Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony
Hassan Massoudy has spent a lifetime creating art that, despite its break with tradition, continues to express the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. (Supplied)
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Updated 24 September 2020

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony

Iraqi calligraphy artist Hassan Massoudy’s search for harmony
  • The acclaimed artist and calligrapher discusses the origins of his work and the decades of practice leading to his new book

LONDON: The Iraqi artist and renowned calligrapher Hassan Massoudy is at home in Paris quietly reminiscing. Now well into his 70s, and having not returned to Iraq for 50 years, he can be excused the odd moment of nostalgia.

“When I was younger, I went on a trip with my mother to visit her brother, who was a preacher and a thinker,” he remembers. “I looked at him in awe in his black clothes and large turban as he wrote literary phrases using a reed pen. I didn’t know how to read at that time, but what attracted me was the black ink on the white paper. I used to see the Arabic letters as a set of pictures. I marveled at that sight.”

He remembers, too, being summoned to the front of his class when he was 10 years old. Expecting the worst, he made his way to the front slowly, only to be praised for the quality of his writing. “I was over the moon when my teacher asked me to write in front of the other students in order for them to learn,” he says, pride still evident after all these years. “Today, after 66 years, I think that was the first time I wrote calligraphy in front of an audience — something I have continued to do all my life.”

Generosity is giving more than you can. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). (Supplied)

Massoudy has spent a lifetime creating art that, despite its break with tradition, continues to express the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. He has taken individual letters and words, constructed them as huge sculptural works, and developed his artistic practice through the increased use of energy and speed. This has led to the creation of texts with far greater character, he says, and to his own appreciation of the importance of space. “Beforehand, I thought that the letter was the only important aspect of calligraphy,” he says. “Now I realize that the space around the letters is another part of calligraphy — the letters and spaces must work together in harmony.”

Renowned for transforming poetic texts into vibrant works of art, Massoudy may have broken with classical calligraphic tradition, but his sentences are peppered with references to old masters. In Istanbul, he met the last of the great Ottoman calligraphers, including Hamid Aytaç, and studied for a brief period of time at the Madrasat Tahsin Al Khotoout in Cairo. As an apprentice in Baghdad, he spent hours with Hashem Al-Baghdadi, considered the last of the classical calligraphers. 

Knowledge stands at the highest of all ranks. Arabic saying. (Supplied)

In 1980, he went in search of the official body of work of Ibn Muqla, a vizier within the Abbasid Caliphate and the first to codify the principles of calligraphy in the 10th century. Although not a single line of Ibn Muqla’s work has survived, Massoudy has documented the calligrapher’s physical legacy, including a small eight-page notebook in Cairo and another in the National Library in Tunis. The former is a copy made some time in the 16th century.

“How do calligraphers from the past continue to affect me? Their beautiful lines have lived for thousands of years, and as a calligrapher you want to continue that. And as Jalaluddin Rumi says: ‘What you are looking for is also looking for you.’”    

Born and raised in Najaf, Massoudy moved to Baghdad in his late teens. The idea was to study at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts but he didn’t meet the entry requirements, so turned instead to the calligraphers’ shops that could still be found in the city in the early Sixties. The world he encountered there was populated by a small group of calligraphers, “but it was generous, open-minded, and unafraid of the collapse of classical methods.”

The best of speech is concise and precise. Arabic proverb. (Supplied)

Although all of his work was in the world of advertising, he learned multiple styles of calligraphy, including elaborate forms such as Thuluth and Diwani, before leaving for Paris in 1969. There, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he produced his first figurative paintings and eventually formed what would become his own distinctive practice.

“In my calligraphy I reflect my personal state of being — my hopes and my aspirations,” he says. “I empty my soul of all its concerns, providing myself a state of inner peace. This is a state of equilibrium between the artistic process of the self and the human community we are linked to. What can an artist do against the wars and the injustices faced by individuals? I believe that an artist can make their work honestly representative of the time, and therefore a benefit for future generations. It’ll be for others to judge the quality of the artist’s work, therefore determining its longevity.”

Place your words well, for words place you. Arabic saying. (Supplied)

The words he draws upon for his work are those of others, particularly the writings of poets and philosophers, including Rumi, Khalil Gibran and the Persian mystic Al-Hallaj. He also draws heavily on proverbs from around the world. In doing so, he not only creates distinctive works of art, but promotes a message of peace and tolerance — two themes that are central to much of his work. That’s why words such as ‘love’ and ‘serenity’ are sprinkled liberally throughout his work.

