JEDDAH: Adapting Arabic letters to technology has been a challenge since the first printing practices arrived in the Arab world in the 18th century.
There have been many developments since Arabic was first introduced to computers in the 1980s. Calligraphy enthusiasts, however, yearn for something to take it to the next level.
“The current technology was initially built only for the Latin script, although it was extended and modified later to accept other languages including Arabic as a result of globalization. Arabic script was among those languages that compromised a lot of its beauty to be accommodated in the (modern digital) font system,” Fahad Al-Rashed, co-founder of Kaleam, a calligraphy design platform, told Arab News.
The problem arises from the simplification needed for use on computers. Arabic writing is mainly cursive, where letters are attached, unlike Latin. To resolve this, some designers tried to Latinize Arabic letters in a detached set type.
Al-Rashed believes that Arabic does not need to be simplified any more, especially with technology today being advanced enough to accommodate the requirements of calligraphic typefaces.
He thinks it is time to solve the problem from the roots and build new technology to digitize the Arabic script while preserving its authentic spirit and beauty. In a bid to do that, he co-founded Kaleam.
The Saudi startup was co-founded by Al-Rashed and Abdul Aziz Al-Sharikh.
Kaleam aims to revolutionize the script’s use in computers, using its Saudi-built technology that allows users to create personalized fonts and calligraphy art pieces based on its fundamental aesthetic principles.
It employs a unique digital Arabic calligraphy technology that flexibly mimics professional calligraphers’ hand movements when creating glyphs on the paper.
It also allows the user to smoothly manipulate the text, which enables them to achieve a faster and more authentic outcome than manual handwriting.
It took the two partners over four years to build the platform, which was launched in October.
However, the story behind the innovative platform goes back to 2000, the year when Al-Rashed obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer science at King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran.
“At that time, I came across the story of the prominent Stanford professor Donald Knuth. He is a leading computer scientist in the field of algorithms and a perfectionist who paid keen attention to the fonts in which his research was typed in,” said Al-Rashed.
“Knuth took a break from writing one of his major works due to his increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of typesetting, especially after his most appreciated classic printing method by the monotype machine was replaced with another less elegant technology in the 1960s.
“So, he took it upon himself to design his typesetting system, which would significantly influence font construction and the modern computer typefaces.” Al-Rashed was moved by the inspiring story and wondered why no one had created an exclusively designed technology for Arabic calligraphy.
“At that time, there were fewer fonts available on Microsoft and Apple devices and they were miserable. It did not please me to see the vast difference between digital Arabic fonts and the Arabic writing of the Qur’an,” he said.
Al-Rashed later obtained his master’s degree in software engineering and artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
He focused his dissertation on a new modeling approach to Arabic calligraphy, which laid down the foundations of Kaleam’s technology.
He also received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Texas A&M University in the US.
Kaleam aims to provide a radical solution to this problem with the Arabic script.
“It is time to move to the next level. I’m not saying the next step, we want to elevate the challenge to a completely new level, by creating an Arabic technology instead of trying to adapt to a system that was not created for it,” Al-Rashed said.
Currently, Kaleam targets primary users of digital Arabic calligraphy, including artists, design studios and advertising companies.
“Our technology helps those who want to make a digital Arabic calligraphy art piece, or an invitation card, a logo, and so on with the least effort possible and the best result,” he said.
The web-based platform is a subscription-based service and is accessible everywhere. It keeps an up-to-date file of designs online, so designers can always access the latest version of their projects and can easily collaborate with their team members. Users can also try Kaleam for free and create three projects on https://kaleam.com.
It requires neither installation nor updates from the user’s side and runs on Microsoft and Apple devices through both Chrome and Safari browsers.
Kaleam fonts were created to be utilized in Arabic handwriting designs eliminating the need for any other platform or the need to design TrueType or OpenType files.
Users can export projects into various formats as it supports multiple programs, including 3D and laser printing.
Kaleam currently offers the Thuluth font, and will soon add Naskh and Diwani. Al-Rashed and Al-Sharikh’s journey with Kaleam was not comfortable.
“We went through frustrating times because we sensed a lack of public awareness about the importance of such services.”
He said that program may seem easy to use, but it took the pair a long time to reach this stage.
“There were times when I was ready to hand over my work to somebody else to develop it and apply it as they please, but that did not happen,” he added.
Reaching out to people and changing their perception about the currently used technology is a daunting task. According to Al-Rashed, institutional support is critical to spread awareness on subjects related to art and culture.
Announcing the year 2020 as the Year of Arabic Calligraphy, and then the creation of the Prince Mohammad bin Salman Global Center for Arabic Calligraphy last April were huge motivational steps for many people in the field across the country.
Al-Rashed stressed that Kaleam technology has a very high potential to be developed further and used in different other ways, including Arabic calligraphy education and training.
It can involve the fields of robotics, as well as advanced art creation and education programs for different ages and uses. Furthermore, Kaleam aims to create a calligrapher’s robotic arm tool as well as an Arabic calligraphy digital pen.
Regardless of current challenges, he said, the service is already expanding beyond Saudi Arabia to Turkey, Egypt, Iran, UAE, Oman, and Iraq and even Europe and the US.