Lebanon’s few remaining Arabic calligraphers, whose elegant script and interweaving words transport one to another era, are working to preserve an art form struggling to compete with new technology.
“The computer is a wonderful tool but in no way can it replace an artist or produce masterpieces,” says Mahmoud Bayoun, one of the country’s best-known calligraphers, whose works have been displayed in the United States and Iran.
The 75-year-old, who learned the skill as a teenager, today uses his talent to draw up menus for the Lebanese presidency for official functions or write condolences and congratulatory messages on behalf of the prime minister.
Bayoun says the longest letter he has written was from late premier Rafiq Hariri to Syria’s then president, Hafez al-Assad, on the occasion of a national holiday.
Hariri was assassinated in 2005 in a massive seaside bombing in Beirut that many Lebanese blamed on Syria, which denies involvement.
Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar.
“The letter was four pages long and written in a very elegant style,” recalls Bayoun, as he sits in his central Beirut office, surrounded by some of his works.
He also keeps busy transcribing the Koran as a hobby. The painstaking work requires more than three years to complete each time, and Bayoun is now working on his third edition of the Muslim holy book.
“It’s very different from the work I do for commercial purposes,” he says. “When I copy the Koran, I immerse myself both spiritually and physically.”
But despite his passion for penmanship, Bayoun is well aware that his is a dying skill that cannot compete with laser-sharp computers.
“Calligraphy today has become more of a visual art than a useful tool and we are trying hard to preserve it,” Bayoun told AFP.
The art of Arabic scriptwriting was heavily influenced by Islam as, according to tradition, the Koran was verbally revealed to the Prophet Mohammed and was later transcribed.
The Koran subsequently inspired generations of calligraphers who, with their brush pens made of reeds, piously endeavoured to reproduce the words using different styles.
Calligraphy also became a major form of artistic expression in Islam as Muslims disapprove of art that represents humans, especially in religious contexts.
There are various styles of calligraphy, including the geometric Kufic form with an emphasis on horizontal lines and the cursive Naskhi.
Diwani script, considered the most elegant, was developed during the reign of the Ottoman Turks. It is the only style that cannot be reproduced on computers, experts say.
Although Lebanon has no calligraphic treasures such as those exposed in mosques in North Africa or Andalusia, it did produce some of the best-known masters of calligraphy including Kamel el-Baba (1905-1991) and Nassib Makarem (1889-1991).
“There are less than 10 authentic calligraphers in Lebanon today,” Bayoun says.
One of them is Salah al-Hafi, 80, who proudly recalls the day Kamel el-Baba noticed his work.
“You know before, you could earn a good living as a calligrapher,” he says, sitting in his modest apartment in Beirut’s working-class neighbourhood of Basta.
“But today we have been pushed aside by computers.”
His calligraphy can still be seen on numerous commemorative plaques dating back to Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and beyond, or on gravestones and flower ribbons.
“I work a lot during election time,” he says wryly, referring to the numerous banners aimed at wooing voters in the politically divided country.
Bayoun says his dream is to open a centre to teach calligraphy to new generations but he lacks the means to do so.
Lebanon has no dedicated calligraphy schools, whereas Iran has 200 such establishments, Iraq 100 and Egypt 36.
For now, Hafi says, he is focusing on his freelance work and sometimes gives calligraphy lessons at an art institute in Beirut.
“We must not allow this art form to disappear,” he says.