emerged, with plaited, floriated and squared Kufic epitomizing the evolution of a calligraphic style. The style of any given script was primarily determined by how it would be used, with forms of floriated Kufic developed to adorn ceramics or architecture in the Fatimid era. Naskh — which is smaller and rounder — was a preferred script for administrative documents. Others, such as the heavily stylized Diwani, were developed for court correspondence during the Ottoman period to prevent forgery.

It was Ibn Muqla, an official of the Abbasid Caliphate, who codified the principles of calligraphy. Reflecting an association with the divine, the writing system he developed ensured the letters of any given script were in proportion with one another. This was achieved by establishing the rhomboid dot (created by the nib of a calligrapher’s qalam) and the length of the aleph (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) as the units of measurement by which the size of all letters is calculated. This codified system still applies today and was applied to six calligraphic scripts: Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Thuluth, Ruqʿah and Tawqi. For example, the height of the aleph measures eight dots in Muhaqqaq, seven in Thuluth and six in Tawqi.




An example of Madani script. 

In the years and centuries following Ibn Muqla’s death his work was refined by Ibn Al-Bawwab and Yaqut Al-Musta’simi, both of whom spent the majority of their lives in Baghdad. The former produced an estimated 64 copies of the Qur’an, the most famous of which is now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. Al-Musta’simi, who served as secretary to the last Abbasid caliph and survived the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, was the last of the great medieval calligraphers. It was he who replaced the straight-cut qalam with an oblique cut, resulting in a more refined and elegant script.

“After the Mogul invasion of Baghdad some of Yaqut Al-Musta’simi’s students moved to Iran and Turkey,” says Shawkat. “From student to student calligraphy was taught and learned and there was a calligrapher called Sheikh Hamdullah who is considered the father of the Turkish school. He’s the person who, I would say, took the work of Ibn Muqla, Ibn Al-Bawwab and Al-Musta’simi and started to enhance it.”




Kufic inscriptions on wood and stone. (Getty Images)

It was under the Ottomans that calligraphy reached its zenith, says Basma Hamdy, an Egyptian designer, educator and the author of “Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape.” They invented or perfected several styles, including Ruqʿah, with its straight lines and simple curves that evolved from quick handwriting, and Diwani, which was primarily used for court documents to ensure confidentiality.

“All these scripts really evolved during the Ottoman era and we, as calligraphers, when we look at the greatest examples of calligraphy, we look at these people,” says Shawkat, who works primarily with Thuluth and Jeli Diwani. “By the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century, that’s when, I would say, calligraphy stood still, because everyone believed, ‘This is it. This is the pinnacle.’”




Basma Hamdy is an Egyptian designer, educator and the author of “Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape.” (Supplied)

Although the printing and the digitization of Arabic script led to a subsequent decline in the demand for beautifully rendered calligraphy, it remains central to Arab culture. It has been embraced by designers and architects, finding renewed expression in the calligraffiti of street artists such as eL Seed and Yazan Halwani, and modern art movements such as Hurufiyya. In Egypt, where calligraphy is an important part of the country’s visual culture — calligraphers have been responsible for the creation of signs, advertisements and movie posters since the early 1900s. Brands, too, are increasingly embracing calligraphy.

“I am happy to see calligraphy making a comeback in design, advertising and popular culture,” says Hamdy. “My only worry is the lack of awareness of its forms, such as proportions and its script grammar (correct formal positioning). I find that the nostalgia for particular forms of the Arabic script — such as Ruqʿah, a shorthand script often associated with Egyptian posters and ads — supersedes the need to be respectful of the proportions, rules, and guidelines that took centuries to perfect. I have often seen very poor examples of typefaces and fonts used in Arabic series, ads, conferences, et cetera. There needs to be more awareness of the importance of form and respect for the beauty of the script.”