That body of work is extensive, ranging from works on paper to theatrical performances that combine music and poetry with the creation of calligraphy live on stage. His first such performance was with the French actor Guy Jacquet and the Iraqi multi-instrumentalist Fawzy Al-Aiedy — the trio toured for 13 years in the Seventies and early Eighties. A later collaboration with the choreographer Carolyn Carlson and the Turkish musician Kudsi Erguner led to the creation of “Metaphore,” a ‘harmony of music, dance and calligraphy.’

Be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi (1869-1948). (Supplied)

“When I find a poetic verse, one that includes an image that I can see perfectly in my mind, I take its most beautiful words and spend days imagining the poet writing those words and how to formally reach a new expression through the new construction of a word,” Massoudy explains. “I also try to think of what can be added to enrich the painting. For example, the use of colors, as I am a person who tries his best to achieve perfection. When I speak of perfection, my goal is to create something that is as close as possible to the vision the poet had in mind. Therefore, I write the same word multiple times in a different size, even if it (differs) just by a few millimeters.”

This creative process was central to the creation of “Calligraphies of the Desert,” published by Saqi Books this month. Drawing inspiration from the writers and poets who ‘lost themselves in the mysteries of the desert,’ it is the end result of various trips undertaken by Massoudy and his wife Isabelle to the deserts of North Africa. It was there that his calligraphy “took on the ochre, yellow and pink hues of the setting sun” and his lines “closely paralleled the hollows of the dunes.”

Massoudy’s artistic vision is a humanist one. He seeks to enhance society and to elevate culture, using inspirational words to “contribute modestly to public awareness.”

“Love, happiness, hope and dignity,” he says. “All of these themes, and many others, are needed in this current time.”

Model Elisa Sednaoui Dellal collaborates with French label Antik Batik

Model Elisa Sednaoui Dellal collaborates with French label Antik Batik
The model joined forces with Paris-based label Antik Batik. Supplied
Updated 18 May 2021

Model Elisa Sednaoui Dellal collaborates with French label Antik Batik

Model Elisa Sednaoui Dellal collaborates with French label Antik Batik

DUBAI: French womenswear label Antik Batik has just launched a new collaboration with Part-Egyptian model and activist Elisa Sednaoui Dellal’s nonprofit social enterprise Funtasia, helping children and teenagers obtain access to education geared toward their development.

The Antik Batik x Funtasia capsule collection, which was released this week, includes 11 pieces such as tops, trousers, a fringed jacket, and embroidered dresses, that are meant to be mixed and matched.

“Partnering with @antikbatik_paris is the dream collaboration,” wrote Sednaoui Dellal on Instagram. “#AntikBatik is a brand of integrity that creates handmade items in India. I’ve been their fan, and a client, for over 10 years. It’s been a joy to select my favorite pieces that I have most worn through the years and create what to me is the ideal summer suitcase, that will take you from day to night. Thank you to all of you that have already made a purchase, it blesses my heart.”

Meanwhile, 100 percent of the profits from the collection with the Paris-based brand, founded by Gabriela Cortese in 1992, will be donated to Funtasia, Sednaoui Dellal’s social enterprise.

It’s not the first time the Italy-born beauty, who spent a large portion of her childhood in Cairo, has collaborated with a fashion brand for a good cause.

Sednaoui Dellal, who has walked runways and featured in campaigns for prestigious brands such as Chanel and Roberto Cavalli, is on a constant quest to assist underprivileged youth in achieving their creative potential.

In 2020, the actress teamed up with France-based accessories label Josefina on a capsule collection of 16 leather carryalls, pouches, backpacks and accessories inspired by her Egyptian roots. Much like her most recent collection with Antik Batik, 100 percent of the profits from the collaboration benefited Funtasia.

That same year, she designed a capsule collection with Italian brand Spazio that was composed of black and white T-shirts printed with the words “Respect,” “Diversity,” “Empathy” and “Identity” in Italian.

More recently, the French-Italian-Egyptian philanthropist teamed up with Italy-based coffee roasting company Caffe Vergano in support of Funtasia.

Startup of the Week: Tebr Jewelry; Each piece made with the utmost care

Startup of the Week: Tebr Jewelry; Each piece made with the utmost care
Updated 18 May 2021

Startup of the Week: Tebr Jewelry; Each piece made with the utmost care

Startup of the Week: Tebr Jewelry; Each piece made with the utmost care

JEDDAH: Abeer Khafaji is a Saudi artist who designs and sells luxury jewelry for her brand, Tebr Jewelry. She discovered her love for the craft when she began experimenting with handmade jewelry.

“I began studying jewelry designing. It took several courses to hone my skills. Now I make sure that each piece is made with the utmost care, using the highest quality materials from the best suppliers,” Khafaji told Arab News.

