Arabic from Left to Right
An Interview with Type Designer,
It’s impossible to separate the Arabic language from its beautiful script, a script used by 200 million people; from which calligraphers have created a sublime and sacred art form in the Islamic holy book, the Koran.
How, then, does a person take a language that has traditionally been written by hand and turn it into an easily readable type font one that maintains the beauty of the written form and can be set and read in the Western style from left to right as well as from right to left?
Inspired by his six-year-old daughter, Saad Abulhab, type font designer and Director of Technology at Baruch University, set out to do just that.
Abulhab, who for this issue has set Saadi Youssef’s poem, “Hamra Night (Red Night),” into the font he invented, shares how he met Youssef; what it’s like to work in two languages, Arabic and English; how he invented his font, and his feelings about Iraq.
WRR: You were born in the states and spent your childhood in Karbala and Baghdad. How did living in both places affect your perspective on language?
Even though I spent most of my life in New York, my formative years in Iraq from childhood through to young adult years had the most significant effect on me linguistically. I write and think in Arabic first. A good friend of mine who often reads over my English essays likes to call my English writing style “Arabish”! Still, being always an A level student in Arabic, I do not think that I will ever understand how I received low English composition grades in the states. I think I have learned from the strengths of both languages over the years.
WRR: Do you still have family in Iraq?
Yes, my parents and sisters.
WRR: Could you comment on the May 25, 2007 murder of Kahlil al Zahawi, Iraq’s most famous practitioner of classical Arabic script? Did he influence you in any way?
Khalil al-Zahawi was a master of Arabic calligraphy, especially the Naskh Taleeq style that he loved. My typography work is far from his magnificent calligraphy but his well-known modernist, open minded approach in calligraphy was definitely an inspiration to many, including myself.
Mr. al-Zahawi, who was Kurdish, was assaulted twice since the occupation of Iraq in 2003. The first was when hundreds of his great calligraphy pieces were looted from Saddam’s Center for the Art. He said in an interview that he cried very much when he finally located one piece being sold for less than a dollar on a Baghdad sidewalk.
The second assault was a deadly one. The blood that had supplied his old delicate talented fingers was now spilling over his driveway. It is sad to say that Mr. Zahawi’s violent execution is only one of several thousand assassinations being carried out by well-organized mercenary forces against Iraqi scientists, physicians, professors, pilots, artists, and other talented people since the early days of occupation. The goal of these sick, barbaric forces is apparently to bring Iraq back to the “Stone Age,” as one of the leading American generals warned in 1991.
WRR: What are you thoughts about Iraq's future?
During the era of British colonialism last century, a famous British military leader was asked about the most difficult lands to conquer in the East. He replied Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson of Afghanistan was in 1830 and of Iraq in 1920. Unfortunately those lessons were not learned.
I have full confidence that Iraq despite all those ugly opportunist Iraqi collaborators, and despite armies of international mercenaries will end this new project of colonialism, fanaticism and lies, and survive.
WRR: Where did you meet poet Saadi Youssef?
Like millions of Iraqis, I first knew about Saadi through his beautiful poems. That was around 1972 in Baghdad. In 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, Saadi was among the minority of Iraqi intellectuals who stood firmly against occupation. I contacted him through email to thank him for not betraying Iraq and his human values.
Thanks to PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival, I finally met Saadi in person for the first time this year in New York. To my surprise, I found him as humble, delicate, and true in person as his poetic words.
WRR: In an interview in the New York Times, you said that you were inspired by your six-year-old daughter who was already steeped in the Latin alphabet, and resistant to learn the Arabic alphabet to invent an Arabic script that can be read from left to right as well as right to left. How is this possible?
One of the difficulties of teaching Arabic to kids, especially kids raised in the West, who are fully molded by a left to right script environment, is getting them used to a right to left flow. Even though sketching traditional Arabic characters from left to right is a difficult task, I noticed young learners insist on doing just that. Many would eventually become tired and discouraged from the long time involved in accomplishing that awkward task. This in turn, often makes them quit the whole learning process very early on.
