Sunday, November 13, 2011

Will Computers Make Extinct The Last Of Islam's Proud And Honourable Calligraphers? (Robert Fisk in The Independent)

    Tripoli in northern Lebanon is an overwhelmingly Muslim city and Naja has a PhD in Islamic studies. But he is also a calligrapher and the black packet contains his pens and brushes. "Now, Robert, take these two pencils and drop them on the floor." I do. One sounds low and hollow. The other sounds high and brittle. "The higher the note, the better the pencil," he says.

   Calligraphy is an Islamic rather than a mere Arabic form of art, partly because Muslims disapprove of the human image in religious work. Iran has at least 200 calligraphers but in Beirut, it is a dying art – Naja is one of 10 authentic calligraphers left – and the computer is slowly destroying these craftsmen. Naja picks a sheaf of glossy, bright pages and a tiny inkpot and his pens and pencils scream over the surface as if they are alive, louder than chalk on a blackboard.

Koran portfolio in Kufic-style calligraphy, 11th century, Smithsonian 

   I am reminded of illuminated bibles, for these are letters and words in the nearest you can get to pictures. Naja copies out a sura from the Koran and his pen screams and squeaks and screams, his script moving up and down the page, bottom to top, measured in the number of little "diamonds" – five at the most – and their place within and below the consonants, usually indicating vowels. In the past, this was also the language of government, of Ottoman Firmins and of authority. The ink is special, and they say it smells of oranges.

   Naja calls his work "the trade of honour", and I realise at once that 200 years ago, anyone who was literate would want to write like this, not only a proof of power, but of learning. How typical that our laptops are now destroying the literacy of the past. Naja still copies the text of the Koran and his eyes narrow in concentration. It is script and art and religion rolled into one. Who would today ever copy out the Bible by hand? I think of Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells lying now in the great library of my old university of Trinity College, in Ireland.

Sample of Calligraphy in Persian Nasta'liq Script, 1500-1600, Brooklyn Museum

   "Calligraphy cannot be learned immediately – and it is a hobby as well as a practice," Naja says. "There are Christian calligraphers, though not many. The script is hidden in revealing itself to the teacher. How can I explain it to you? My father was my first teacher. Then I travelled to Turkey, Egypt and many Arab countries, and I would learn, little by little, to create this experience." I wonder if, in fact, calligraphy is a linguistic version of singing. Naja gives me a sidelong glance. "Given that the Koran is not poetry or regular when writing it, reading it is not as regular as singing. It has its own identity."

   The Prophet, famously, was himself illiterate – his words were copied down later – but Naja adds that "illiteracy does not mean lack of education – the Prophet was wise and spoke to calligraphers". In olden times, they would receive a certificate of calligraphy, a practice that has now largely disappeared, although Naja himself has won international awards in calligraphy and has been a judge of calligraphic art. The Diwani script in which he is writing was developed under the Ottoman empire and perhaps the most famous calligraphy – still found on old fountains in Beirut – is the Ottoman official seal.

   Naja is a serious man – you'd have to be to write like this – but he enjoys life as a university professor in Beirut. "I pray, of course, but I am an open person. I enjoy all countries and all civilisation. Islam is a moderate religion, not a fundamentalist one. It is a mix and an integration of civilisations."

Koran page written in Naskh cursive script. Each verse is separated by an ayah marker consisting of a gold six-petalled rosette with blue and red dots on its perimeter. Mamluk, Egypt, 1300-1400, Library of Congress.

    Alas, that will not maintain the calligraphers of the Middle East. Some earn their living today (though not Naja) by writing out restaurant menus or inscribing dinner menus for presidents. It seems a sad outcome of centuries of art, although Naja will be going for many years yet. And then I look at my own notes of our interview, in shabby pencil, in handwriting I can scarcely read. This is what writing with a computer has done for me. I have started to write not letters and words but the imitation of words, pictures of words where I now have to second-guess missing letters. I suspect this is because the laptop allows me to think faster than I can write and when I return to pencil, my words trip over each other.

