An Encounter with the Arabic Type

An Encounter with Arabic Type

Mashq Conference, October 2022

By Youmna Habbouche

My colleagues and I recently witnessed, at the American University of Beirut, professionals, scholars, and students coming together for a day and a half. They explored historical developments, research material, technology updates, and emerging trends in the field of Arabic typography, type design, lettering, and regional visual communication in particular. The event was inspiring, to say the least.

Misfits branding team at mashq conference

The seminar kicked off with an introduction from dean Alan Shehadeh of the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. It is the venue for the design program and the event, putting things in perspective. Yara Khoury, one of the organizers, who also happens to be my teacher back at the university, explained the need for organizing this event. Leila Musfy, one of the first design professors at AUB, showed us via an avant-garde presentation with cute cats, how it all began.

mashq conference on arabic typography branding

We were then moved by a serenade from the master calligrapher. Moreover, we also heard from the art critic, poet, writer, and researcher—Samir el Sayegh. He talked about how calligraphers and designers work together to make Arabic letters that can be used in print, as well as how they can be updated.

Throughout the conference, El Sayegh and many other speakers expressed their disappointment at seeing the calligrapher’s role clearly ending in improving design matters. Since Arabic letter printing spread to the East, calligraphers haven’t done much to improve letter design. Instead, they focused on calligraphy as an independent art, and traditional lettering became a free form rather than a modernized discipline. It is true that we have not seen any new forms of Naskh or Nastaliq exploration.

That first day ended with the opening of two exhibitions: a retrospect of the last edition of the 100 Best Arabic Posters Competition, as well as a focus on the Granshan Give Voice to Type. Both were winning entries in the Arabic text and display typefaces.

100/100 posters competition

As designers from this day and age, the overall message of this exhibit clearly tells us that our identity remains quite fluid: while some of us still look to the West as a design reference and inspiration, utilizing the common language as an aesthetic element rather than a communication one, others try to push boundaries and introduce new visual expressions. 

Day two started out with a work presentation from Salem el Qassimi and an insider’s view of the process behind the different activities of his UAE initiative Fikra: a studio for professional commissions, design residencies, exhibitions, and talks. It’s quite inspiring to see the stretching of culture in contemporary design practice, especially in the GCC region, where setups for research and experimentation are becoming the norm, thus creating a hub for emerging new visual languages.  

“الخط يكتب. الحرف يطبع.”

Calligraphy is handwritten, Type is printed

Next up was guru Kameel Hawa, founder of Al Mohtaraf Design House, walking us through his own experience and visual experimentations, from sketches to physical sculptures. Hawa spoke slowly and carefully relayed his thoughts and recommendations to the rising generation of designers, almost like a memoire. His work embodies his own words: “You need three things to be a great designer: you should be able to carry your heritage, be present in your time, and be true to your authentic artistic self”. 

Research, connections, experimentations, lettering, and more were the subjects of Dr. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, founder and director of the Khatt Foundation. She has been building our regional legacy with books and curated publications specializing in Arabic and multilingual typography. I was glad to find that this collection included some new books I hadn’t seen before, like the Dia Al-Azzawi retrospective and the new edition of the Arabic Typography Sourcebook, which was one of the first design books I bought. 

Onur Yazicigli at mashq conference

We then dove, with Onur Yazicigli (is_type), into examining Ottoman Naskh typefaces as a trade commodity and how those were exported, recreated, and published beyond Constantinople, in Europe but also in Beirut and Cairo—centers of Arabic publishing in the late nineteenth century. There was so much passion in Yazicigli’s research work and his historical analysis, backed up with old photos of the type makers as well as documents and sample prints from the Ottoman Imperial Archives and Beirut’s ancient Imprimerie Catholique. We looked at dots on isolated letters (ن), superimposed typefaces, and retraced some findings back to Twitter discoveries. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for links between Beirut and Istanbul, but this was beyond fascinating. 

Bahia shehab at mashq conference

Bahia Shehab moved quickly into an interesting timeline of the Arabic script, from calligraphy to design and art. Artists, illustrators, designers, typefaces, techniques, and so much more in only a few minutes, with a logic that was so personal to her, it actually made it even more captivating. It was like a quick espresso shot, leaving you energized and ready for more!

Naïma Ben Ayed, who like many other designers grew up with both Latin and Arabic, teamed up with Khajag Apelian as part of the School of Commons. They put together their experiences as designers and educators to reflect on the status quo of Arabic-type design pedagogy. Moreover, they shared ways to open and expand it in the near future. She walked us through the process designed so far. It was really impressive to see how easy it was to learn Arabic lettering in cluster-fast workshops, which used a different method of teaching.

Lara Assouad told her story in Arabic type in four acts: a child growing up and rebelling against a language that meant belonging; a design student focused on the aesthetic of shapes rather than words; a new professional being asked to work with the language; and an esteemed graphic and type designer. Assouad’s path is exemplary in that she juggles the aspirations of a skilled designer with cultural work that goes beyond commercial needs, delving into the physicality and symbolism of the Arabic alphabet, its modularity, and its rhythm beyond its function as a language and cultural signifier.

In (borderline) dark humor, Nisrine Sarkis relayed her/our frustration with the client being always king and the reality of designing for commercial use. She meticulously kept all her sketches and initial propositions for projects she had worked on, and showed the beautiful work she had suggested in comparison to the customer’s final choice: relatable and hilarious! But having made that point, she also spoke about the constant struggle of being asked to make Arabic type look Western, instead of modern in its own characteristics.

In contrast, we got to observe Jana Traboulsi, being her spontaneous self and showing bits and pieces of her path from drawings to lettering, posters to publications. It was fascinating to see how Jana’s work challenges all the norms of perfection in a world obsessed with perfection; it makes it perfectly imperfect and appealing in that sense — pure and almost like a reverie.

Building ligatures and openness between cultures via type design was a major challenge for Veronika Burian from Type Together. She explains how the process of creating a typeface with multiple scripts is important, and then, so eloquently, she concludes:

“Type itself might not change the world, but it could help us communicate better, transport values and understand each other so much better.”

Hatem Imam from Studio Safar raised questions about graphic design’s resistance to a solid definition. “Problem solvers, they call us,” reads one of his slides. What are we? Why isn’t our role clearly stated as cultural practitioners? Designers impact our choices as consumers in terms of political stands, cultural belonging, etc. It makes us ask ourselves: Why do we shy away from associating ourselves with collective impact and often minimize our roles to small artboards and color palettes? 

Hatem imam from studio safar

At Misfits, our community of designers is constantly challenged by changing this narrative. Clients often don’t understand this is a real struggle; they can help us grow the boundaries of local culture. Unfortunately, reality has it that attracting business always comes before the wish of creating change; at least for commercial businesses. 

Our junior designers Najat Kibbi and Robin Khalil, who I was surrounded with throughout the talks, left the venue fully inspired, and full of pride for belonging to this circle of Lebanese and regional designers who do such beautiful work.

Personally, I left with an impression of belonging to a generation of designers and researchers who have unwillingly lived or are living away from home. Our visual boundaries got blurred. Local traditions and modern Western influences were forced to be put together and were sometimes pushed apart. We danced our way through years of professional and cultural experimentations and findings.

We have reappropriated a language and a script, tamed it, worked passionately around it, and put effort into translating how we visually read and perceive it, sometimes with an outsider’s view of our own culture – almost in the eyes of people who observe it from afar, almost as strangers.

NB: There were also 2 lectures by Emile Menhem and Georg Seifert which we had to unfortunately skip 🙂

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