I have designed a few fonts where characters are completely symmetrical around the Y-axis but still legible as Arabic characters. Obviously, ordering such characters from left to right within a word would not form a typical legible Arabic word, but the idea was not that. Instead, my design was an effort to get someone to learn the overall visual characteristics of an Arabic letter with complete freedom and with the least obstacles. Ordering and joining characters would then be a next stage in a learning process.
WRR: Can you give a brief history of the Arabic language?
I am definitely not an Arabic language expert. But I think you meant the Arabic script.
Modern Arabic script was most likely derived around the third century from one of the cursive flavors of the ancient Arabic Musnad script used throughout the greater Arab Peninsula as far back as the 10th century B.C. Many experts today believe Arabic is a transformed version of the Aramaic Nabataean script, but I do not share this view. Interestingly, Arabic Musnad characters were ordered in multiple directions and had both cursive and isolated forms. But, cursive forms were confined to the right to left order.
After Islam, when the Arabic script became the official state script, it evolved into a well formed and defined script. Its inspirational, powerful, features and shapes were eventually adapted by many nations throughout Asia and Africa. These nations have added or subtracted characters and forms creating, in effect, new scripts or alphabets. This is why we prefer to call these derived scripts “Arabetic” rather than “Arabic” scripts.
One can speak of Urdu, Persian, Pashto, etc. scripts/alphabets, but at the same time speak about one Arabetic script. This is important since, for example, it is quite confusing (and to some unacceptable) to say Persian is an Arabic script.
WRR: You invented the Mutamathil type style. Please describe it.
The main goal for designing the Mutamathil type style is to emphasize the strength and flexibility of the Arabic script. Mutamathil is a typographical model independent of the traditional historical calligraphic schools. Fonts of this style consist of isolated or virtually connected forms. They do not necessarily assign multiple shapes per letter based on its position within a word. Some list elaborate Arabic script rules. We believe that these rules are calligraphic specific rules, not Arabic script rules. The only absolute rule of the Arabic script is that of open adaptation and evolution.
It is important to think of the Mutamathil style as an attempt to enrich user options. It is definitely not an attempt to reform the script or discredit the magnificent Arabic and Islamic calligraphy. We think it is important to address the challenges of literacy, education, economics, technology, global competition, as well as legibility. The Arabic script should not become captive of its historical beautiful forms and success. It should look to the future. Its functionality and competitiveness should be as important as its visual splendor.
You can visit our site for more information about the Mutamathil style and to experience our fonts online.
WRR: What does the word Mutamathil mean?
It means “similar” or “same.” This refers to our assignment of one same shape, or two shapes with identical visual characteristics per letter. In the case of bidirectional shapes, it additionally refers to the vertical symmetry of each letter shape.
WRR: Can you talk about Lam Alif ligatures and how you worked with them in your type font?
Typically, traditional Arabic includes many ligatures. A ligature is one shape that replaces two or more letter shapes that may also vary based on its position within words. Historically, many Cyrillic or Latin scripts had ligatures too. But in the age of typography, they disappeared or became infrequently used. In our fonts we make a point of not including ligatures to improve script learning curve, but the Lam-Alif ligatures are the only exceptions.
WRR: Who uses your fonts?
Our foundry, Arabetics, was the first foundry to sell Arabic fonts. Despite our fonts’ untraditional design, we had clients ranging from individuals to software and teaching companies. It is important to realize that our fonts are the first non-traditional Arabic fonts of their class ever to be sold on the market.
WRR: Do you see your type font as a way to make Arabic language prose and poetry accessible to a new generation?
Writing poetry with a distinguished calligraphic style is an old artistic practice in the east. Unfortunately this art was significantly abandoned after the takeover of typography. Many poets were at the same time great calligraphers and painters. I believe that the poetic rhythms, pictures, and harmony of written words should be harmonized with the style of letters and even colors used. After all, one cannot equally enjoy a book of Omar al-Khayyam poems with plain fonts!