Calligraphy: an ignored art in Yemen [Archives:2007/1062/Culture]

June 25 2007

Nisreen Shadad
At an international competition held every three years in Turkey, Yemeni calligrapher Hamoud Al-Banna received third prize in Al-Jali Al-Diwani group and Abdulrahman Al-Junaid received fourth place in symbolic prizes in Al-Diwani group.

Approximately 21 prizes were distributed, as well as 74 awards and 42 symbolic prizes. The first three places were the competition's official prizes, followed by eight awards and then symbolic prizes. Al-Banna and Al-Junaid received $250 and a certificate.

This was the seventh international competition, intended to preserve one of the most typical expressions of Islamic spirit. “This is the first year I participated in this competition,” Al-Banna noted.

The idea of holding an international competition for Arabic calligraphy in Istanbul was to commemorate the brilliant calligrapher, Hamid Al-Amadi. A symposium was held in 1983 at Istanbul's Research Center for history, Art and Islamic Culture. This seventh competition commemorated Hashim Al-Baghdadi, another distinctive calligrapher.

A group of well-known calligraphy professors evaluated and selected the winners between March 28 and April 6 at the research center headed by general director Khalid Arn.

The 916 participants representing 38 countries employed 14 different styles on approximately 1,616 alabasters, which judges studied in order to select the best.

Al-Banna formerly was a member of the Yemeni Calligraphers Association, but it shut down within a year due to lack of financing. “Calligraphy enjoys better conditions in other Arab countries, but our situation is very bad in Yemen. Our association was established two years ago, but when the Minister of Culture changed, he stopped financing it, so we couldn't remain. There's no interest in this type of art; we are neglected.”

Al-Banna has a teaching diploma and likes to draw and write. “I stopped drawing because I like writing and learning calligraphy art more than anything else.” Now working as a calligrapher, his works have been presented at embassies and shows simply for display rather than for selling.

Because there's no school to teach this type of art, those eager to learn it usually must search and obtain books that can help them, according to Al-Banna, “I used the book, The Rules of Arabic calligraphy, in order to learn,” he noted. Al-Banna used Al-Jali Al-Diwani style in the competition.

With a bachelor's degree in education, Al-Junaid learned calligraphy art under both Iraqi and Yemeni teachers. “Whenever I heard that a calligrapher was visiting Yemen, I went to ask him to teach me at his home because we have no schools or institutes,” he explained.

Classical styles of Arabic lettering

Arabic styles offer unlimited possibilities to artists. Contemporary designs presented at the competition indirectly utilized these styles to create an abstract, yet readable representation of words and provide a postmodern interpretation of the letters.

Creating numerous styles of lettering was due to the need to distinguish a letter from an announcement, a difficult type of writing mostly used in titles, as well as al-bismalah, which is writing in the name of Allah in the Qur'an or a book.

Calligraphy is one of the most important fields in Islamic civilization. It was used as decoration on mosques and school walls, as well as on copper vessels and containers.

Calligraphy's golden age was during the Ottoman period, as caliphs at that time were interested in this type of art and encouraged innovative practitioners. For example, the sultan's calligrapher received 400 gold Ottoman Jinih; the name of their money at that time monthly.

Calligraphy styles

Al-Kufi script (Kufa is a city in Iraq)

Originating in the second Hijra century, Al-Banna explains, “It's a type of drawing. This type can be written using a ruler, as letters usually are written in straight lines and then decorated on the top or bottom according to the letter's form. Many calligraphers consider this drawing rather than a type of calligraphy.”

Kufi has horizontal lines that are extended. The script is considerably wider than it is high. This gives it a certain dynamic momentum. The script often is chosen for use on oblong surfaces. With its glorious Handasi (geometrical) construction, Kufi could be adapted to any space and material ) from silk squares to the architectural monuments left by Timur at Samarqand.

Because Kufi script was not subjected to strict rules, calligraphers employing it had virtually a free hand in the conception and execution of its ornamental forms.

Al-Naskh script – copying

Called naskh because of the frequency of its use, it helps writers write quickly. Also, the letters produced are clear and beautiful.

Al-Thilth script

This is the most superb type of calligraphy, as it requires the most attention and accuracy; however, it's not used frequently because it's difficult and takes time.

Al-Diwani script – announcements

This is official calligraphy. It's called diwani because it was used to write the sultan's al-dawaween (edicts). It was a secret type of writing for the sultans' announcements during the Ottoman period, but it became widespread after that.

Riqa'a script – patch

This is simple handwriting mostly used in all Arabic countries. Because it is written in patches, it's called Riqa'a.

Al- Farsi, script – Persian,

“This was created by a Persian, Mear bin Ali,” Al-Banna noted.

Al-Jali Al-Diwani script

This style grew out of Al-Diwani and is more decorated.

Al-Ijaza script – authorizations and licenses

This style is used to write licenses.

According to Al-Banna, calligraphers have created other contemporary scripts, but because they aren't subjected to rules as the earlier ones, they haven't been added.