BASRA: Stepping out of Basra International Airport, the first thing that welcomes all air travelers into the city is a sculpture of a colorful logo of the city designed for the Arabian Gulf Cup.
Its elegance is in its simplicity: the word Basra, written in majestic English and Arabic calligraphy, separated by a palm tree — Basra’s most famous export. In a city more used to having tacky political posters plastered around town, the logo really stands out as a touch of grace.
Until this week, the designer of the logo had been unknown, but after posting it on his Instagram, it was discovered to be the prestigious Wissam Shawkat. Now based in Dubai, Shawkat has been pushing the boundaries of modern Arabic calligraphy for decades. But growing up in Basra, his deep affinity to the city left him excited to work on leaving a legacy for his childhood home.
“I accepted right away, even without agreeing to any amount,” said Shawkat after being approached by the government of Basra in July last year. “I was very happy and humbled, because being from Basra, I haven’t done anything in my city since I left Iraq 20 years ago.
“I wanted to create a logo that reflects happiness, that reflects celebration,” Shawkat added. “That is why it is so colorful.”
The sculpture is dotted around the city and found outside stadiums, on roundabouts, on the popular corniche and more. Even deep into the night, people can be found excitedly lining up to take selfies and photos with it.
Describing his process in designing the logo, Shawkat clarified that it needed “to be modern yet have some symbols from the city.” Not only does the logo represent happiness, each color used represents an aspect of Basra.
“If you look on the right side, you see different shades of green where the palm trees are,” explained Shawkat. “That’s because Basra is known for the palm; it’s the symbol of Basra.”
Describing the other colors, Shawkat said: “Then below that, there are different shades of blue because the Shatt Al-Arab and Basra are the gates to Iraq, where the Euphrates and Tigris meet.
“Basra suffered a lot during the past 35 years, from the Iran-Iraq War to the first Gulf War and the embargo. I really wanted the logo to reflect happiness and celebration,” said Shawkat of his use of color in the design.
In much the same way, the mere hosting of the cup in Iraq has also helped bring that sense of joy to a nation fractured by so many years of devastation.
Shawkat described other aspects of the logo that incorporated more of Basra’s culture.
“To the left of the palm there is an arch, which represents the shanasheel,” he said.
Known as rowshin in Saudi Arabia and mashrabiya in other Arab countries, shanasheel are the old-style protruding oriel windows with intricate lattice woodwork used in the design of traditional Basra homes.
“Basra has many ethnicities and minorities and that’s what makes Basra the city it is,” said Shawkat. “So also the colors represent that.”
Basra is made up of a diverse community of Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Sabaeans, Mandeans, Arabs of African origin and more, and this celebration of inclusivity and representation is important for Shawkat.
“I’m very proud to have my design in the city I was born in,” he said. “A city that shaped my artistic career.”
Basra is indeed famed for its literary history, producing many poets and intellectuals, such as Khalil ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi, the writer of the first Arabic dictionary and oldest extant dictionary.
Speaking of how being Iraqi has influenced his artistic career, Shawkat said: “Calligraphy is very Iraqi. Iraq was the birthplace of calligraphy.”
The first Arabic script, known as Kufic, was indeed developed in Iraq.
But it was his roots in Basra that influenced Shawkat the most. “I grew up in Basra. There was a lot of struggle, and that struggle shaped my work and made me work harder,” he said.
Basra is a city that has “a history with very influential stories,” said Shawkat.
However, Basra’s modern history has not reflected that to date given the years of violence it has witnessed. But with the legacy of the Arabian Gulf Cup, Shawkat hopes things will change and people will form more positive opinions of the city.
When people found out Shawkat was behind the designs, “the reaction was crazy,” he said.
That reaction has been reflected by the excitement of people interacting with the sculpture throughout the city. Along with the Arabian Gulf Cup in Iraq, the logo is expected to also leave a lasting legacy for a tournament that has brought so much joy to an entire nation and hopefully inspire a generation of Iraqis to explore creativity in the future.