Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy. (SPA)
Short Url
Updated 22 March 2020

Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

  • In light of The Year of Arabic Calligraphy, we explore the roots of the art form and why it’s such an integral part of Arab identity

DUBAI: Calligraphy, a practical means of communication, has evolved into a distinctly cultural proponent that is as contextual as it is decorative. Multifaceted and complex, calligraphy is a tradition that simultaneously reveals and shrouds layers of history, meaning and cultural value.

Though calligraphy dates back to Sumerian cuneiform around 3,500-3,000 B.C., the spread of the Islamic religion from the 7th century saw a more definable form of Arabic calligraphy that gave birth to numerous standardized and regional styles.




Madani, one of the oldest Arabic fonts, was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

Each style contains a unique function, time stamp, patron, audience, context and place of origin — details which are discerned by analyzing, for example, letters such as Alif or Laam.

However, first and second Hijri century calligraphy leaves ample room for the adventurous scholar. Many fragmented surviving documents exclude era indicators such as colophons, dates and authors, relying instead on carbon-14 dating to extract a document or object’s investigative launch point, or resources like Ibn Al-Nadim’s 10th-century “Kitabh Al-Fihrist,” which reveals the four first calligraphic varieties to be Makki, Madani, Basri and Kufi.




Madani was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings. (SPA)

With no clear linear progression and strong stylistic similarities, in the 18th and 19th centuries the various monumental, angular and unpointed Arabic scripts typically used for writing the Qur’an in the first to third Hijri centuries were grouped under the blanket term “Kufic.” Makki and Madani were further linked under “Hijazi” — early handwriting from western Arabia — that in recent years Saudi Arabia has sought to protect.

“Madani is one of the oldest Arabic fonts that was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia, where it first emerged and was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings,” explains Fadhel Al-Ali, Sharjah Calligraphy Museum assistant curator. It is understood as a localized variant of the pre-Islamic Jazm script, borrowing from Himyar Musnad cursive and Nabatean script from the regions of southern Syria and Jordan, northern Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula.




Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. (SPA)

“Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. This a distinctive feature,” says calligrapher Abdulaziz Al-Rashidi.

Noted for its roundness and rightward slope and shape of the final ya, which turns backward to underline the preceding letter — a common Hijazi characteristic — Madani is a foundational font bearing a visual through line from which later styles sprung and are connected. Its specific functions dictated its characteristic compactness or elongated strokes, with dashes above the letters to differentiate consonants and a lack of dots or diacritical marks to indicate vowel sounds.

In the Qur’an, it was presented in singular columns on vertical pages of animal skin parchment, and the lack of consonant points suggest that at that time the Qur’an was memorized rather than read. In the context of royal correspondence, Madani employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic.




The font employed employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic. (SPA)

But Madani is no reliquary tradition. “It is still relevant because it is an important visual reference of the classical origins of calligraphy,” explains Al- Rashidi.

Following King Abdul Aziz’s interest in the preservation of Arabic calligraphy, documents and manuscripts at the King Salman Center for Restoration and Conservation of Historical Materials at the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, Prince Faisal bin Salman, governor of Madina, has worked to protect the Madani script by showcasing it in exhibitions.

In 2018, the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an launched an initiative to digitalize the ancient font, while libraries including the Egyptian National Library, Paris National Library, the Leiden University Library, the University Library of Birmingham, and the Berlin Library hold Madani Qur’ans in their collections.

“The art of calligraphy is our identity and heritage,” says Al-Ali. “By preserving calligraphy, we are in fact preserving our identity as Arabs.”


Egyptian singer Malak El-Husseiny discusses her new single, writer’s block, and her desire to stay vulnerable

Updated 02 July 2020

Egyptian singer Malak El-Husseiny discusses her new single, writer’s block, and her desire to stay vulnerable

CAIRO: “I was very lost and disconnected from my environment and from myself,” says Egyptian singer-songwriter Malak El-Husseiny (who goes by the artist name Malak). “I didn’t know if I wanted to do music that much.”

Malak is talking about the time that preceded the writing of “Can’t Catch An Emotion,” her latest single, released late last month. The song contemplates a painful state of inbetweenness (“The sun frustrates me and the moon don't look as good”) and examines the young artist’s crippling inability to connect with herself.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Now everybody wants to know what introverts do for fun

A post shared by Malak ملك (@malakelhusseiny) on

The five-minute video follows Malak as she walks through different manifestations of nature, navigating her confusion and trying to re-establish that connection.

