While the demand for Arabic calligraphy thrives abroad, interest at home is condemned to the past Calligraphy once held a venerated position in Arab culture, and as a center of creative thought, Cairo played a significant role in the development of the art. Throughout history, the florid nature of the Arabic language has been reflected in the intricate works of calligraphers blending words and images into art. Yet the inherent value of calligraphy escapes most people wandering the city streets today, who prefer their words in text messages and emails rather than artistic scrolls. The decline of calligraphy signifies more than a mere adjustment to modern life; it suggests a disheartening willingness to sacrifice history for convenience.
In today’s fast paced world, traditional calligraphy has become a luxury with a dwindling national audience. Competition with the near-immediate production possibilities of graphic designers, high-resolution printers and photocopiers has forced many artists to look beyond the written word to make ends meet. Storefront designs, signs and religious texts, all former staples of the calligraphy industry, are produced faster and cheaper with the click of a button than the scratch of a quill.
To understand the declining state of the art, Egypt Today met with one of calligrahy’s strongest proponents, Mosa’d El Khodeir, in his studio in Islamic Cairo’s Beit El-Kadi. With ornate renderings of centuries-old poetry and ayat (verses) from the Qur’an adorning the walls, the studio is a tour of our literary heritage. Khodeir, who founded the Calligraphy Academy in Bab Al-Louq, laments the deterioration of his art, viewing it as a casualty of the march of technology, and questions whether the end result has, in fact, been progress.
“The computer caused the deterioration of writing and the unemployment of calligraphers,” Khodeir says. But Bill Gates and Steve Jobs aren’t the only ones to blame for the pen being taken off the paper. The decline of calligraphy is also a result of neglect here at home. For a long time, few galleries have made space for calligraphy exhibitions, and calligraphy has been on the low end of government-sponsored grants for the arts.
Yet aspiring artists continue to train in the historic trade. Roughly 12,000 calligraphers graduate in the art form annually, but there are fewer career prospects to look forward to. With a small market that continues to shrink, the number of students may well decline and capable calligraphers may be tough to find in coming years.
“I’m frustrated,” says Abdul Rahman Ahmed, a student at the Calligraphy Academy. “I’m considering not taking my exams because I don’t see any hope in the future of calligraphy.”
Although Khodeir and his academy are dedicated to promoting calligraphy, he is swimming against the tide. One of the main obstacles he is attempting to overcome is achieving accredited status for the Calligraphy Academy, a move that would ease the transition for graduates into teaching and provide the possibility of making a living through calligraphy. Regardless of interest in the marketplace, Khodeir is among those who believe that it is essential to preserve the art as a link to history.
“My ultimate aim is restoring the prestige of calligraphy, but I cannot do it alone,” he says.
Illustrative Past Ignored
In the past, many of the signs and advertisements displayed in heavily trafficked areas of Cairo displayed the work of local calligraphers. Yet in the last quarter century, not only has the calligraphy begun to disappear, but the Arabic as well. An increasing number of vendors have chosen to make their displays in transliterated Arabic using Latin letters. According to Mohammed Hamam, a professor at the Calligraphy Academy, this movement exemplifies the indifference that exists towards calligraphy on many levels.
Things have not always been this way. Egyptian calligraphy has played an integral role in the development of the art form since its inception. Al-Fustat, an area of what is now Cairo, was the first Islamic capital in the region, a focal point for religious arts and integral to the stylistic development of calligraphers. Traditionally, calligraphy has been regarded as a method of preserving the Qur’an, and therefore took on religious as well as aesthetic significance. For centuries, artists from historic learning centers like Baghdad and Damascus flocked to Egypt, bringing with them a variety of regional calligraphic styles that contributed to the artistic diversity within the city.
Centuries later, however, Arabic calligraphy is no longer appreciated by Egyptians, according to Khodeir. He points out that foreigners take more interest in the country’s script than many natives, actively seeking to acquire scrolls and tablets — some centuries old — as mementos of their visit.
Although the smuggling of antiquities outside the country is prohibited by law, ancient Egyptian calligraphic art has been finding a market in Europe, where single works can garner thousands of dollars.
Hamam places much of the blame for the waning interest on the public here at home, including government officials who he believes should invest more in promoting the art. “Negligence of calligraphy is negligence of our Arabic identity,” he says.
Follow a Neighbor’s Lead
Unlike Egypt, neighboring states such as Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the United Arab Emirates are making great efforts to preserve the prestige of Arabic calligraphy by holding festivals, contests and museum exhibitions on a regular basis. Official efforts aside, the private sector has also shown a keen interest in promoting the art through private competitions and international exhibitions.
A number of high-profile exhibitions held in recent years in Dubai under the directive of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing have not only reinvigorated interest in the field, but provided a boon to the economy. Such support for the art is precisely what artists like Hamam and Khodeir are seeking in Egypt.
“What is lacking is practical action by officials in the Ministry of Culture for achieving that aim,” says Khodeir.
Despite criticism from the calligraphy community, officials have made some attempts to call attention to the art. In 2003, the Calligraphy Center at Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. Subsequent exhibitions and award ceremonies have been held in both Alexandria and Cairo, though those in the industry complain that it is not enough.
Mohsen Shalaan, head of the fine arts section of the Ministry of Culture, says that the reason that calligraphy exhibitions are not more widespread is that the demand simply does not exist. If that’s the case, then the future of the art looks grim.
Hamam, however, remains optimistic. He explains that ultimately, calligraphy is more than an art. He maintains that it is still the key to preserving the Qur’an, and as such, it will live on. Insh’allah.