Samir Sayegh’s typography revolution
The Daily Star June 14, 2013
By Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Master calligrapher Samir Sayegh is renowned as the leading contemporary practitioner of one of the Arab world’s oldest art forms. A lifetime of creating modern art out of historic Arabic scripts and enlivening a cultural tradition that he believes had calcified by the 20th century has earned him the reverent moniker of “moallem,” or teacher, in the Middle Eastern art community.
He is less well known, but equally revered, for literally adopting this role in 1992, when he agreed to teach calligraphy to students at the American University of Beirut’s newly created school of graphic design.
Sayegh’s class spawned a new generation of typographers who were ashamed, inspired and mildly outraged by the aesthetic decline of Arabic script over the past two centuries, especially when juxtaposed with Latin fonts.
The desire to modernize Arabic typeface so it could co-exist on different, but equal footing, with Latin counterparts motivated Sayegh’s former students like Lara Assouad, Tarek Atrissi and Nadine Chahine to design the first new Arabic typefaces in decades. These young Turks of Arabic typography have all publicly credited Sayegh’s class as their inspiration to enter a field that had long been dominated by Westerners.
“When I accepted the position, I wanted to start a revolution,” Sayegh recalled in a recent conversation at the Agial Gallery, interpreted by the venue’s owner and Sayegh’s dealer, Saleh Barakat. “They started a new beginning when Arabic typography and calligraphy were really at a dead end. At that time, most people didn’t really know how to write in Arabic anymore.
“[My objective] was mostly to ignite in them a love of Arabic calligraphy. I always used to tell them, ‘the situation is very bad. It’s up to you to find a solution.’ ... This is where the revolution is important because it gets Arabs interested in being involved in the creation of knowledge in this field.”
The quality of new Arabic typefaces that his former students have designed over the past two decades are a testament to the success of Sayegh’s revolution. Chahine, an Arabic specialist at monotype (nee linotype), designed Kufiya – the first and most popular of the 20 typeface families she has created – for her MA project at AUB. She credits Sayegh’s class and the streets of Hamra – or more accurately what was missing from them – as the reasons she became a typographer.
Kufiya is a modern, squarish style inspired by the ancient Kufi script of the eighth and ninth centuries and the first Arabic typeface that was designed with the intention of harmonizing Arabic and Latin letters.
“For me it was not OK that we have amazing typefaces in Latin and shitty typefaces in Arabic and when you put them side-by-side, the Arabic looks badly designed,” she said. “It’s almost a reflection of who we are in comparison and that view is not acceptable from a political view, a cultural view, whatever. What I wanted was to have equality between the two.”
Sayegh traces the roots of this “civilizational” problem that Chahine observed as a 19-year-old graphic design student back to the 18th century when the printing press arrived in the Ottoman Empire and typography became dominated by Europeans.
Though an Arabic-type print house was licensed in Istanbul in 1726-27 – backed by a fatwa from the sheikh al-Islam and a firman from the sultan – calligraphers and certain religious authorities ensured that only nonreligious texts be printed.
Ottoman calligraphers were wary of collaborating with printing press operators on a product that paled in comparison to the spectacular manuscripts they produced, so early Arabic typefaces were largely designed and produced entirely by Europeans, he said.
By the time the first Arabic type designers emerged to shape their own letters in the 1960s, the computer had already begun to push typesetting technology toward obsolescence.
As Europeans consolidated their dominance over Arabic and Latin typography between the 18th and late 20th centuries, the distinction between letters whose function was to convey meaning and script as a nonfigurative art form, which was intended to give the viewer what Barakat called “an invitation to imagine,” started to blur.
In parallel, over the course of 200 years, the perception of the master calligrapher in Arab culture morphed from that of a revered, spiritual and almost meditative figure to a teacher of good handwriting.
Though Sayegh was reluctant to offer an estimate on the number of master calligraphers alive today, Barakat was less circumspect: “I can tell you there are very few, if any, apart from Samir who have this unconventional, progressive thinking.
