Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

The writing on the wall

Should the art of calligraphy be seen as the repository of our cultural identity? Rania Khallaf cracks the case of the unwanted trunk

one of the pieces discovered by Ezzeddin Naguib
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In 1993, Ezzeddin Naguib, then newly appointed director of the General Administration for Artistic Centres, found an old trunk under piles of dusty papers in an empty room at Wikalat Al-Ghouri. When he opened the box, Naguib was amazed: he had found a rare and beautiful collection of calligraphy samples.

Specialists at the Islamic Museum examined the collection and confirmed the historical importance of the documents. The collection includes 83 pieces, the oldest of which dates back to 1558, and the most recent of which were completed in 1916. Illuminated in gold ink, some are verses from the Qur'an or well-known Hadiths; others are lines from popular poems or proverbs. Some of the discovered items are in good condition, while others urgently need restoration.

Naguib says analysis revealed common stylistic elements in some of the pieces, pointing to the existence of an Ottoman school of calligraphy with a clear set of rules. Among the pioneers of the art of calligraphy in Egypt are Abdallah Bek Zuhdi, Mohamed Reda, Yazdi Shoukri, Mahmoud Galaleddin, Soliman Effendi Sirri and Darwish Ali.

Although the collection was discovered seven years ago, it is still concealed in its original resting place. "The experts have failed to figure out how these pieces came together, how the collection found its way to Wikalat Al-Ghouri, how it remained buried all these years, or who the real owner is," Naguib muses.

When Naguib asked the Ministry of Culture for a place to house this rare collection, he was advised to place them in the Islamic Museum. "I could not do that, simply because there are already hundreds of similar portraits and manuscripts in storage because there is not enough space for them to be exhibited," Naguib explained.

He suggests that a recently restored Ottoman dwelling, like Beit Zeinab Khatoun or Al-Harrawi in the Al-Hussein area, could serve as a museum. The two houses, however, are currently hosting concerts, plays and other cultural events. "Until now, I have not received an official answer. However, the Minister of Culture has finally promised me Beit Al-Suhaymi, which is currently undergoing restoration, as a calligraphy museum," Naguib added.

The collection was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in 1995, to highlight the need for a museum devoted to calligraphy. "Such a museum would confirm Egypt's leadership in this field," Naguib added.

Turkish government representatives have requested a loan of the collection, and have offered to purchase some of the most valuable pieces, but both suggestions were turned down.

Arabic calligraphy is now declining as a craft, pushed out by more sophisticated technology in the press and even in many of the street banners put up by advertisers or political candidates. "There are no schools teaching the arts and rules of Arabic calligraphy: that is why there are no efficient craftsmen," suggests Mounir Al-Sha'rani, a Syrian painter who often uses Arabic calligraphy as a theme in his paintings.

Al-Sha'rani feels that creating a museum attached to an institute where new generations of artists and craftsmen can be formed should be a top priority. "Besides, on the level of Arab world, we desperately need a new generation of experts in manuscript restoration," he added.

But isn't the art and craft of calligraphy fast becoming obsolete? The real benefit, according to Naguib, is cultural. "We need such training, especially in the era of globalisation. It is a question of preserving our identity," he argues. Naguib also sees calligraphy as capable of crossing class boundaries: no need for a background in modern art criticism to appreciate a Sura of the Qur'an drawn in the form of a swan, for instance. "In the '60s, very ordinary people used calligraphy to decorate their houses. Now, because the art has become virtually obsolete, they use photos of famous actresses or football players instead."

Seen is not heard
The second part in a series of Ramadan reflections on the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, from Ibn Manzour's Lisan Al-Arab

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