Tunisia rediscovers traditional art of calligraphy

Tunisian calligrapher Omar Jomni stands next to his artwork at his home in the town of Hammam-Lif, about 20 km southeast of Tunis. (AFP)
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Updated 19 June 2020

Tunisia rediscovers traditional art of calligraphy

  • Sixteen Arab countries, including Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq have prepared a proposal to have Arabic calligraphy inscribed on the UNESCO list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president has become a surprise champion of Arabic calligraphy in his country, shining a light on the artistic tradition as Arab states lobby for its recognition by UNESCO. 

President Kais Saied sparked both admiration and mockery on social media when images emerged of hand-written presidential letters on official paper not long after he took office in October last year. 

An academic with a keen interest in the art form, Saied had studied with well-known Tunisian calligrapher Omar Jomni. 

To prove that Saied had penned the documents himself, the presidency released a video showing him writing in a guest book. 

The president “writes official correspondence in maghrebi script and private letters in diwani,” Jomni said, referring to two forms of Arabic calligraphy. 

Maghrebi script is a form of the older, angular style of Kufic calligraphy, while diwani is a more ornamental Ottoman style popular for poetry. 

The president’s “recognition” of calligraphy has warmed artists’ hearts, Jomni said, giving them hope for a brighter future for an art form that was like “a closed book.” 

Calligraphy in Tunisia lacks the prominence it enjoys in some other Arab countries — such as in the Gulf — and its National Center of Calligraphic Arts, created in 1994, risks closing its doors. 

With a lack of instructors, courses will likely have to end this year, according to the institute’s head, Abdel Jaoued Lotfi. 

“There are not enough professional calligraphers in Tunisia,” said calligraphy master Jomni, who is in his sixties. 

“You can count them on one hand and they are working in precarious conditions.” 

Sixteen Arab countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have prepared a proposal to have Arabic calligraphy inscribed on the UNESCO list of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. 

It’s a chance to consider calligraphy “as a whole culture and living heritage ... and not just as a simple technical skill,” said Imed Soula, a researcher overseeing Tunisia’s submission to the UN cultural body. 

He said Tunisia’s fading calligraphy practice, which traditionally saw artists tackle surfaces like copper or stone, was also linked to the growing use of new technologies, some of which have moved it away from its performing art dimension. 

But Jomni said calligraphy in Tunisia suffered from “the brutal and chaotic marginalization of Islamic culture during the ‘60s, whose repercussions we still feel today.” 

The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987), dismantled and divided up the Islamic University of Ez-Zitouna after a power struggle with its clerical leadership. 

Books and manuscripts from the institute, then Tunisia’s main Arab-language university and one of the most important in the Muslim world, were seized. 

Tunisian calligrapher Mohamed Salah Khamasi studied there at the start of the 20th century and laid down the foundations for calligraphy in the country, passing his knowledge on to several generations. 

Following the 2011 revolution that set Tunisia on the road to democracy, a young generation of calligraphers is now calling for a reinvention of the art form to reflect the spirit of the times — “so that it doesn’t get rusty and outdated,” Karim Jabbari told AFP. 

The artist in his thirties is known internationally for his large-scale calligraphy works, often created with light using long-exposure photography, or in mural form. 

In 2011, in his marginalized hometown of Kasserine, which saw deadly clashes before the fall of longtime autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Jabbari used light to write the names of protesters in the places where they were killed. 

“Through this form of calligraphy, I want to highlight the beauty of the Arabic language and bring it closer to people,” Jabbari said — and “keep our heritage firmly anchored in our memory.”

Bollywood megastar Bachchan hospitalized with COVID-19

Updated 11 July 2020

Bollywood megastar Bachchan hospitalized with COVID-19

  • Affectionately known as "Big B", Bachchan shot to stardom in the early 1970s on the back of roles in huge hit movies such as "Zanjeer" and "Sholay"
  • Millions of Indians revere Bachchan like royalty, hanging on his every word and seeking his blessings

MUMBAI: Bollywood veteran megastar Amitabh Bachchan, 77, has tested positive for COVID-19 and been admitted to hospital in his hometown of Mumbai, he said Saturday on Twitter, calling for those close to him to get tested.
"I have tested CoviD positive .. shifted to Hospital," Bachchan wrote, saying his family and staff had already been tested and were awaiting their results.
"All that have been in close proximity to me in the last 10 days are requested to please get themselves tested!" he added.

His son Abhishek Bachchan, 44, said in a tweet minutes later that he had also tested positive.

The Bollywood actors were admitted to Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment hub, and several other members of the high-profile family were tested for the virus.

Affectionately known as "Big B", Bachchan shot to stardom in the early 1970s on the back of roles in huge hit movies such as "Zanjeer" and "Sholay".
His films still open to packed cinemas across India, but his new movie - comedy-drama "Gulabo Sitabo" - was released on Amazon's streaming service due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Bollywood recently resumed film shoots after a months-long hiatus following the imposition of a nationwide lockdown in India in late March.
But actors over the age of 65, such as Bachchan, are banned from set due to their vulnerability to the virus.
India's nationwide coronavirus toll rose Saturday to 820,916 cases - the third highest in the world - with 22,123 deaths.
Health workers have complained about severe staff shortages, with some senior doctors and nurses avoiding frontlines because of their risk of catching the virus.
As the death toll climbs, critics say the country is not testing enough - leaving many infections undiagnosed.
Millions of Indians revere Bachchan like royalty, hanging on his every word, seeking his blessings and congregating outside his Mumbai bungalow every year on October 11, his birthday.
The doyen of Bollywood is a keen user of Twitter, where he has 43 million followers, and his career has branched into television presenting, business and politics, as well as countless commercial endorsements.
Early in his acting life, Bachchan earned his reputation as India's "angry young man" for portraying violent heroes fighting an unjust system and injecting a new aggressive element into Bollywood movies, which had previously consisted of polite romances.
After some lean years, Bachchan bounced back spectacularly, largely due to his stint as host for the Indian version of the popular TV game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", which revived his artistic and financial fortunes.
According to local media, he was being treated at Mumbai's Nanavati hospital.