Book review: The Calligrapher’s Secret

The Calligrapher's Secret

The novel The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami is a passionate love story involving an acclaimed calligrapher, his beautiful wife, and a lively young apprentice. The book is set in Damascus, Syria in the early to mid-1950s.

The plot has more to do with political and religious intrigue and the factions that existed (and exist) in Syria in the 1950’s than with calligraphy, but there are a few gems interspersed in its pages regarding the culture and art of Islamic calligraphy. Here are a few of the best snippets:

On the calligrapher’s pen (Note: I’m not sure how historically accurate this information is, but it’s still interesting!):

The calligraphers made the simple act of letter-writing into a cult of secrets. They wrote letters to husbands or wives with a copper pen, letters to friends and lovers with a silver pen, letters to particularly important persons with a golden pen, letters to a promised bride with the beak of a stork, and to enemies and adversaries with a pen carved from a pomegranate twig.

The following is a lovely passage about the art of calligraphy, reminiscent of Mohamed Zakariya’s Music for the Eyes:

Arabic script could have been made to be music for the eye. As it is always cursive, the length of the link between the characters plays a large part in the composition. The lengthening or shortening of this link is to the eye like the extension or reduction of the time for which a musical note is held to the ear. The letter A(lif), which is a vertical line in Arabic, becomes a bar line for the rhythm of the music. But as the size of the letter A(lif) itself determines the size of all other letters, according to the doctrine of proportion, it also takes part in the height and depth of the music formed horizontally by the letters on every line. And the different breadth of both the letters and the transitions at the foot, body, and head of those letters, from fine as a hair to sweeping, also influences the eye. Extension in the horizontal and the interplay between round and angular characters, between vertical and horizontal lines work on the melody of the script and produce a mood that is either light, playful, and merry, or calmly melancholic, or even heavy and dark.

And if you want to go carefully about making music with the letters, the empty space between letters and words calls for even greater skill. The blank spaces in a work of calligraphy are moments of rest. And as in Arabic music, calligraphy too depends on the repetition of certain elements that encourage not only the dance of body and soul but also our ability to move away from the earthly domain and rise to other spheres.

On Hafiz Osman (Again, I’m not sure if this is historically correct, but it’s quite interesting):

When Hafiz Osmani died in the year 1110 his pupils granted him his last wish. All his life he had collected and kept the shavings of wood that fell from his bamboo and reed pens as he cut them, ground them down and pointed them. There were ten large jute sacks full of them. His pupils were to boil up the shavings and use the water for the final washing of his body.

On that somber note, I think I’ll wind up this review of The Calligrapher’s Secret. Pick up a copy for yourself to see what happens when the calligrapher Hamid Farsi attempts to modernize the Arabic script, and discover what causes his lovely wife to vanish one night.

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‚Äôs 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


Damascus water fountain

Water fountains like this with calligraphic inscriptions can be found throughout the city of Damascus.

Damascus water fountain