   Naja has started work on another sheet of paper and the screaming pen begins again. Then I realise there is a silk ribbon through the pen and that is what is screaming, the ink running on to the material and the pressure of the pen is applied to the silk. I slowly read as he writes. R-Wow-Bay-R-T-F-Yay-Sin-Kaf. "Robert Fisk," it says in Arabic. And he writes his own name in tiny letters beneath: "Jamal Naja, Tripoli, on 5/11/2011."

NOTE: Although I often (I would say mostly) disagree with the journalism of Robert Fisk, who writes in The Independent (London), I always read him because he is more intelligent and knowledgeable than most journalists covering the Middle East and because his passion and love for Middle Eastern culture supplements and, to some extent, moderates his driven and vituperative political views.  This article about the demonstrable decline and probable eventual extinction of the ancient and honorable art of Islamic calligraphy needed to be written, is extremely enjoyable, and should, I think, be read in its entirety because of the way Fisk links the passing of elegant calligraphy to the decline of handwriting in general as a direct result of the introduction of laptop computers into our lives.  My own personal "connection" to the piece comes through my former life as an Islamic art graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where I was fortunate to study with the great scholar Dr. Richard Ettinghausen.  My involvement in the field derived from my high school interest in Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and I originally approached art as more of a words/writing person than a visual one.  Islamic calligraphy, a visually rich, intellectually edifying and complex subject, helped to transform the way I looked at and studied art.  I hope readers unfamiliar with this subject and with Fisk's writing enjoy this.  Happy Sunday.  P.S. My own handwriting would, if I were a legend, be considered legendarily awful.

Dr Jamal Naja meets me in a coffee shop just down the road from his home in Alamuddin Street, a quiet almost mischievous face, greying hair, and he lays – with great care – a black packet on the table in front of him.


  1. This is wonderful. Ah, true literacy, where hast thou fled?

    I can't separate my own memories of what is now given the general all-purpose name "writing" from my memories of what was once called "penmanship".

    Such a beautiful and earnest term for something so old and so worth learning to do right.

    A. ponders, "I wonder if they even TEACH cursive script any more in schools?"

    I guess you might ask Jane.

    But one fears the answer would be, Negative.

  2. Yes, I think cursive is going out of style. I loved penmanship, esp. cursive class when you went to the blackboard and wrote a long line of letters, all looped together. I loved writing with different pens and pencils, crayons, pastels, paint brushes. Now I have lousy handwriting, but I still can't quite capture thoughts with a computer. I need the pencil and paper, the scrawl or my funky handwriting that has some relationship with the subject

    But I hate to think of this art being wasted on menus. Maybe that is also comment on our relationship to art and contemplation as it does about the fate of calligraphy? I don't know. But it is so beautiful . . . Thank you for this post!

  3. Hello and thanks for writing. Jane learned cursive, but not the way we did. You have the feeling that it was taught with second thoughts already in place -- that there was no intention that it would either "mold" or "stick." Consequently, although I think her handwriting is attractive (far more so, I have to say, than mine ever was), cursive is already underused and fading. She's esssentially a "keyboarder." Caroline has lovely handwriting. Our mothers' handwriting was beautiful and is indelibly stamped in my memory. My father's wasn't bad. My two grandfathers, neither of them college graduates, had excellent cursive script. A different extinct world. Curtis

  4. One additional, kind of interesting, observation a propos of cursive. On a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, during our time in the hushed (quite silly, really) Hall of Fame Room at the top of I.M. Pei's pyramid, we surveyed the etched-in-glass simulacra of signatures of the various inductees. With very few exceptions, the black artists admitted to the HOF (including Stevie Wonder)had beautiful, careful handwriting and took their signing seriously. The white artists, who probably mostly came from less humble economic circumstances, had ridiculous, illegible "showbiz" signatures. In the future, I guess we'll all be "typing-in," rather than signing-in or simply signifying our presence with the traditional "X." Curtis