x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

For me, the fountain pen is mightier than Siri

Nothing beats the smell of ink on paper and the scent of a stick of cinnamon in the envelope, says Carla Mirza

One of the appeals of writing with a fountain pen is that it just makes you feel awesome.  Razan Alzayani / The National
One of the appeals of writing with a fountain pen is that it just makes you feel awesome. Razan Alzayani / The National

How long has it been since you picked up a fountain pen? Not just to sign a contract or an agreement, that is, but to write with. How long has it been since you wrote a letter, as opposed to typing it. I recall the last time I used a fountain pen was in 1993. I was a student at the only French school in Abu Dhabi back then, and we had to use fountain pens to write our homework.

As for the last time I wrote a letter, that was during my first year of university, in 1999, when I wrote to some old high-school friends who had moved to France, Tunisia and the United States to study for their university degrees.

Both occurrences were before the 21st century showered us with the marvels of social media networks, bridging distances with the click of a mouse and unfolding a world where fountain pens, pencils and ball-point pens would only be used in schools or to sign documents. Much has changed since the days when I was subjected to sessions of calligraphy (khatt) in the classroom.

More than 40,000 years ago, humans identified a basic need to leave a trace of their journey on Earth, drawing on walls to keep track of quantities, crops and days, and above all, to communicate. Over the millennia, pictographs and cuneiform scripts evolved as writing became a necessity that grew further with the birth of various civilisations and different religions, as arts, sciences, and humanity evolved. This evolution goes hand in hand with the need for communication brought about by world explorers discovering new horizons.

The invention of computers and internet, of social networks and new means of communication, appears to have revolutionised mankind and its societies. The speed at which information now circulates has changed the way we perceive the world, and the pace and rhythm of our lives.

Millennials, like me, grew up around traditional media, such as the morning paper, the radio news and the evening bulletin on television. Their importance was reflected in the sound of silence imposed during these segments of time, governing our movements around the house accordingly with the importance of said broadcasts.

Times have changed, to say the least. The emergence of new information and communication technologies has led to new forms of writing, raising a number of questions about the future of writing as we know it. “Sociolect” used in SMS is but one obvious example of this.

Recently, I have been trying to get my four-year-old son to trace over dotted lines and curves to form letters. The process made me realise that I am experiencing the “iGeneration” first-hand, because my son preferred to do this on the computer.

Now, “it’s faster on your iPad, mummy” and “Mum, let’s check if we can find something online” are part of my four-year-old’s daily sayings.

Expressions such as “it’s easier on mummy’s laptop” and “let’s ask Siri” punctuate daily conversations.

His schoolteacher has summoned me to his classroom to inform me that he doesn’t like colouring and he doesn’t want to write because it “takes too long to do it right”.

Even though this generation needs to keep up with the times, it is essential that it also comes to understand the value of patience, of a slower pace, of meditation and retreat, away from the endless whirlwind of information that surrounds it.

Each September the world marks “letter writing day”. This millennial will torment her iGeneration specimen into writing letters to his cousins and grandparents.

I will do so because handwriting is personal and writing a letter is like sending a piece of yourself. An email can never be this personal. Nothing beats the smell of ink on paper and the scent of a sprig of thyme or a stick of cinnamon in the envelope.

cmirza@thenational.ae