Pouya Ahmadi

In Praise of Arabic Letters

Arabic typography amongst other non-Latin scripts has gained tremendous attention during the past few years. It has perhaps recently had its fastest evolutional period in its long existence in the region (the Middle East). However, its evolution has not just been restricted to the Arab World, rather expanded globally, infused with characteristics of other scripts and influenced them as well.

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There has been numerous match-making (Latin/Arabic) projects that attempted to bring together these two (Latin and Arabic) fundamentally different scripts. Khatt Foundation founded by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares is one of the few and major organizations that took on matchmaking projects between Latin and Arabic typefaces in its most professional and academic way. There are number of educational and research publications authored by Huda herself and published through the organization such as Typographic Matchmaking and Typographic Matchmaking in the City. These publications not only shed light on the growing need of our modern societies to go beyond their traditional approach in typography and type design, they also showcase projects that accomplish such goals. While there are currently a few projects conducted around the world in a similar spirit, there is certainly a need for measures that can evaluate their accomplishments, pros and cons of each approach by the experts within the field.

There are certainly critical questions that Arabic typographers and type designers ask themselves on a daily basis working on any project that deals with the script that go beyond the usual boundaries of design. Some of these questions posed from linguistics (or syntax) point of view, which are not necessarily to be solved by typographers, are rather significantly influential in (mainly typeface) design process itself. For instance, issues that are unique to letterforms connectivity, dots, and spacing problems both with connected and disconnected letterforms within a word construct in Arabic and Farsi script. Another example could be the multiplicity of letterforms (mainly in Farsi) with identical pronunciation which unnecessarily adds complexity to the overall structure of the script. Although, there have been numerous efforts to challenge the exclusive qualities of the writing system, there seems to be still a lack of proper attention to structural fundamentals of it. For instance, the idea of super type families that incorporate extended, regular, and condensed families, or typefaces with humongous number of ligatures that cover every possible instance that would require a specific arrangement of letterforms with problematic connections that was made possible with new capabilities of OpenType features. While these are certainly new contributions to the field, there still remains areas to investigate which would require more in-depth research into the fundamentals of the writing system itself.

The use of Arabic type and its significance has been disseminated in the West as well during the past few years. It is becoming more clear that in order to be able to maintain a strong cultural, social, and political conversation with the Arab countries, it is important for the West to understand how the language works. On one hand, with more-than-ever instability in the Middle East, and the immigration crisis, the role of communication in non-Latin (in this case Arabic) languages has become even more critical. On the other hand—due to increasing migrating population as one of the major factors in and of itself—the growing number of scattered inhabitants (from this region across the globe) has truly forced the language to go beyond its known geographical boundaries. And yet there are still very few entities that do celebrate the importance of the script, let alone the underlying culture and values. Therefore, it is not so unprecedented to see a surge in the recent years amongst the major designers in the field to attempt at bringing awareness to the area. 100 Best Arabic Posters is a non-profit organization based in Cairo, Egypt with the mission of honoring the 100 best Arabic posters designed in past three years around the globe. The organization is founded by Professor Rayan Abdullah (founding Dean of the faculty of applied arts and sciences at the German University in Cairo and he is also a Professor for Typography in Leipzig, Germany), Ahmad Saqfalhait (Graphic Designer and acting Head of the Graphic Design Department at the German University in Cairo), Darius Gondor (Graphic Designer and Lecturer at the German University in Cairo) and Jochen Braun (Graphic Designer and Lecturer at the German University in Cairo). According to 100BAP press release “the organization acts as a collective and dynamic platform with the aim of reviving and embracing the diversity of the Arab world’s visual language, solely through collected and selected Arabic posters. The mission is to appraise the importance of poster design as a modern, contemporary medium of communication in and for the region.” The main goal of the project, per organization’s statement, is to document the evolution of Arabic typography and graphic design, while reuniting the Arab World on a yearly basis. There are only two main criteria for the entries: Posters should use Arabic language and should also be published within the past three years. The selected pieces are exhibited in galleries, museums, and institutions across the globe throughout the year, archived digitally, and published in a printed catalog. While Arabic language seems to be core to this collection of works, the organization embraces other non-Arabic languages that use Arabic script such as Farsi and Urdu as well. This allows for the reunion of not only the 22 Arabic speaking countries, but also other countries that use the script as either the only official or alongside other scripts in a sub-national level.

Whether the organization can truly manage to bring together the Arab World by means of such ambitious projects, only time can be a true judge. What is clear, however, is that non-Latin scripts such as Arabic do deserve such attention in global scale. While the number of professional individuals that are pushing the boundaries of Arabic typography is increasing much rapidly over the years, there still seems to be not enough venues that celebrate those efforts to their full potentials and encourage the native designers and typographers to close the gap between the traditional and modern Arabic typography. The gap that has been, for decades, a burden for calligraphers to go beyond the traditions and gain design knowledge that can be applied to our contemporary societies with substantial meaning as opposed to superficial adaptation of the traditional craft; and for designers to dive deeper in hundreds of years of tradition that led to perfection in form and concept generation through calligraphy. If indeed such events and organizations can establish grounds where those conversations can be held and cultivate critical thinking that can challenge our current state of conventional aesthetics and rationale, one could be hopeful that in the coming years we will witness a fruition of vast technological, formal, and conceptual advancements in the field of Arabic typography.

Published with permission from the editors of Neshan Magazine.
For more on this issue No.36 please visit Neshan's site http://neshanmagazine.com/