Ali al Doury, calligraphy master, has instructed more than 10,000 students at a Sharjah centre dedicated to the art. This is hard work for amateurs, but with the right attitude, even a child can do it
Calligraphy master teaches skill to young and old
SHARJAH // Depending on one's point of view, Arabic calligraphy can be a work of art, a spiritual medium of communication or an expression of an evolving identity.
Ali al Doury, master calligrapher, artist and head of the Sharjah Centre for Arabic Calligraphy and Ornamentation, describes the relationship he has cultivated with the script over the past 40 years as a romantic one.
"Arabic calligraphy art is like loving a woman," said Mr al Doury. "It needs patience, dedication and imagination."
Since the centre opened in the emirate's heritage area in 1999, under the patronage of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, more than 10,000 students have had a lesson with the 61-year-old calligraphy master from Iraq. They come from all walks of life and all nationalities, signing up for a month-long course of three sessions a week at a cost of Dh100, with the option of renewing.
"Initially, there was more interest from non-Arabs to learn this art, with only recently Arabs are going back to their roots and learning the art and script of their ancestors," Mr al Doury said.
Before heading the centre, Mr al Doury helped draft textbooks on Arabic writing for schools in Sharjah back in the 1980s. They helped to address what is becoming a lost art.
"You would be surprised at how many Arabs can't even write regular Arabic script," he said.
The books, as with most such teaching manuals in use throughout the Arab world, focused on teaching two types of fonts or styles. They are Naskh, a soft, cursive style, and Ruq'ah, a bare version that is more commonly used.
Following the oral tradition of the language, Arabic calligraphy emerged in the first century of Islam, about 622, and has continued to evolve throughout the ensuing centuries.
"Calligraphers would compete among themselves and use the most beautiful and creative form of calligraphy when writing and copying the Holy Quran," Mr al Doury said. "It is one of the most revered and spiritual art forms."
Through teaching, Mr al Doury has acquired an expertise in understanding the personalities of his students. "How someone expresses themselves in calligraphy tells me a lot about their personality and psychology," he said. "In some ways, calligraphy is a mirror of the soul."
He noted that some of the best amateur calligraphers to pass through his doors were among a group of Japanese students last year. They seemed to be more patient than most, helping to create some of the centre's best pieces.
During a session inside the master's classroom, three very different students worked at copying Arabic script. And just as Mr al Doury said calligraphy requires dedication, imagination and patience, these students respectively personified each of those virtues.
For Sabiha Muzaffar, 31, a housewife from Saudi Arabia, the sessions provide a valuable link to her religion and language. She is learning to write in Deewani Jalee, one of the more difficult classical styles, restricted in the past to the royal court.
"I like the prestige and beauty associated with this style," she said.
Melinda Mesbah, 50, a teacher from the US living in Dubai, is married to an Iranian. The relationship has sparked years of admiration for the art form as well as a yearning to practise it.
"They always cost so much, and so, I thought why not learn how to make it myself and add my personal touch to the pieces?" she said.
The most determined of the group, and the fastest at copying her lines, was also the youngest: nine-year-old Khadijah Nur, an American Muslim who lives with her family in Sharjah and comes to class in a bus provided by the centre.
"I want to be able to win calligraphy competitions and make my family proud," she said.
Derived from the Greek word kallos (beauty), calligraphy means “the art of beautiful handwriting”.
Kufi, used to write the first copies of the Holy Quran, is the oldest form of calligraphy, dating to the early 7th century.
Many modern Qurans are written in Naskh, a more cursive style dating to the late 8th century that is easier to read.
Thuluth is a script that appeared in the late 9th century and mainly used in ornamental scripts like titles, headings and colophons.
Thuluth al Jely is a classical script and one of the most important and difficult to write and read.
Ruq’ah, which means small sheet, has been revised over the centuries and simplified to become the most commonly used font in the Arab world.
Source: Sharjah Calligraphy Museum