Learning Your Lines
I have loved calligraphy since my early childhood and often toyed with letters using fountain pens bought by my mother because I ‘needed them for school’. I never applied any rules to my writing, so it was more doodling than calligraphy, nor did I work on a specific script. I always ensured my letters and lines were somewhat in sync and produced a typography with an overall message; often a seasonal greeting of some sort, and rarely was it any more than that.
Last year, I was researching a script to actually learn and imitate properly. Nastaʿlīq نستعليق was one I quickly removed from my list. However, I came across this piece from circa 1600 and became mesmerised by the balance of the lines, the beauty of the letters, and the curves that effortlessly changed in dimension. I studies it a little more and began appreciating how complicated a script it really is, while simultaneously appearing deceptively-simple. This combination is what makes it both elegant and fascinating.
Last month, I met Kuwaiti calligrapher Ali Al-Bidah at a talk in Muntada AlFikr, a weekly gathering that my father and a few of his close friends started back in 1998. Everything from the big bang, religion, philosophy, politics and economics are discussed here – preceded always with a short talk. It was an arts week, and the title announced for the night was ‘A History of Arabic Calligraphy’. I was excited but I kept my expectations low. Open any book about the subject (if you can find any!) and you will understand why.
Unforgivably, I walked in a few minutes late, and found a man speaking with passion, confidence, experience, a deep knowledge, and a warm and humble respect. He showed images of early works hundreds of years old, analysed the scripts, described the history of the art chronologically, garnished all this with wonderful anecdotes, and closed his talk with a selection of histories of local calligraphers. After the talk he also added some rather comical facts about some works that should not be where they ended up (including miswriting the holy book). I was captivated, as was the rest of the audience, who asked him for a part-2 the following week. It was in part-3 that I exchanged contact details, and later requested to meet Ali, who kindly accepted without any hesitation.
I arrived at the door of a 1960s house. This time, I was on time. I noticed a full garden on our way in, which Ali tells me is maintained by his mother as we walked into the lounge. The decor is updated, but the skeleton of the house has been beautifully preserved. It reminded me of the house that I grew up in- which was in the same neighbourhood and of a similar age.
Before I departed, he shared scans of some of his art pieces, many of which have won him national and international awards. He also shared a photo of a painting that he’s quite proud of (it decorates the Emir’s office) where he framed the writing to match the furniture in the same room. It is this attention to detail that calligraphy teaches.
The photographs in this post are taken by me; and the scans of the artwork were provided by Mr Ali Al-Bidah.