Egypt lacks appreciation for the fine art of calligraphy
CAIRO: Sitting in his office in Al-Gamaliyah, a section of the ancient Al-Hussein neighborhood, Khodeir Al-Porsaidi, one of Egypt’s major calligraphy artists and the head of the Egyptian Association for Arabic Calligraphy (EAAC), laments the marginalization of Arabic calligraphy in today’s Egypt.
“In the early ’90s Arabic calligraphy was dying, but now, after establishing the EAAC, it has been revived, Al-Porsaidi said. “However, he adds, “it no longer is what it used to be.
Al-Porsaidi grew up – as his last name indicates – in Port Said, the city that witnessed the 1956 war. He began writing when he was four years old, “Even before I was admitted to school and learned how to read.
“I would be given a paper with sentences such as “Port Said: the grave of the invaders and would be told to go and write it on the walls and I would copy it out exactly as it was without knowing what it said.
If there is one common denominator between all types of Arab-Islamic forms of art around the world it is Arabic calligraphy.
With the spread of Islam in the 7th century AD and the restrictions concerning the painting of people and animals imposed to prevent people from sliding once more into idolatry, the Arabic alphabet developed into an art form.
Over the centuries new fonts were invented. The most well known fonts currently are the impressive and stately thuluth (by whose perfection people used to swear), kufi, as well as naskh and riq’a, both of which are currently used in everyday writing with naskh as the standard font for printed books.
Egypt became the center for the art of calligraphy from the Fatimid era until the Ottoman Empire, during which it was replaced by Istanbul. However, until the 20th century it remained one of the important centers for calligraphic art, producing new and innovative contributions. It was only in the 1980s that it began to lose this leading role.
By the time Al-Porsaidi was eight he had opened his first calligraphy workshop with the help of his school principle who predicted a good future for him, and by age 12 he had begun to earn quite the reputation.
The fact that he was so young when he first started didn’t drive people away but rather attracted them. “When I would start working on a piece of calligraphy the children of the neighborhood would gather around me to watch and then when their parents needed a placard or a banner they would tell them that they should have it done at the boy calligrapher’s, Al-Porsaidi said with a smile of nostalgia on his face.
In addition to banners he started working on headlines for newspapers, magazines, and book covers and titles for television programs and soap operas – one of the most popular is “Layali Al-Helmiya (Helmiya Nights). He also taught in a number of calligraphy schools and lectured for eight years, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in the faculty of applied arts.
He also established, along with other calligraphers, the EAAC, which helped increase the number of calligraphy schools. “There were only three calligraphy schools when we started, now we have 360 schools with 96,000 students, 70,000 of which are girls. This is important because when they become mothers they will teach their children good handwriting.
Another accomplishment carried out by the association is that of reviving the different Arabic fonts that have disappeared. “In the past there used to be 120 types of Arabic fonts, however over the years they became extinct till only six remained. The association was able to help revive the remaining 114 fonts, Al-Porsaidi explained.
Now Al-Porsaidi has retired and no longer makes his living through calligraphy.
“Calligraphy is no longer a profitable job, Al-Porsaidi explains, “now computers are used to write the headlines of newspapers, to write the placards on shops, clinics, schools . etc. So apart from election banners and placards or book covers for the very few who still appreciate calligraphy, calligraphers have nothing else left to do.
Of the 12,000 students who graduate from calligraphy schools annually, less than ten find jobs, and calligraphers in the countryside have better job opportunities than those in the city because people in villages still depend on them for their placards and banners – computer graphics not having been introduced yet or costing more than they can afford.
Al-Porsaidi, who naturally isn’t a fan of computer graphics, has much to say against it: “Computers are just imitators, you put in the design and then it just reproduces it over and over again without any artistic touch. A computer can do what a regular calligrapher can do since it imitates fonts but it will never be able to replace calligraphy artists.
“Nowadays there is no difference between a doctor’s placard and a grocer’s. They all look the same. He complained, “In the past you could tell that this is a clinic or a workshop by simply glancing at the placard without having to read it because each profession had a special design and colors for its placard.
Al-Porsaidi even picks his doctors by the type of placard they have. “I would walk down the street and see who has a beautiful placard and then go to his clinic.
The government is also to blame for the decline in the art of calligraphy in Egypt. “Arabic calligraphy is our identity and yet so far the government has shown no concern for it. It must be added to school and university curricula. It should be a main subject in all educational stages, he said.
Comparing between the situation in Turkey and the UAE on the one hand and Egypt on the other Al-Porsaidi explains why. “In Turkey there is an international calligraphy competition in which I’m part of the judging panel. Its prizes are worth around $100,000 and it takes place every four years. This competition has produced many calligraphy artists thus boosting the art in Turkey, he said.
“As for the UAE, it is now an attractive center for calligraphy artists worldwide. Mr Mohammad Al-Morr, the head of the culture office of Dubai, has opened a calligraphy museum and buys annually many artistic works, Al-Porsaidi said with admiration, adding, “Now, Abdul Rahman Al-Owais, the minister of culture, youth and sports, has set a new rule according to which the gift given all official guests to the UAE is a calligraphy painting.
Another element that stands in the way of calligraphy nowadays is what Al-Porsaidi describes as “a decline in taste. “When I send some of my works to an exhibition in the UAE not a single piece returns back, they are all sold, Al-Porsaidi said, “this is because out there they are having an artistic renaissance and people are able to appreciate Arabic art.
Al-Porsaidi believes that Arabic writing has been “targeted and one example of this targeting is the introduction of the ballpoint pen, which he believes has played a part in ruining people’s handwriting.
“Ballpoint pens are good for Latin letters that are written with a continuous flow. It doesn’t fit in with the strokes that are characteristic of Arabic writing. When I use a ballpoint my handwriting becomes very bad, he said.
Talking about the art of calligraphy, Al-Porsaidi said, “A painting takes several days to be made. I first start by drawing with a pencil over a transparent sheet and then when I finally get my design right – something which would take three or four sheets to reach – I would print it out on cardboard and then color it. If the painting is to have ornaments around the frame, the ornaments are made out first and then the calligraphy is added on.
In addition to the transparent paper and cardboard, special types of pens known as boussa are used. They are made from different types of wood or bamboo and are cut out into different sizes and shapes with sharp slanting tips. The inkbottles have silk threads mixed with the ink so that when dipping in the boussa it won’t absorb more than it should. When doing banners he would first write with chalk on a blackboard and then copy the design on to a piece of cloth.
t calligraphy artists should be honored, Al-Porsaidi has established an annual award that is given out to the top students who graduate from calligraphy schools. He has also adopted, both financially and artistically, 15 young calligraphy artists whom he believes will become the future artists of Egypt.