“There are many calligraphers who have achieved the calligraphy of the past, but they don’t want to look at it in the future. While Samir has learned all this, for him the achievement is to continue the evolution, not to go back to what has already been achieved. It’s like contemporary art. The objective is not to be Michelangelo, but to go forward.”
Sayegh demonstrates the mutable nature of Arabic script to his students by showing them hundreds of slides of individual letters and how they have evolved over a period of 1,200-1,400 years to make the case that calligraphy needs to keep moving forward. Meanwhile, he traces the core principles in contemporary graphic design textbooks back to Arabic calligraphy manuals used over a thousand years ago.
But Sayegh is careful to reinforce the distinction between Arabic typography as a vehicle to convey meaning and Arabic calligraphy as an art form that should be rooted in tradition, but not suffocated by it. While he believes it ought to be revered as a vital part of Arab cultural heritage, it should not be weighed down by this legacy, fetishized, or frozen as an artifact of the remote past.
“The art of typography is about how can you improve the quality of writing by making it easier and clearer to read, but it has nothing to do with calligraphy as an art, which is not meant to be read, but seen,” Sayegh says. “It’s really about if this [the letter] is an end in itself or a container for a meaning. The art of calligraphy went backward when its mission became mostly to transmit meaning, rather than being an end in itself.”
By emphasizing this dichotomy while trying to cultivate an appreciation for Arabic calligraphy among a new generation of aspiring typographers, Sayegh aims to reclaim the purity of his art, the respect society once had for it, and propel it into a new “golden age.”
“The art of Arabic calligraphy is as important as the art of calligraphy in Japan and China and the quality of Arabic calligraphy as an art is as important in the history of civilization as the art of sculpting in Greece or the painting of Italians during the renaissance,” Sayegh said. “The problem is that Arabs don’t look at their art as an achieved art form. [They equate it with knowing] how to write properly.”
Another one of Sayegh’s former students, Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares founded the Khatt foundation in 2004 to correct a similar type of cultural problem that caused Arabic typography to petrify in the 20th century.
“The problem has become an aesthetic problem rather than a technological one,” she explained on a recent visit to Beirut. “People have been reading a certain way for 200 years so [they are opposed] to making variations that break with that tradition.”
Latin typography went through a similar upheaval in the 1920s with the advent of modernism, AbiFeres said, and the result was the ability to typeset books in sans serif. (Serifs are the quasi-cursive flourish on the tail of a lower case “a” or the little hat on top of a “j”).
Chahine’s Kufi style is the Arabic equivalent of the sans serif revolution in Latin typeface, AbiFeres said. Critics of both alphabetical shifts are not used to reading long texts in this style, charges AbiFeres, and consequently claim the modern fonts are less legible.
“To this day, when you do experiments with Arabic type people consider it dangerous ... because you are ruining the culture,” she said. “So it’s this very conservative mentality. ... For me again the problem is a cultural problem in this stage in the history of Arabic. Being more open-minded about exploring different ways to treat the type. The fact that it is so dogmatic that there is less attention to how the typeface will be used, for what purpose. You almost flatten the culture by saying everything looks the same no matter where it is used.”
The first child of Sayegh’s typographical revolution, Chahine, designs her fonts for specific mediums. Kufiya, for instance is meant to be used in paragraphs. It’s not a typeface you’d use for large headlines or technical applications.
“When you look at the font there is harmony between the Arabic and the Latin,” she explained. “They are supposed to sit on the same page without having any contrast, without having a fight. They can coexist but they don’t have to be the same. This is as much a cultural political statement as it is a design statement: that it is OK and possible to have equal dialogue with entities that are very different than us as long as we understand that we are different and it’s OK to be different.”
Achieving this harmony and equality between Latin and Arabic letters is key to creating good Arabic typefaces, which Sayegh believes will unshackle calligraphy from the modern perception of its main purpose as an efficient means of transcribing and perpetuating the written word.
“Now the printing press can do that so calligraphy can go back to its original purpose to be a kind of meditation for the divine,” he said. “This is the primary function of Arabic calligraphy. It was one way to translate the divine words and visualize these divine words into a form and that’s why it’s like a prayer. It’s not about the content.”