By Isaac J. Martin
Cairo, Dec 22 (EFE).- At his museum located in the old neighborhood of Islamic Cairo, renowned Egyptian calligrapher Mossaad Khodeir works hard to keep Arabic calligraphy alive, hoping the “late” recognition by UNESCO will give his efforts a big boost.
The art, which is facing an uncertain future due to lack of training and interest, as well as a conflict between the traditional and digital methods, was included on the list last week after 16 Arabic-speaking countries submitted a proposal to UNESCO.
“I learned to do calligraphy before I even learned to write,” Khodeir, who painted slogans against the British occupation on the walls of his hometown of Port Said when he was just five years old, tells Efe.
However, the 79-year-old self-taught artist who has dedicated his entire life to Arabic calligraphy says the craft has been losing strength in recent years.
“Up until 2008, almost 12,000 people graduated annually from the 377 calligraphy schools that we used to have in Egypt, and that number did not exist in any other part of the world,” explains Khodeir, chief of Egypt’s Association of Arabic Calligraphy.
There were many government-subsidized calligraphy institutes that were established under the reign of King Farouk (1936-1952) but the Egyptian ministry of education abolished free tuition in 2008, a move that sidelined aspiring students with fewer resources, Khodeir says.
“Many calligraphy schools no longer exist and now only about 250 people are graduating across Egypt,” Khodeir adds, noting the government is planning to open three calligraphy schools in early 2022 with an aim to address the lack of calligraphy training centers in Egypt.
Meanwhile, Bahia Shehab, a calligrapher and a professor at the American University in Cairo, hopes the “late” inclusion of Arabic calligraphy on the UNESCO’s list would serve as a turning point for the 16 Arab countries that put forward the proposal.
“Let’s hope that these countries begin to create mechanisms and structures to preserve Arabic calligraphy, that calligraphy is taught in schools, that governments support research centers to preserve their knowledge,” says the Egyptian-Lebanese artist and the first woman from the Arab region to win the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in 2017.
Its preservation not only comes through training but also through interest in the Arabic language, according to Nada Adel, a 24 years old graphic designer in Cairopolitan, one of the few places in Egypt where fresh graduates and artists can exhibit and sell their digital calligraphy artworks.
“The problem is not only the calligraphy but the interest in the Arabic language, people make mistakes in the syntax and do not write it well, it is a big problem,” Adel continues.
Izabela Uchman, a Polish artist living in Egypt, highlights that “it is very important to talk now about the art of writing,” just as she puts the final touches on the works that she exhibits in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.
“Handwriting is disappearing, being replaced by computer fonts,” she says, although she believes that the digital method is also “very valuable.”
Uchman combines different techniques in her works to create her own style that she calls “Letterality,” a literary image, with which she transforms the texts into unique visual figures composed of Arabic letters.
Shehab, who has recently published a book titled A History of Arab Graphic Design with Egyptian artist Haytham Nawar, says she now sees a change in how the new generations perceive the art.
“It is still difficult to separate it from the religious context… but now there is a change in the representation”, she concludes. EFE