An example of Thuluth script. (Supplied)

This awareness of proportion and form is central to any debate regarding the modern or future use of Arabic calligraphy. Do you defend classical tradition and strictly adhere to form? Or is there room for modernization and the development of new scripts? Should calligraffiti — which has no rules and requires no formal training — even be talked about in the same breath as calligraphy? And where does modern lettering, with its experimental play and rule-breaking, fit into the debate?

“If you think about all the different styles of calligraphy, at a certain point in time these styles evolved and were considered revolutionary to the ones before them,” says Shawkat, who invented his own script, Al Wissam, in 2004. “If you really study calligraphy well and you understand how things evolve, you will be able to come up with something new. Everything should evolve. But to break the rules, master them first.

“I would like to see more traditional calligraphers open to the idea of the evolution of calligraphy,” he continues. “Do like I’m doing. Take a script, add to it, create a new form through your understanding of the past. Because this script that’s between your hands now arrived to you because someone did that job many years ago. They took it and evolved it and then you think ‘Ok, it reached perfection.’ But no. Nothing can reach perfection. There is room for evolution.”


THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’
Updated 26 February 2021

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

THE BREAKDOWN: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss ‘Cedar IV, A Reconstitution’

DUBAI: Through their 2011 installation, The Paris-based Lebanese duo reflect on their 2011 installation, inspired by the Lebanese Rocket Society from the 1960s.

Lebanese Rocket Society. (Supplied)

Hadjithomas: It all started with my sister. She was researching Lebanese history and came across this story about rockets being launched from Lebanon (in the Sixties). It stayed in our minds. A few years later, we saw the stamp of the Cedar IV rocket, which was issued in 1964, and we thought it was really interesting. 

Joreige: We wondered why such a positive project disappeared from our history and memory. 

H: The Lebanese Rocket Society started in 1960 at Haigazian University. There was a professor — Manoug Manougian — who was really fond of rocketry. His students started making rockets and propellants at the university. The Lebanese Army joined in, but for Manoug and his students it was always an educational project — never a military one.

J: It wasn’t nationalistic either. Most of the people involved weren’t Lebanese — they came from all over the region. Through education, they were building peace.

H: They thought they were contributing to the space race — they were contemporary to the rest of the world, researching this fascination that people had for space. It’s about hope and dreams. So we felt that we should tell this story and find all the people that participated. That was not easy because they were scattered all around the world.

J: We had to think about different strategies of reactivating the past in the present.

H: So we rebuilt a rocket with the help of Sharjah Biennale and we offered it to Haigazian University. Reconstitution is a way of giving matter — reality — to our lost memories. That’s why it was important to redo the rocket exactly as it was. We chose Cedar IV because it was one of the most successful, but we didn’t put the Lebanese flag on it.

 J: if you put a flag on it, it would become national and militaristic. By keeping it white, it’s a place of projection, a ghostly presence.

H: Today, it seems like a military missile but it’s not. 

J: The UAE probe (which reached Mars on Feb. 9) is called “Hope.” When you are targeting another dimension, something you don’t know, it is always a question of hope.

H: Lebanon is very rich in its people, but we are hostages of people that are corrupt and think only about themselves. We were really happy for the UAE when “Hope” reached Mars, and I think the Lebanese reacted to it because they felt they should also be dreaming — and having the possibility to reconstruct and free themselves from those corrupt people.


Escape to Cape Town

Escape to Cape Town
Updated 26 February 2021

Escape to Cape Town

Escape to Cape Town
  • The most prestigious venues in South Africa’s tourism capital have never been more affordable

DUBAI: The silence atop Table Mountain on a cloudless afternoon in December is an experience only the COVID-19 pandemic could have brought. 

As one of the most popular hikes (or cable-car rides, if you’d prefer an easier climb) in Cape Town, the summit is usually thronging with people wielding selfie sticks and smartphones whatever the day, leaving you jostling for a decent view of the famed Twelve Apostles to the left, and the sweeping city and harbor to the right. But on this Friday evening we find ourselves alone except for our guide and a peppy rock hyrax for company. 