Her jewelry is made with natural diamonds and precious and semi-precious stones that she chooses to match her designs. She also pays special attention to the packaging of her pieces, which is part of the “Tebr experience.” “My biggest challenge was finding manufacturers who could help me convert my ideas to physical products while maintaining the elegance I aim for,” she said. Tebr has participated in numerous local and international jewelry exhibitions. However, the designer said she gets the most joy out of her work when she sees her customers talking about her products and wearing them with pride. “My biggest achievement was opening a Tebr atelier in Jeddah,” she said.

Khafaji explained the process behind her work: “It takes a lot of time and effort to launch a new collection at the right time. We start working on these months in advance. It is a long process to choose stones that are compatible with my designs, so to ensure perfection we make the demos before the pieces are released. Then we arrange photography sessions with the crew, and then comes social media advertising. But thankfully, it’s all worth it in the end.”

Major luxury retailers announce removal of popular brand due to alleged ‘anti-Palestine’ comments

Major luxury retailers announce removal of popular brand due to alleged ‘anti-Palestine’ comments
Cult Gaia is a Los Angeles-based label founded by Jasmin Larian. Instagram
Updated 17 May 2021

Major luxury retailers announce removal of popular brand due to alleged ‘anti-Palestine’ comments

Major luxury retailers announce removal of popular brand due to alleged ‘anti-Palestine’ comments

DUBAI: Harvey Nichols Kuwait announced this week that they will no longer be stocking Cult Gaia products after the Los Angeles-based brand’s founder, Jasmin Larian, made comments on Instagram that were deemed by many on social media to be “anti-Palestine.”

Her post, which she shared with her 28,200 Instagram followers read: “I am seeing so much misinformation on social… One-sided and spreading hate. Please educate yourself on the full story before reposting. I’m praying for everyone on both sides who are a victim of this violence.” She also reposted a photo depicting the words “I support Israel’s right to defend itself.” 

Many in the region perceived her post as taking an anti-Palestine stance and engaging in “bothsidesism,” and urged local department stores and e-tailers to stop selling Cult Gaia products.  

In response to the backlash her post garnered, Larian, who is Iranian-Jewish, later shared: “I realize I am part of the problem by failing to share both sides.” She added, “I also want to be clear that I am in support of the Palestinian people and their rights but not of the leadership that uses them to incite violence and hatred for Israel and Jews. In a perfect world, Israel should be a place for all people and all religions.” However, a number of retailers have already made the decision to remove Cult Gaia from shelves.

Harvey Nichols in Kuwait took to Instagram on Monday to announce their decision to stop stocking the ready-to-wear label. “Our dear followers, due to the current escalation of events, the decision has been made to remove Cult Gaia from Harvey Nichols,” said the statement.

Galleries Lafayette in Doha followed suit, replying to a user calling for the boycott of the brand in an Instagram direct message that they are “in the process of taking the necessary action.”

Ounass, a leading luxury e-tailer in the region, has also stopped selling Cult Gaia products on its online platform as well as Bloomingdales Middle East.

The death toll in Gaza has climbed to a total of 197, including at least 58 children and 34 women, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Since the beginning of the Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip this week, at least 1,235 Palestinians have been injured, with the number expected to rise, the health ministry said.

Meet the Arab fashion brand supporting women through menswear

Meet the Arab fashion brand supporting women through menswear
Updated 17 May 2021

Meet the Arab fashion brand supporting women through menswear

Meet the Arab fashion brand supporting women through menswear

DUBAI: While Arab womenswear designers continue to take the international fashion scene and celebrity red carpets by storm, menswear is still a work in progress. Understanding the need to fill the gap in the market, cousins Abla and Raneen Kawar launched ARAK, creating unique designs for men and also shining a spotlight on Arab culture. 

With sustainability and community at the forefront of the brand’s ethos, ARAK is a social enterprise, empowering local women and preserving their fading culture. Here, the duo discusses their label, fusing fashion with technology, and why showcasing Middle East traditions is so important. 


A post shared by ARAK Studio (

Tell us about the idea behind ARAK.

We launched ARAK (meaning “I see you”) with the aim to preserve our Arab heritage by using artisanal skills and techniques in the production of our pieces, namely cross stitch embroidery. We grew up in a family that values sustainability and caring for the environment, so it’s important for us to carry out those values. 

Why focus on menswear?

We noticed the visible gap in the market, particularly with Arab menswear brands. So, we wanted to fill that gap by incorporating traditional Levantine embroidery through our designs. As part of our sustainability efforts, we only want to offer consumers garments that are not offered in the market today.


A post shared by ARAK Studio (

You say ‘each garment narrates a wider narrative,’ how so?

Each collection we produce has an overarching narrative, which the designs are inspired by, and then each piece has a hidden narrative to tell – the story of the woman who spent endless hours creating it.                                                                                                                                  

Most of your artisans are underprivileged women in Jordan, why was this important to you?    

