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Calligraphy flourishing in Arab culture

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

A calligrapher at work in Sharjah.


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SHARJAH, UAE (CNN) -- A dispute at a calligraphy conference? Nothing more serious, you might think, than disagreement over pen nibs.

But at the Sharjah Arabic Calligraphy Biennial those defending the classical tradition and the group supporting modernization brought into focus the wider question of whether writing even loosely associated with religion can ever be merely decorative art.

The restored heritage area in the Emirate was the setting for workshops, competitions, debates and an large exhibition of the very best calligraphy from around the Arabic speaking world.

From the carefully co-ordinate marbled papers, matching ink and intricate shapes of the classical purists to the extravagant flourishes of the Tunisian and Moroccan contemporary "calligrams," attention was focused solely on the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet.

While Arabic calligraphy is literally embellished handwriting, it has a long and venerable history with great masters and revered traditions.

Abbas Al Bagdadi, an Iraqi and former calligrapher to Saddam Hussein, gave a workshop setting out some of the complex rules of harmony, alignment, balance and spacing. He is a firm believer in strict adherence to form.

"The shape of letters, the overall composition combined with the meaning of the text are what calligraphy is all about," he explains. "Trying to borrow a few letters and scattering them across paintings is absolutely pointless."

But while Abdel Aziz Alloun, an art critic from Syria, agrees that calligraphy is all about a lifetime of disciplined study, he points out that calligraphy went into sharp decline with the fall of Byzantium and the end of the Ottoman Empire.

He says that it is thanks to the Suez crisis that calligraphy was reborn. "Because it was easy for Arabs to get visas to Britain under Prime Minister Anthony Eden a large number of artists gathered in London in the early 1960s."

The result of rubbing shoulders with contemporary European art was the gradual emergence of a new type of calligraphy -- "calligrams" -- which used Arabic letters as a cultural reference integrated into painting.

Abdel Aziz Alloun credits the Sudanese with this invention. But he is critical of many contemporary practitioners wherever they come from: "Most of them are neither good calligraphers, nor good painters," he says.

No-one was disputing the supreme ability of Kuwaiti Farid Al Ali's 500 ways of writing the name of the Prophet Mohammed.

Part science, part geometry, part engineering drawing the immensely imaginative but cleverly crafted shapes were a reminder of how in the past the cursive nature of Arabic script and the complex conventions of shape made its adaptation to printing difficult, delaying the introduction of the printing press.

Today converting complex shapes for computer use has taxed the ability of contemporary calligraphers.

Hakim Ghazali from Morocco won an award for his "font," a fluid and graceful swirl of movement derived from an ancient Moroccan style and transformed into a electronic digits. The north African participants were in the forefront of challenging preconceived notions about calligraphy.

The huge, vivid wall hangings of Tunisian Njja Madhaoui drew much attention in their own special gallery. He has made a international name through weaving thousands of signs that look like Arabic letters into his work.

" Because I don't write words and the letters only suggest Arabic, I have brought calligraphy back in to the realm of universal art," he says. "From a distance Arabs think it is real calligraphy and feel it belongs to them. As they get closer they realize that these are symbols which have meaning for everyone."

Like many rulers in the African and Arab worlds, Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi of Sharjah has his own personal calligrapher to write beautifully executed official letters.

Khalifa El Shimy, an Egyptian with over two decades of experience and who also worked for the late President Nasser won a prize in the competition. He believes that there is room for both schools of thought.

"In Egypt we have the only official calligraphy schools and we are trained in producing hand-made paper and ink," he claims. " There are all sorts styles of writing, each with its own appeal."

Calligraphers, he believes, have much more in common than they like to think. After all he points out calligraphy is flourishing and remains central to Arab culture.

It is still used on Mosques and in the Quran, but it is also visible on shop signs, advertising, and major headlines in magazines and newspapers -- while in the west calligraphy has declined to a minor art or hobby.

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