The Intricate Islamic Art of Calligraphy Thrives in Boston

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 3, 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Intricate Islamic Art of Calligraphy Thrives in Boston


In one of the enchanting tales of "The Arabian Nights," the second dervish recounts how, when a demon had turned him into a monkey, he was able to save his life by writing Arabic poetry in various scripts before the vizier.

Praised through the ages, Arabic calligraphy is often considered the highest Islamic art (see following item on Harvard art exhibit) and those who mastered it, as the dervish could verify, were deeply respected.

And now that ancient art form is enjoying an upsurge in popularity in, of all places, Boston. "I have to turn away students," said Nabil Khatib, a 37-year-old Lebanese living in Cambridge who teaches Arabic language and special calligraphy classes. "There is an enormous demand that is not met. My plan is to open an Arabic school and an Arabic calligraphy school."

Khatib, who currently teaches privately and through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, said many calligraphy students do not know any Arabic.

"I've taught people from all kinds of backgrounds," he said, including Muslims searching for their roots, foreign service personnel, academic researchers and those looking for something different. In one recent class, a young woman said she wanted to use the Arabic scripts for designs on her pottery. One man was learning Arabic and wished to improve his cultural knowledge, while others just wanted to have summer fun.

"This is a very humbling art," Khatib said. "People come in and think it's just lines, but there is detail, effort, concentration and precision."

Khatib said his own painting and poetry lead him to calligraphy. "I decided to investigate more and sometimes the best way to learn something is to teach it. It has an almost hypnotic effect." In Turkey, calligraphy is often used in psychotherapy, he added.

Stating that apprentice calligraphers in the Middle East may spend a year working on just one set of words, Khatib explained that calligraphy is an art for the patient. "It takes many, many years. It's not an eightweek course. It takes a lifetime," he said.

Master calligraphers, who hold an ijaza (license), are permitted to sign their own names to their work. They also often make their own ink from natural sources, varnish their own paper and write with hand-carved bamboo reeds.

According to Khatib, there are at least 120 separate ways to write Arabic letters. When studying a particular style, students must learn how the strokes comprising a letter are made and whether the pen should be held straight to create a thin line or at an angle for a thicker effect. In addition, each letter can be written in as many as five different ways: standing alone or attached to one or both of the letters beside it.

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The Intricate Islamic Art of Calligraphy Thrives in Boston


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