Naturally, South Africa’s tourism capital is a different place during the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, it’s largely devoid of international travellers. This is bad news for the country’s tourism industry, but a positive point if you’re one of the few choosing to head abroad.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. (Shutterstock)

The city’s top hotels are offering large discounts to entice travellers in. And Cape Town’s premier attractions — including its world-renowned restaurants — are easier to get into then ever.

South Africa opened its doors to tourists on November 1, but has since faced challenges in being perceived as a safe place to visit. In December, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country was in a second wave of infections, one that was crippling the hospital system. The South African variant of COVID-19 was also discovered. Flights into and out of the country were cancelled. Ramaphosa closed beaches and public parks and enforced a number of other restrictions in perceived hotspots — including Nelson Mandela Bay and the famous Garden Route. The move was another blow for the tourism industry there, which, after a tough lockdown period earlier in the year, was relying on the incoming flock of domestic tourists for the festive season. 

If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. (Shutterstock)

Cape Town and the surrounding area escaped strict restrictions, however. Its beaches, as well as the sparkling white bays and the quirky towns dotted around Cape Peninsula (Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg etc) are humming with locals. It’s a relative hum, however, with only a few beachfront restaurants nearing capacity and a palpable air of uncertainty. 

Wandering along Cape Town’s beachfront, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a foreign accent. You can wander through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and not see another face for long periods of time. On a hike up Table Mountain, you might only encounter a couple of other people on the same route. The uncrowded outdoors beckon.

Many of the hikes in the city (Lion’s Head is another must-do) seem easy enough, but are better attempted with a guide — both for safety and enjoyment. Most hotels will either have one on staff or will be able to arrange one for you. If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. He’s knowledgeable about hidden spots on the hike, as well as about the area’s fauna and flora, meaning your hike will be peppered with educational tidbits too. 

Babylonstoren is arguably the region’s most popular spot. (Shutterstock)

One and Only Cape Town is a top choice if you’re looking to stay central — nestled in around the waterfront. Its affable army of staff positioned around the property at all times are vigilant about temperature checks and sanitization, and it’s a diverse enough hotel to mean you never have to leave if you’re nervous about mixing in crowds. A central island of resort-style rooms offer an escape to a tropical island in the middle of the city, surrounded by waterways where you can kayak or paddleboard. 

The hotel is also home to Africa’s only Nobu restaurant. Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. Better yet, spend a rainy day trying a sushi masterclass and learn Nobu’s famous six-step nigiri method. 

Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. (Shutterstock)

Best of all, the Western Cape’s world-famous restaurants don’t need to be booked months in advance at the moment. Even in the really touristy areas.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. For instance, at Babylonstoren, arguably the region’s most popular spot, bookings for its restaurant Babel open nine months in advance, with its website recommending booking two or three months in advance. Now, you can book with less than 24-hours notice.

La Residence, Franschhoek’s most beautiful property (and a favorite of Sir Elton John), is a boutique option at the best of times, but now it seems almost as though it’s your own private mansion. The 30-acre estate is positioned on a hillock overlooking the village on one side and with lines of vines on the other, as emboldened peacocks wander around your room, and up to your table at breakfast time. One couple has booked in for 46 nights, which may be a bit much, but it’s hard to blame them, given the (relatively) bargain prices and lack of crowds.

If you’re willing and able to travel — and if the country’s borders are open again — this might be the best possible time to visit this dazzling city.


