LONDON: Gulnaz Mahboob’s search for a calligraphy master saw her land in Istanbul with “a clean palette,” she says. “I had no knowledge of the science behind it or who the masters were. I knew that I wanted to reconnect with my creative side, but I didn’t know how, where, or who to go to.”
The UK-based calligrapher and teacher traveled to Turkey in 2005. She had previously gone to Malaysia, thinking that she may be able to work there and register on art courses, but she soon learned that Istanbul was where she needed to be.
“Although Islamic calligraphy originated from the Arab world, many are now going to Istanbul because that’s where a lot of the masters are,” Mahboob tells Arab News. “They’ve perfected calligraphy to such an extent, and the standard is very high. Istanbul has become a hotspot for calligraphers.”
Having worked as a consultant for an engineering firm and later as a project consultant for the London Borough of Camden, Mahboob felt her life was missing something — a creative and artistic outlet that her work in London wasn’t providing.
“I needed to realign something inside. I was out of balance,” she recalls. “I felt a void that needed attention, because I wasn't quite fitting into the environments I was in. (I changed jobs) but the void was still there. I decided to take time off work and I had enough savings. It was a calculated risk — I knew that I could go for a certain period of time, to reconnect with my creative side, which I’d left behind a long time ago.”
Mahboob’s search took her to calligraphy master Hasan Çelebi, who agreed to take her on as his student. For Mahboob, her connection with Çelebi was about more than just his Islamic calligraphy skill.
“I was interested in what formula he had,” she explains. “It was clearly working for him because he was just completely at ease and at peace. So not only was I learning (calligraphy) from him, but I was asking him questions about his personal life: How he worked, when was the best time to practice, and so on.”
Mahboob returned to London after eight months, and then spent the next few years between the two cities. In 2009, she moved to Istanbul to immerse herself in her studies before being granted her license (ijazah) in 2012, which allowed her to sign her work and authorized her to begin teaching her own students. During her studies, and as her calligraphy skills improved, she noticed changes within herself.
“Through the learning process, aspects were unfolding about the calligraphy, about myself, about my personality, just through writing these letters,” she says. “It’s a very honest art and it reflects you. And (so I learned that) there were traits I had to change if I wanted to move forward, traits that I could hide before, but that I couldn't with calligraphy.
“You cannot write calligraphy the night before — your teacher will see that,” she continues. “I can write an essay last minute, but I can’t do that with lettering. That mindset and that preparation, everything had changed for me — even in terms of how we learn. We’re so accustomed to questioning everything in the Western education system. But here, you go at your teacher’s pace. If he feels you can progress, you move on. But you don’t move on until he's authorized it. There was an etiquette to follow — what we call ‘adeb.’”
Mahboob felt she was developing a sense of clarity thanks to her studies and her ongoing relationship with Çelebi. Her time back in the UK only emphasized how much she was learning about calligraphy, and about herself.
“When I would come back to London, the energy was different from when I was in Istanbul, I would see stark differences. (In Istanbul) I had this opportunity to immerse myself in an artistic community. I spent hours with Hasan, just watching him making the most incredible corrections. I saw a lot of his personality come through, and I learned a lot about teaching methods. All of this was unraveling, and I just felt I was becoming a clearer person, a calmer person, maybe even a serene person.”
Mahboob has subsequently undertaken her own research, reading up on neurological studies that explore how the use of the hands can shape the behavior of the brain.
“Working with your hands and using your senses — you’re using your eyes to see the beautiful letters, you’re writing them, you’re listening to the Qur’an sometimes — it means you’re connecting the mind, the heart and the soul. When you write, you feel the rhythm of the letter, and that’s very important, as your writing will flow. This, and accuracy, is what brings fluency to your hand. If there is no fluency, it will surface in your work.”
Mahboob currently works with the Thuluth and Naskh scripts and teaches students in London, privately or at the Yunus Emre Institute and the Prince’s Foundation of Traditional Arts. Her relationship with Çelebi is a lifelong one, and to uphold that centuries-old tradition is very important to her.
“You're connected with this transmission of knowledge from one master to the next generation,” she says. “You're transmitting this knowledge to your students and then they become part of this link, this chain, that dates back 10 centuries. I'm trying to continue that.”
The example Çelebi set for Mahboob is one that she strives to emulate as well.
“The patience that he has with the students is something that I try to pass on. I’m honoring his teaching by trying to do the best that I can. When I'm teaching, I understand and appreciate the stamina he had at 70! I keep my sessions short because I know that it's quite tough, but Hasan would sit for three or four hours without a break! He has this certainty and concentration, and he was always dedicated to his teaching. Sometimes you'll see calligraphers write fast, but I've never seen him write fast in all the years I’ve known him. He's had the same consistency, the same speed all the way through.”
When she teaches students, Mahboob is also keen to show them the therapeutic power of calligraphy – much as her master did for her.
“It can improve your wellbeing, should you want it to — you need to want it to, and you need love as well,” she explains. “That is crucial. It's interesting because a lot of my students come from similar backgrounds as myself. I can relate to them. They're professionals and they need some kind of break, or they're looking for a creative outlet. I can understand that.”
Though she has become acknowledged around the world for her work, and in her own right, Mahboob maintains a sense of deference to her master. And she hopes to offer a taste of what calligraphy has given her to the next generation.
“There will be difficulties, of course. Sometimes it just doesn't flow correctly. You have frustrations, and you learn to deal with the challenges. But what is achieved at the end is wonderful. And I think that's what I hope to share. I'm not at the level of my master — there's no way I'm at that level, but I hope I can give students a glimpse into some of his teachings in my short eight-week courses.
“It takes discipline though, and it can need significant changes in your life to incorporate calligraphy, if you're working a full-time job for example. Sometimes living in London seems to suck more energy out of you than other, calmer places. It's busy, it's hectic — I can understand that. But for those who have managed to incorporate the practice of calligraphy, they have found the benefits of just being peaceful. To have that solace. And it's good.”