Love your letters, they are your babies!

The Khatt Foundation Center for Arabic Typography just published an interview with Pascal Zoghbi, independent type designer, as part of their Multiple Baselines series. I really loved this quote of Pascal’s at the end of the interview:

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares: What is your advice for the younger generation of type designers from the region?
Pascal Zoghbi: I still consider myself part of the young generation of Arabic type designers, but I guess your question is what would be my advice for the beginner type designers. I would say first and foremost: learn, practice and understand Arabic calligraphy.

Read the full interview on the Khatt Foundation website.

Different stages of the Hamsa font design process.

Different stages of the Hamsa font design process. From

By the Pen: an Islamic Calligraphy Workshop

I’m excited to announce the upcoming workshop By the Pen: An Introduction to Calligraphy in the Islamic Tradition. This hands-on weekend will allow both beginning and advanced students in Islamic calligraphy to hone their skills and better understand the rich cultural context of this art form. The workshop will be held June 18-20 (2010) at a beautiful retreat center in Stony Point, NY, and taught by Elinor Aishah Holland. Ms. Holland was instrumental in the creation of this website, and her calligraphy is featured both in the Calligraphy Qalam logo, and in the videos throughout the site. Watch this interview to learn more about her own interest and background in Islamic calligraphy, and a bit about her teaching philosophy.

One of the issues those of us who live in the United States and are interested in Arabic script calligraphy constantly encounter is the lack of qualified teachers. Workshops like these offer students of calligraphy the unique chance to pack in several in-depth lessons over the course of an intensive weekend. I am planning to attend this workshop, and I hope to see many of you there!

Below is an embedded pdf with further details about the workshop (click on it to view the pdf full-screen, or download the pdf). To register, visit the Stony Point Center’s website.

Istanbul, Part One

Last month I had the great privilege of visiting Istanbul for a week. This post is the first in a series about the calligraphy organizations and resources I discovered on my trip.

The purpose of my trip was to learn more about Arabic and Ottoman calligraphy, since Istanbul is the center for this art form. The timing of my visit coincided with that of my mentor Elinor Aishah Holland; together we spent time with fellow calligraphers, visiting museums and organizations with links to calligraphy (or hat, as it’s called in Turkish), and practicing calligraphy.

One of the most wonderful things about Istanbul is that there is calligraphy everywhere you turn. Mosques, municipal buildings, homes, water fountains—you name it, there’s calligraphy on it. And many of these works were created by Ottoman master calligraphers, so it’s good calligraphy. In this first post, I’m going to share photos of some of the calligraphy I encountered while walking around the city and visiting mosques and museums.

American Qur’an

I recently found out about a fascinating project by the artist Sandow Birk, who is working to create an “American” Qur’an. The lettering and illustration for this manuscript are informed by a uniquely American aesthetic, which contrasts sharply with more traditional manuscripts found in the Middle East. Below is a description of the project:

[This is] an ongoing project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an according to historic Islamic traditions and to illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. Five years in the making, the project has been inspired by a decade of extended travel in Islamic regions of the world and undertaken after extensive research.

To find out more, visit:

The tale of two Alphabets

I just read an interesting article by James Souttar that compares the development of the Latin and Arabic alphabets. He has some good insights (I think) on how the differences between these two scripts reveal different divergent cultural values.

Gutenberg’s revolution, which made possible many other technological revolutions in Western Europe and North America, couldn’t have happened without two highly significant characteristics of the Roman alphabet. First, the isolated nature of its letterforms and, second, the fact that the shape of each letterform is wholly independent of its context.

Visual language says a great deal about a culture and in particular these two alphabetic characteristics say a great deal about that of ‘the West’. This was a culture that valued the breaking down of things into simple, consistent and context-independent components – so as to exercise greater control and effectiveness over those things – whether the ‘thing’ in question was a system, a process or an aesthetic composition. And the monks of the mediaeval scriptoria, whose incanabulae Gutenberg so carefully copied, clearly understood this: they had produced the alphabetic characteristics that enabled Gutenberg’s revolution to facilitate a proto-industrial process of document production. It was this emphasis on decontextualisation – literally, separating the letterform from its context – that later gave birth to the stripped back aesthetic of modernist typography.