The 26-year old artist tells Arab News she suffered from a prolonged mental block — weighed down by indifference and an inexplicable heaviness of heart — that she couldn’t seem to shake.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

caving in with the tide, wave after wave on my bedside @lomovros

A post shared by Malak ملك (@malakelhusseiny) on

“It’s not that I couldn’t make music. I just had no feelings to connect to and express in music,” she says. “Eventually I knew that writing about this was going to help me move forward and reconnect to my art, to myself and to my truth. It took a lot in me to be able to finish (this song) and I’m happy I did.”

Malak dropped her debut EP, “Alters,” in 2014 and immediately grabbed attention with her dark English-language electro-pop that drew comparisons to Lana Del Ray, among others. She featured on season four of MBC’s “The X-Factor,” and received critical acclaim for a couple of singles around the same time, particularly “Wild Summer Hearts.” But she has been out of the headlines for quite some time before the release of “Can’t Catch An Emotion.”

She featured on season four of MBC’s “The X-Factor.” (Supplied)

Not that she hasn’t been busy in that time; she launched her own music production company in 2016, which focuses mainly on commercial work — ads and radio jingles, for instance — and has been writing for other artists too, exploring her love of other genres, including hip-hop and trap.

Her wide-ranging musical taste is something that stems from growing up in a family with an extensive and eclectic record collection. “Their hobby was to collect vinyl records, so I grew up listening to Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, Guns & Roses, Dire Straits, Scorpions, and Bon Jovi,” she says. “My dad would spread out his collection and we’d play music all the time. My mom also played the guitar. So there was always music around the house.”

Around the age of 12, Malak realized that she wanted to do more than simply listen to music — she wanted to perform. She started off by trying to recreate beats (“just tapping along”) and practicing on her karaoke machine.

“That’s basically how I got into loving music,” she says. “I guess it just came naturally to me.”

Having performed cover songs at numerous events, Malak was spotted by Subspace Records, and signed a contract with the label when she was just 18. That was when she began writing her own material.

Initially, she says, her writing was more of an attempt to copy her favorite artists. "I had no guidelines,” she says. “I was a kid and I hadn’t written anything before, except for poems and short texts. But I had never written a full four-minute song. Melodies were the most difficult part, because they required a knowledge of music and (melody) matching.”

Around the age of 12, Malak realized that she wanted to do more than simply listen to music. (Supplied)

The label set Malak the task of writing a song a day for three months. “It didn’t have to be a finished song,” she says. “It didn’t even have to be good. But they assigned this exercise so I could learn how to express myself and find my (own) voice.”

The exercise also taught her not to become too attached to the outcome. “It was true expression and that’s what mattered,” she says.

After months of trial and error, Malak began to settle into a songwriting process that she was comfortable with, one that allowed her to tell her own story.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

mooood

A post shared by Malak ملك (@malakelhusseiny) on

“I was singing because I knew this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take a shot at it, to do what I actually believe in and live my truth,” she says. “As I grew up, I wanted to do it in a more authentic way. I didn’t want to have to make music that I didn’t believe in just to be more popular.”

Her approach, she adds, is “more about authenticity and releasing emotion.”

The press release for “Can’t Catch An Emotion” stresses Malak’s commitment to authenticity, claiming that she “sings of the vulnerabilities of being a modern Arab woman” and “explores her journey through love in its different forms and all the euphoric revelations that come with embracing it.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Can’t Catch an Emotion - Out tomorrow on all platforms (link in bio)

A post shared by Malak ملك (@malakelhusseiny) on

Those themes will apparently continue throughout her upcoming debut album, which she says explores various manifestations of love, from “the romantic, to spirituality and one’s relationship with God, (all the way to) one’s relationship to oneself.”

It is an act of questioning that is both subtle and versatile — one in which Malak posits her own inquiries as a modern Arab woman who is curious to understand why things are the way they are; inquiries that Arab women may shy away from because they’re “wired to be scared to rock the boat.”

The album also challenges expectations about how Arab women should perform in society — including having to fit a certain mold “for families to accept you as the wife of someone.”

The album was originally set for release this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it. However, Malak hopes to be able to release — and tour — the record soon.

As for the future, the young star says she’s open to exploring more musical options whilst “staying true to my roots and where I come from.” The key, she asserts, is to stay vulnerable.

“I’ve listened to artists who have changed my whole life just because of one song,” Malak says. “I’ve always wanted to be that type of artist — to write something that is so personal to me, put it out to the world and be so completely vulnerable that people feel it.”