What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval
Updated 26 February 2021

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

What We Are Reading Today: A Decade of Upheaval

Authors: Dong Guoqiang and Andrew G. Walder

A Decade of Upheaval chronicles the surprising and dramatic political conflicts of a rural Chinese county over the course of the Cultural Revolution.
Drawing on an unprecedented range of sources — including work diaries, interviews, internal party documents, and military directives — Dong Guoqiang and Andrew Walder uncover a previously unimagined level of strife in the countryside that began with the Red Guard Movement in 1966 and continued unabated until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Showing how the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were not limited to urban areas, but reached far into isolated rural regions, Dong and Walder reveal that the intervention of military forces in 1967 encouraged factional divisions in Feng County because different branches of China’s armed forces took various sides in local disputes.
The authors also lay bare how the fortunes of local political groups were closely tethered to unpredictable shifts in the decisions of government authorities in Beijing, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. Eventually, a backlash against suppression and victimization grew in the early 1970s and resulted in active protests, which presaged the settling of scores against radical Maoism.


Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future
Updated 25 February 2021

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future

Saudi-British artistic collaboration explores Saudi Arabia’s past, future
  • Young artists received mentorship from prominent Saudi creator Manal Al-Dowayan
  • They were participants in Connect ME program, which fosters UK-Gulf artistic exchange

LONDON: An upcoming artist from Saudi Arabia has revealed the results of his collaboration with a British counterpart, launching digital artwork that “seeks to recalibrate viewers’ perception of ‘the other’ culture.”

Riyadh-based Meshal Al-Obaidallah worked with artist Carolin Schnurrer to produce the work, called “FAREWELL ARABIA: A Bold New Vision,” as part of the Connect ME Digital Residency program run by the Arab British Centre.

The initiative pairs young artists from the Gulf with British counterparts to foster artistic collaboration, and to consider how digital tools can encourage connectivity across borders despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the program, the young artists received mentorship from prominent Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan.

The work by Al-Obaidallah and Schnurrer explores Saudi Arabia’s rapid development during the 20th century and how it changed society, as well as looking ahead at what the future might hold for the Kingdom.

“Through our exchange, we collected found footage, sound bites, quotes, symbols and other fragments,” said Al-Obaidallah.

“These re-appropriated fragments were processed, destroyed, accelerated, decelerated and rearranged,” he added, describing it as a “mishmash of fact and fiction.” 

Eilidh Kennedy McLean, British Council country director for Saud Arabia, congratulated Al-Obaidallah on representing the Kingdom in the residency, saying: “It is an incredible, interesting time for artists to explore different mediums of collaborations to create and innovate despite the physical restrictions during COVID.” 

Also selected to participate in the Connect ME program were Emirati artist Dina Khatib and British artist Ollie Cameron.

They collaborated to create a work that explores “how visualizing the unseen space between them could become a means for connection and exchange.”

All four artists and their mentor Al-Dowayan will host an online talk on March 3 to discuss the program and their creations in-depth.


Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen lands new fashion campaign

Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen lands new fashion campaign
Updated 25 February 2021

Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen lands new fashion campaign

Lebanese influencer Karen Wazen lands new fashion campaign

DUBAI: Lebanese blogger and entrepreneur Karen Wazen has landed herself a new fashion campaign, this time with Italian luxury label Prada.

The fashion house is unveiling its fall-winter 2021 womenswear collection on Thursday at 4 p.m. (Saudi time).

Wazen, who is an eyewear designer and has a brand bearing her name, shared images with her 5.5 million Instagram followers featuring statement pieces from Prada’s upcoming collection.

The Dubai-based fashion influencer wore a satin top and pants in purple, pairing the outfit with an off-white purse and black pointy-toed heels. Dangly black Prada earrings completed the look. 

Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons will have a conversation to discuss the new launch following the new collection’s release.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Prada (@prada)

Marc Jacobs, US model Hunter Schafer, film director Lee Daniels, DJ Richie Hawtin, and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas will join the conversation virtually. The talk will be moderated by YouTube’s Derek Blasberg, who is a US journalist and author.

The collaboration between Prada and Simons was first announced last year.

The Italian has been the creative force behind one of the most successful luxury brands for 30 years, while Simons is considered to be one of the fashion world’s biggest talents. 

His future has been the subject of intense speculation since he left Calvin Klein in 2018. He was previously creative director at Jil Sander and Dior. He also has his own label.