The Arabic alphabet, which was common to all of the languages of the Islamic world (principally Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu) provided a different trajectory to modernity. Arabic may only have 28 letters but in writing the appearance of each one of those letters depends, critically, on whether it appears at the beginning, middle or end of a word (and in fine calligraphy this is extended to include a much wider range of variations). Furthermore, although its letterforms are no less considered than their Roman counterparts, each is valued less, aesthetically, than the beauty of the unique word shape they contribute to (and, indeed, than the form of the whole text). The Arabic letter is inseparably part of a whole – which makes for exquisite calligraphy, dependent entirely upon the fine judgment of the calligrapher – but does not lend itself to a simple, repeatable set of mechanical rules.

In the 2010s it seems more likely that we’ll be celebrating a ‘world design’ aesthetic that is about positive qualities of connection and context, dialogue and relationship – qualities that resonate increasingly strongly for many of us. And, ironically, these are exactly the qualities that have always been implicit in the visual expressions of the Arabic alphabet.

The full article can be found here:

So what do you think? Is the recent creative explosion in the world of Arabic typography responding to our need to be more inter-connected? How have our typographic sensitivities changed in recent years?

Arabesque—it’s trendy!


I just read an article at that discussed 2009 logo design and branding trends. In this article, the Paris-based design studio analyzes new logos produced in 2009 for recurring design patterns. They have come up with several categories, including psychedelic pop backgrounds, origami, tactile elements, “classic modern,” pictograms, etc. One of the categories they discuss is called “arabesque.” The logos in this category use the Arabic script or decorative elements which are reminiscent of Arabic. I particularly liked this quote:

Logo designers who use the Arabesque style often have to be sensitive to one of the defining characteristics of Arab calligraphy: thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes with in-between gradations.

Check out the rest of the article here:

Moth Written

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I went to a craft festival in DC this weekend, and came across a lovely shop featuring Arabic writing on a variety of products. The shop was called Moth Written, and is the result of a collaboration of two artists—one from Maine and one from Morocco. While the Arabic writing on their products isn’t calligraphy per se, it is a great example of how the Arabic language is become (slightly) more mainstream in American culture. The booth generated a lot of interest at the craft fair, and the “I love DC” (in Arabic) buttons and bags were especially popular. Visit the Moth Written website for more information about the artists.

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Deir Mar Musa calligraphy

Author’s update: The same day I wrote this post, I received the magazine National Geographic in the mail. A photograph of Deir Mar Musa was featured on the cover! Read more at National Geographic.

Mar Musa

Deir Mar Musa is a desert monastery in Syria. It was named after Saint Moses the Abyssinian, and is notable for its remote mountain location overlooking a desert valley. The monastery was founded in the mid-sixth century A.D. by the Syrian Antiochan Rite. The frescoes in the church date to the 11th and 12th centuries. In the first part of the 18th century, the monastery was abandoned and remained so until 1984.

In 1984, restoration work began through a common initiative of the Syrian state, local churches and a group of Arab and European volunteers. Today an Italian priest named Father Paulo leads the ecumenical group of nuns and monks who live and work at the monastery. Their work focuses on inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue and sustainable agriculture, among other things.

The monastery is a place designed for reflection, and it extends hospitality to all who wish to remain there, on the conditional that they partake in the community’s work. I had the opportunity to visit Deir Mar Musa in April 2006, and was particularly taken by a piece of calligraphy hanging in the chapel. It says, “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” and reflects this community’s desire for peaceful religious co-existence in the Middle East.

Deir Mar Musa Chapel


Music of the Eye

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet Sanaa Boutayeb Naim, a Moroccan filmmaker who lives here in Washington, DC. In the fall of 2008 she produced a documentary feature about master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, and kindly allowed me to feature the video on the blog. In this 11-minute documentary, Mohamed Zakariya offers insight into the art of Arabic script calligraphy. I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching.

Obama in Istanbul

Calligraphy was in the news this week when President Obama visited Istanbul. The New York Times reported on April 7th, “Mr. Obama spent the morning meeting with religious leaders, and then went on a tour of Hagia Sophia, once the biggest church in Christendom and now a museum, and the famed 17th-century Blue Mosque.”

President Obama, second from right, toured the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Obama at the Blue Mosque. Calligrapher Hasan Celebi was responsible for restoring the calligraphy inscriptions in this magnificent mosque.

President Obama, second from right, toured the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Obama at the Hagia Sophia. The circular calligraphy panels in this museum were created by calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi in the 19th century.