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.
Calligraphy is a unique art form that was innovated in our part of the world. It began with the first writings of the holy Quran and grew into a medium that takes minimalism to the next level. Subtle rules that do not appear obvious when reading are the essence of the balance and harmony that cannot be more obvious. Perhaps it is this very thing that attracts me to it. It combines the freedom of expression of art, with the rules and structure of engineering.
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.
There was no set structure to the interview, nor did I send any questions in advance. It was planned more as an interesting chat, which I was sure would last no more than an hour. Ali was so generous with his time, I was there for more than four.
He went through some of his collection of books, then talked about his journey with calligraphy which started in his early years, but became a real form of expression for him during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The colours alone in his works during that time speak volumes.
When he talked about his learning of calligraphy he mentioned one of his teachers with particular pride. In fact when I asked him who the best contemporary calligrapher of my newly-crowned favourite script, he mentioned Jaleel Rasooli again and took out a book (Char Fasl) with some his works. He’s pointing at the cold blue ink which is one of four versions depicting the seasons.
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.
My thanks to a generous artist who not only gave us his time for three talks, but also welcomed me into his home to talk about his passion… and mine.
The photographs in this post are taken by me; and the scans of the artwork were provided by Mr Ali Al-Bidah.