Art & Revolution

17 Mar 2011
17 Apr 2011


At three in the morning, on February 12th, 2011 at Midan al-Tahrir in Cairo, while the Egyptian people were still celebrating the news of the stepping down of their dictator for 30 years Hosni Mubarak, newspapers fresh off the press started circulating.

al-shaab - wall painting & newspaper Bahia Shehab

The headlines were expected, but one newspaper, the government owned Al-Ahram featured the most eye-catching headline of them all: “The people have overthrown the regime”. It was eye-catching for two reasons. The first was obviously the content, which was a direct answer to the popular chant now rocking the Arab world from Libya to Bahrain: “The people want to overthrow the regime”. The second was the design. The headline was, for the first time in almost 30 years, above the newspaper’s logo and heading, and it was in bold red. Instances in the history of the newspaper where this has happened before were events like the 1967 war, or when president Nasser decided to step down and the assassination of president Anwar Sadat. But the most curious thing is not the mere fact of the headline’s position but that amongst the newspapers on circulation on the eve of the revolution’s major victory, it was the only headline drawn, and even signed by a calligrapher. Al-Ahram editors understood that for such an important and historic piece of news, no Arabic font was good enough.

Whether it was the lurking feeling of guilt for covering the events of the revolution from the government’s point of view for the past 18 days or because they are the oldest newspaper in circulation since 1875 and truly the only newspaper that understands the nuances of the Arab design heritage, Al-Ahram was able catch our attention. As historic and important the news was, traditional calligraphy stood out as the best medium for representation. It was also a way for Al-Ahram to apologize for playing a part in the ousted government’s propaganda machine, but now they were on the side of the people, thus the word “al-shaab” meaning the people in Arabic, was the first word in the headline. They realized that the winds of change had blown and it was time to regain the trust of the people.

This calligraphy “manchette” was also a statement by al-Ahram reminding the people that it is the oldest school of journalism in the Middle East, and that it is the real house of the originals. By utilizing a calligrapher and not a font, Al-Ahram linked itself to the handwritten signs of the protestor in Tahrir square. Their headline became a handwritten mark that could not be merely deleted by the click of a cursor, a fact they engraved in history. In the Islamic tradition, the Quran is scripted and not typed. Even till today, when people want to design their wedding invitations they use a calligrapher for their momentous occasion. Al-Ahram understood all that and wrote it in big and in red. The headline might be the newspaper’s bold message to the Egyptian people but it is also a statement of the state of design in the Arab world today. With all of the technological evolution that has swept the digital design world, and the thousands of fonts in circulation on all the different publishing desktops, we still do not have a font in Arabic that is worthy of historic respect. As Arab designers we have failed to transmit our rich visual heritage to the printed and digital spheres. Technology has not hindered very complex cultural calligraphic traditions from this transmission, like the Chinese or the Japanese, so we cannot use it as an excuse.

Al-Ahram’s headline might be an announcement of the victory of the Egyptian revolution that was initiated from cyberspace, but it is also a call for another kind of revolution. It is a wake-up call for Arab designers to get back in shape and feature on the international design arena, and this can never be done without the most basic tool of design, typography. But this birth should not be countered by a death. Arab calligraphers should not die out. They are the holders of the keys and they are the transmitters of tradition. As Arab designers all around the world today, we grew up feeling orphaned. We looked at a thousand years of rich artistic endeavors, yet we felt very distant and disconnected from them. We grew up with the concept of globalization and our understanding of it was to fit into the shoes of the West. We had to learn and apply the design logic and tools of the West, which to say nothing of, moves in another direction.

Unlike the Latin, Arabic reads from right to left and its letters are connected. To design an Arabic font today you have to design the 28 letters of the alphabet with at least 145 variations of how the different letters connect in a word. Add to that the thousands of word variations that only a content aware calligrapher is able to produce and the future looks bleak. The word “khatt” in Arabic is usually translated as calligraphy but literally it means line. It is the thousands of variations of combining this line which gives Arabic calligraphy its richness and beauty.

Arab type designers face a huge challenge, the peculiarity of the Arabic script and the concept of the designed word, which are at the essence of Arabic calligraphy. But only a collaboration with the holders of the keys will save us. With the advent of technology, Arab calligraphers have been marginalized and ignored by the ego of western educated designers who thought that the West was the oracle that had all the answers to their design questions. Unfortunately as much as a mea culpa is called for we cannot also ignore the role that the oil rich Arab countries played or to be more precise did not play. For a language that is used by 280 million people over the world, a mere 300 fonts out of which a handful is usable and properly designed you have to blame whole governments and not mere mortal designers. In the width and breadth of the Arab world there is not one single school specialized in Arabic calligraphy. The only foundation concerned with the development of the Arabic script is based in Amsterdam and suffers from the lack of funding.

The decolonization of the Arab world as a project was never completed. The Arabs were looked upon as genetically unqualified for democracy. These revolutions all over our Arab nations today have broken this stereotype to usher us on new footsteps in the right track towards a true democracy. We have seen each other’s faces and have realized that we speak the same language and chant the same chants. Our destiny as a nation is one. We will not be looked upon as cattle and followers anymore, we will not be afraid, we will call for justice at the top of our lungs and with those same lungs we will breath the fresh air of freedom.

Our wish now is for the revolution to continue so that as a nation we will not merely speak the same language but we will adapt it, we will share it and we will make it look good. From Cairo, the heart of the Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, long live the revolution.

Cairo, March 2011
Bahia Shehab