We often think of writing and art as two separate means of expression, but can't handwriting in itself be a form of art?
Washington University Senior Lecturer in Arabic Younasse Tarbouni led a workshop on Arabic calligraphy, a style of expression that brings together art and writing to meet at a skillfully harmonious intersection, last Thursday and Friday, Oct. 10 and 11.
Being a professor of Arabic at Wash. U. for 14 years, Tarbouni possesses a deep passion for the language that manifests itself through the very way he speaks about it. Attendees began by learning about different script styles of Arabic calligraphy, such as Thuluth, Kufic and Riqa, to name a few. It quickly became clear that putting a definitive label on just how many scripts existed was no simple task; oftentimes one style branched off even further into numerous details and derivatives.
The two day workshop was open to the public, drawing in attendees spanning the entire Wash. U. community. Each person walked in with a differing level of expertise in calligraphy and the Arabic language itself, but everybody shared an enthusiasm to learn and try.
Sophomore Lydia Roesler plans on majoring in Religious Studies and shared that she "took Arabic because of its beauty, actually."
"I was very excited to be at the workshop, to learn how to make my script beautiful and not just my classroom scribbles," she said.
After learning a bit about the origins of various scripts, Tarbouni encouraged us all to really spend time getting comfortable with writing the letters. We needed a strong foundation before we jumped to full calligraphic words and phrases. Back when he was in school practicing Arabic calligraphy, Tarbouni shared, the classroom would fall completely silent out of respect for the teacher and the art form.
To Tarbouni, calligraphy is an integral component of immersing oneself in the Arabic language.
"It's fun, it's artistic, it takes your mind off of structure in the classroom, but it's at the heart of Arabic history and religion and culture, et cetera," Tarbouni said. "You can learn Arabic without calligraphy, but you will be leaving out a big chunk of tradition."
Many students present at the workshop echoed this belief, including sophomore Milkise Yassin.
"I think Arabic calligraphy is important, because it preserves a traditional practice found in many Arabic-speaking countries," Yassin said.
This sense of "tradition" alluded to by both Yassin and Tarbouni represents the fascinating dynamic within which Arabic calligraphy lies: it exists amid years of rich Arab history but also extends its relevance into the scope of society today.
Arabic calligraphy is not some outdated, pre-modern form of artistic expression. Now more than ever, "calligraphy is used as a tool for this young generation to express themselves in different ways," Tarbouni said. "And some of those books that we looked at [in the workshop], all the texts are a different way of expressing one's political beliefs, one's religious beliefs or both: merging the two together."
Sophomore Hasan Salim shared similar sentiments regarding this creative outlet of expression, referencing images of tattoos containing Arabic calligraphy displayed by Tarbouni.
"If you don't know what you're looking at, they do look like really cool patterns," Salim said. "But you don't realize there's meaning in that."
Calligraphy is frequently admired for the beauty of its appearance, but we cannot fail to recognize the equally beautiful meaning behind every stroke and symbol.
There's no doubt it can be intimidating to approach. Arabic is a Semitic language, meaning it belongs to a subfamily of closely related languages within the Afro-Asiatic phylum. To the unfamiliar eye, the alphabet alone may appear pretty daunting. But Richard Harrod, a University fellow in the Department of History, expressed that studying the calligraphy of the Arabic language actually "sort of demystifies it for people."
"I think a lot of people who don't know Arabic are intimidated by the alphabet—it kind of just looks like a bunch of squiggles. 'How can you read that?' is something I hear a lot... but an alphabet is an alphabet just like any other," Harrod said. He emphasized that after seeing the way the alphabet is used as art and the passion driving it all, one is awarded a "very unique insight into the Arab culture."
Even for someone who's never spoken a word of Arabic in their life, calligraphy could still be an incredibly enriching opportunity.
Upon inquiry of his hopes for the future, Tarbouni said he plans to offer a workshop again in the spring.
"And if there's funding—serious funding for it—we can hold a competition or invite a professional calligrapher to campus."