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Arabic Calligraphy’s New Heritage Status Lifts Hopes for Keeping It Alive

After Unesco inscribed Arabic calligraphy on its intangible cultural heritage lists last month, Arab calligraphers hope the decision will encourage more support for teaching the art at schools and universities.

On its website, Unesco describes Arabic calligraphy as “the artistic practice of handwriting Arabic script in a fluid manner to convey harmony, grace and beauty.” The heritage element is both an art form and a cultural practice that unites the peoples of all Arab and Islamic countries. A video clip on the site highlights its aesthetics.

Mohamed Baghdadi, an Egyptian calligrapher, said Unesco’s decision came as the culmination of a two-year effort to put Arabic calligraphy on the U.N. agency’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The effort was led by Saudi Arabia and supported by 15 other Arab states.

Baghdadi, who is director of the Arabic Calligraphy Forum at Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, served an advisor to the committee that prepared the report nominating the art form for heritage status. He also oversaw technical aspects of the application.

‘Living Heritage’

Intangible heritage is “living heritage,” Unesco says. It consists of “the practices, traditions, knowledge and skills”, as well as tools and spaces, that communities consider part of their cultural heritage.

“Unesco’s decision came as the culmination of a two-year effort to put Arabic calligraphy on the U.N. agency’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

Mohamed Baghdadi
Director of the Arabic Calligraphy Forum at Egypt’s Ministry of Culture

The organization maintains two lists relating to intangible cultural heritage. They are the “representative” list, on which Arabic calligraphy was inscribed, and another list for heritage elements “in need of urgent safeguarding”.

Baghdadi said that the representative list was designed “to urge member states to take care of the heritage element and develop the skills of its professionals. It also instructs countries to prepare annual reports on the procedures that have been followed in this regard, to protect this element from extinction.”

The Syrian calligrapher Mouneer Al-Shaarani said Unesco’s decision represented “an important step to preserve Arabic calligraphy, confirming that this art is still alive”.

He added: “It is necessary to take care of teaching Arabic calligraphy to avoid turning it into a museum art that cannot be developed.”

Limiting Arabic calligraphy to a heritage space would be a “crime”, Al-Shaarani said. “We need to liberate it from this framework and consider it as an art derived from heritage by integrating it into contemporary arts.”

A number of contemporary artists are doing just that. They include Heba Helmi, a potter who was taught by the late Mohamed Hamam. “The old forms of Arabic calligraphy do not meet the needs of contemporary artists, but it can inspire,” she said.

Helmi regrets the deterioration of calligraphy schools. “A calligrapher’s profession is no longer rewarding,” she said. “So, we must move on by educating calligraphers to master an artistic space that frees them from the framework of decoration.”

Teaching Calligraphy at Art Colleges

Al-Shaarani suggests establishing special departments for Arabic calligraphy at art colleges or specialized higher institutes. The existing calligraphy schools in most Arab countries “suffer from deliberate government neglect, and their students do not feel their education is useful”, he said.

Baghdadi added that the schools are too poor to pay teachers a living wage. “In a pioneering country like Egypt,” he said, “a calligraphy teacher at such schools receives a wage that is not enough to buy a cup of tea in a popular cafe.”

Gallery: Arabic Calligraphy

He called for programs to assist traditional calligraphers. “Their livelihood has become dire in recent years, after many prefer modern technologies to produce calligraphy.”

Another Egyptian calligrapher, Mahmoud Atef, thinks it would be more useful to return to older methods of teaching calligraphy, like the apprenticeship model. “Education was better when it was the responsibilities of NGOs and individual initiatives,” he said.

He added: “Teaching the art of calligraphy depends on the method that prevailed in the past, where a person who wants to learn becomes an apprentice at the hands of his teacher, unlike today’s courses and academic years devoid of any real content.”

Atef thinks that “one of the problems of teaching calligraphy comes from calligraphers who are unaware of theoretical values and the philosophy governing this art, which make them unable to develop it.”

However, he hopes that Unesco’s recognition will contribute to “the development of Arabic calligraphy teaching methods, and the realization that theoretical knowledge about calligraphy is what drives its protection. The lack of knowledge threatens both art and craftsmanship.”

The recognition by Unesco is “an important step to preserve Arabic calligraphy, confirming that this art is still alive”.

Mouneer Al-Shaarani
A Syrian calligrapher

In 2022, Egypt will celebrate the centenary of opening its first official school for Arabic calligraphy, the Khalil Agha School in Cairo.

Preparing the Nomination

The 15 states, besides Saudi Arabia, that supported the nomination of Arabic calligraphy as a heritage element were: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Nahla Imam, Egypt’s representative to Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, served on the committee that prepared the application.

She said the process started with coordination meetings that took place in Riyadh in February 2020. She praised Baghdadi’s work for the committee.

“Baghdadi succeeded in providing the committee … with data he collected over years on Arabic calligraphy in most Arab countries,” Imam said. The work included preparing inventory lists and collecting practitioners’ testimonies.

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