‘Khatt’: From a Love of Egyptian Pop Culture and Arabic Typography

Ursula Lindsey & M Lynx Qualey discussed Khatt: Egypt’s Calligraphic Landscape at the end of Bulaq‘s most recent episode, 22: 

The book is a photographic exploration of Egyptian calligraphy, but also includes interviews, essays, and a history of the form. Editor Basma Hamdy — also co-editor of the 2014 book Walls of Freedom: Street Art of the Egyptian Revolution — answered a few questions about this latest book, how it relates to Walls of Freedom, and why Egypt’s calligraphic landscape developed as it did.

How did this book come about (it’s been in the works for a while, I believe?), and how does it intersect with/relate to the Walls of Freedom project? 

Basma Hamdy:This book emerged from my and Noha’s shared interest and love for Egyptian popular culture and Arabic typography. Noha co-manages the Instagram account @arabictypography, and her striking photography and documentation of calligraphy and typography across Egypt has been a key component for creating this book. 

I teach Arabic type design and typography as a senior level undergraduate course. I often find it difficult for students to find inspiration in Qatar due to the lack of traditional typographic and calligraphic lettering found in the everyday landscape. Egypt has a long history of calligraphic and typographic innovation compared to other Arab countries. Believing that eventually those expressions found on shop signs or trucks, and many other surfaces, would be replaced with digital mediums, I approached Noha Zayed, whose photographs capture the true essence of Egyptian calligraphy in context, and suggested she create a book documenting all her findings. She then proposed we work on it together.

This book is closely related to my first book Walls of Freedom. Obviously, both books deal with expression on the urban landscape which you could argue loosely belongs to a form of ‘graffiti’. Some of the inspiration for the beautiful murals created by street artists during the Egyptian Revolution was heavily inspired by elements that already existed on the streets or on houses in Egypt that are now documented in Khatt. One of them is ‘Hajj’ paintings which influenced Ammar Abo Bakr to create some of his murals. Where Walls of Freedom is a more political book that documents a short period in Egypt’s history, Khatt documents a long-standing tradition and familiar art form that has always been present on Egyptian streets. 

Why does the calligraphic landscape in Egypt differ so sharply from other countries where Arabic is a/the official language? 

BH: Egypt is very unique, and there are multiple reasons for this. Arabic calligraphy flourished in Egypt under the Umayyads and Abbasids and then reached its peak during the Ottoman era. When Muhammad Ali ruled Egypt there was a need to create a modern visual culture and calligraphers were continually innovating and developing the script to represent a “modern Egypt”. Another important development was the founding of the Royal School of Calligraphy in 1922 by King Fouad, which can be considered the first school in the Islamic world with the goal of preserving the art form by creating a new generation of skilled calligraphers. In short, calligraphy was an important form of maintaining the Arabic language and reinforcing the resistance to foreign occupation. In the 1950s, Nasser’s nationalization and industrialization initiatives produced a unique form of branding that often involved experimental lettering and unique calligraphic creations to market its products and industries. Egyptian calligraphers represented a nationalist and patriotic voice that imbued Egyptian visual culture with an Arab identity reinforcing nationalist agendas. This continued in the 1960s, 70s and 80s with the entertainment industry where Egyptian movie posters were created by hand and can be considered a unique art form that allowed calligraphers to experiment and refine the Arabic script where it reached playful and unique manifestations. 

How have you seen Egypt’s calligraphic landscape change in the last decade? In the last couple years? 

BH: I would say the biggest change to Egypt’s calligraphic landscape is what happened during and after the Egyptian revolution. It seems that Egyptian streets became filled with political messages of hope, resistance, and commemoration. However, an alarming phenomenon that continues to affect calligraphy artists is digital fonts that have now replaced hand-made calligraphy. Often these fonts are poorly designed and don’t respect the nuanced beauty and elegance of Arabic calligraphy however they are cheaper and more convenient to produce . A lack of awareness of the importance of calligraphic principles and Arabic script grammar contributes to the perpetuation of these fonts as replacements for a very rich art form. The uniquely crafted and aesthetically captivating lines hand-painted by local artisans are in decline are now replaced with western-inspired billboards advertising for luxurious real-estate developments and other global brands.

How did you decide on which voices you wanted to include? As you must have heard on Bulaq, we were particularly charmed by the workaday calligraphist, the inventor of the bronze method.

BH: When we decided to create this book, we wanted to make sure it didn’t seem overly academic but we also did not want it to simply function as a photography book. We felt like we needed to contextualize the images shown and also allow for deeper journeys into specific projects or approaches. We invited a number of people who we knew could offer a unique perspective on calligraphy and typography. The bronze inventor who was interviewed by Ahmad Hammoud, represents a unique sub-culture of calligraphy artists in Egypt. They are silent artists who are often unrecognized and unappreciated for their work. His innovation (using glitter) may seem like an insignificant or tacky component, however, it sets him apart from his competitors and demonstrates his struggles. 

What are the points intersection between the popular & the professional calligraphist/artist? 

BH: I would say calligraphy is a skill and craft based on a set of principles and rules. In order to produce work that is aesthetic and legible all artists with popular or professional need to have had some basic training in the principles of calligraphy and the art of the pen. That said, popular calligraphy artists use their skill as a means for profit normally creating the work seen in advertisements, election banners or basic commercial shop signs. Whereas perhaps more professional calligraphy artists may spend more time innovating and perfecting their craft, producing exhibitions, creating contemporary manifestations of calligraphy, work on branding and graphic design projects.

What sort of readership are you hoping to reach with this book? 

BH: We were hoping to reach a general audience. We anticipated more interest from creative professionals, designers, photo enthusiasts, and artists. Even though the project is about Egypt, the book’s impact is significant for the entire region both culturally and academically. Photography enthusiasts will also find this book interesting since it spans never before-documented locations in Egypt and presents these various locations from a new angle. In addition to its role in culture and language sustainability, this book is also timely in today’s tumultuous political landscape where there is a renewed interest in the Arab and Muslim world, and by extension, the Arabic script. In this context, we view this book as a cultural ambassador presenting Arabic beyond the limited media portrayal and its persistent association with a particular religious ideology. In this book, the Arabic script will appear in a new light beyond a religious or literary container as a rich tapestry of diverse creative expression.

Are you planning launch events in Cairo?

BH: Yes we are. A book launch is scheduled for mid-December and a number of exhibitions are also in the works and will be announced as they are finalized.

You can follow Basma Hamdy’s work at www.basmahamdy.com.

The book has a website: www.khattegypt.com

Find more images from the book at The National and Slanted.