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Iraqi calligraphers try to revive their art

Iraq's recently liberated Anbar province hosted an Islamic calligraphy festival to return the craft to the cultural and artistic forefront.

Iraq is known as the home of one of the oldest forms of Islamic calligraphy, the Kufic script, which was named after the city of Kufa. Copies of the Quran dating to the eighth century were written in the Kufic script. Despite efforts to save the calligraphic heritage, it is fast disappearing.

In a move to introduce Islamic calligraphy to the younger generation, the Iraqi Cultural Center for Calligraphy and Decorative Arts in Anbar organized a festival April 8 that was attended by dozens of Iraqi artists.

This art form was chosen as the subject of the festival because it was a less daring choice in the post-Islamic State era. Even among conservatives, calligraphy, which was used in mosques and palaces to decorate them with Quranic verses, is seen as an art that is closely linked to the history of Arabs and Islam, and therefore more permissible than other art forms such as music or painting.

But despite the respect accorded to this form of decorative writing, calligraphic art is much neglected in Iraq, according to Iraqi calligrapher Aqbas Hussein al-Okabi.

Okabi is a member of the Iraqi Calligraphers’ Group, which was founded in the 1970s. This nongovernmental organization provides a network for calligraphers and organizes trainings and exhibitions. The organization does not receive governmental funding, and its headquarters in Baghdad was established in 2003 through the personal financing of its members.

Okabi told Al-Monitor, “Calligraphic talents aren't given opportunities because there is no chance to support them. The letters of the Arabic language are at risk due to the inability of the younger generation to draw them right.” He noted that calligraphy is not taught in art classes in schools.

He added, "Children’s handwriting is incredibly bad [these days], not to mention the rampant spelling mistakes.”

Hussam al-Shalah, a calligrapher who has worked in the field for 40 years, told Al-Monitor that what distinguishes the Arabic letters from the letters of other languages is how they flow and relate to one another. “This gives the words different forms and shapes, making the calligrapher a painter,” he said.

Shalah noted that calligraphy, which had been a dominant form of art in Iraq and the Middle East, is gradually disappearing. “There are no pioneers to revive this art. Even good and meticulous calligraphers are hard to find,” he said.

Mohammad al-Shumari, an amateur calligrapher in his 40s, told Al-Monitor that few young people take up calligraphy, and when they do they rely on self-study. “If a student wants to learn calligraphy in an institute or specialized center, he would not find it and would have to resort to self-study and visiting or corresponding with senior artists in the field,” he said.

Shumari said that most calligraphers are self-taught and regard calligraphy as a hobby rather than a profession. “One of the reasons behind the declining interest in calligraphy is that expos and art events are not turned into profitable projects that meet the calligrapher’s financial needs and help him focus on his art to develop it further,” he added.

He suggested establishing at least one Arabic calligraphy institute in Baghdad.

Yet there is growing interest in the art of calligraphy outside Iraq. The Division of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Iowa welcomed Iraqi calligrapher Ghazi al-Mashaal April 16 for a lecture on calligraphy, Arabic letters and the history of the Arabic alphabet.

Iraqi calligraphers Liwaa al-Samirai and Hakem Ghannam participated with hundreds of calligraphy artists in the Dubai International Calligraphy Exhibition April 16.

Chabib al-Medhati, an artist who works at the Iraq National Library and Archives in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor that the Iraqi Calligraphy Center of the country's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage organized an expo to celebrate Arabic Manuscripts Day on April 4, which brought together many artists.

“The expo is important because it brought back our attention to calligraphy, which is a great legacy immortalizing the Arabic handwriting and Islamic decorative arts,” he said. “Iraqis have a great responsibility to protect the art of handwriting. Baghdad is a pioneer in calligraphy and has known major calligraphers throughout history such as Ibn Muqla, Ibn al-Bawwab, Hashim Mohammed al-Baghdadi and Mohammed Said al-Sakkar.”

Calligraphy artist Eadan al-Shumari, who has 50 years of experience in the field, complained to Al-Monitor about the digital techniques and use of computers that have harmed the art of handwriting. "Systems that honor Arabic calligraphy are required to keep the practice alive in schools and universities,” he said.

He noted that the faculty of arts at the University of Babylon has been working in this direction by teaching the technique of calligraphy to second- and third-year students. He expressed hope that the faculty would establish a department for calligraphy in the future.

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