Part of ARAK’s ethos is female empowerment. We provide the women with jobs and the opportunity to be financially independent and to help them provide for their children, all from the comfort of their own home. It was important to support these women and destigmatize the taboo around women working in traditionally conservative households.


A post shared by ARAK Studio (

How does your relationship work with the local NGO in Jordan?

ARAK works with a local NGO based in Amman, for the production and operation of embroidering the pieces in order to ensure quality and consistency. The local NGO launched in October 2020, aiming to help women build sustainable income as well as build their skills professionally. They work with a not-for-profit academy which offers 100 percent free artisanal courses for members in a bid to continue advancing their skills. We offer the women work with fair wages and ethical working conditions.

ARAK’s designs also fuse tech with tradition, tell us more.               

Today’s world is shifting towards being more tech-dependent. So, it was a no brainer that the initial step we would take as a brand was to implement a woven QR code attached to each garment. Our QR code allows purchasing customers to track how to care for their garment, be introduced to who made it, and identify our transparent practices. We hope to integrate more tech-savvy solutions to our brand in the future.   


A post shared by ARAK Studio (

What was the inspiration behind your SS21 collection?                     

Re-discovering our country from a new lens, particularly appreciating the little things as well as the beautiful landscapes that we took for granted pre-COVID-19. The designs in this collection, translate the beauty of the Jordanian landscape through embroidery.                              

What’s your opinion on the representation of Middle Eastern talent in the fashion industry?

The region is filled with incredible talent, many that are yet to be discovered. We believe that representation of the Middle East for what it is still has a long way to go to be perceived in the light it deserves. ARAK aims to do that by making sure all our work is supporting local talent, from the production down to the photographers, models and anyone involved in the creative process of our journey.

Miss Universe 2021 contestants dazzle in designs from the Middle East

Miss Universe 2021 contestants dazzle in designs from the Middle East
Demi-Leigh Tebow wearing Michael Cinco at the Miss Universe 2020 finals. Instagram
Updated 17 May 2021

Miss Universe 2021 contestants dazzle in designs from the Middle East

Miss Universe 2021 contestants dazzle in designs from the Middle East

DUBAI:  Filipino couturier Michael Cinco seems to be a favorite when it comes to beauty pageants. Miss Universe fans will recall that the Dubai-based designer created the gowns that Pia Wurtzbach and Iris Mittenaere, who were crowned Miss Universe in 2015 and 2016, respectively, wore to take home the crown.

This year, he was tasked with designing the dresses of some of the contestants, such as Nova Stevens of Canada, for the Miss Universe 2020 finals, which took place on Sunday evening at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, South Florida.

He also designed the dresses that Miss Czech Republic Klara Vavrushkova and Romania’s Bianca Tirsin wore to the preliminaries on May 14.

Miss Czech Republic stunned in a Michael Cinco gown at the preliminaries. Getty Images

Stevens announced the news weeks ago by posting a photo with the renowned designer on Instagram.

 “Boss! Michael Cinco needs no introduction! So grateful to have you as my official gown designer for Miss Universe,” she wrote alongside a heart-eyed emoji.


A post shared by NOVA (@thenovastevens)

Stevens wasn’t the only designer to don a frock by the Dubai-based label during the televised Miss Universe 2020 finals.

Demi-Leigh Tebow, who won Miss Universe in 2017, channeled 1930s Hollywood glamour in a gown designed by the Filipino talent during the 69th edition of the pageant in Florida.

Olivia Culpo wore an embellished Zuhair Murad gown to host the Miss Universe 2020 competition. Getty Images

Tebow served as an expert analyst and correspondent during the event which was co-hosted by the Miss Universe 2012 titleholder Olivia Culpo and American actor Mario Lopez.

For the occasion, Culpo chose a design from Lebanese couturier Zuhair Murad. The fashion influencer opted for a pink, heavily-embellished gown with a single shoulder from the Arab designer’s Fall 2021 ready-to-wear collection.

Couturiers from our neck of the woods had a big night.

Rabiya Mateo, who represented the Philippines wore two glamorous creations by Dubai-based Amato for the preliminary show and for the finals.

Miss Philippines Rabiya Mateo wore a gown designed by Amato at the 2020 Miss Universe prelimenary show. Supplied

In March 2021, it was announced that the annual competition would be returning with a live broadcast after a number of safety precautions were put in place.

 Twenty-six-year-old Andrea Meza from Mexico was crowned Miss Universe 2020, while Miss Brazil, Julia Gama, was the runner-up and Miss Peru, Janick Maceta Del Castillo, secured third place.