‘Back to Alif’: Nada Abdallah’s Art Is Inspired by the Holy Letter of the Arabic Alphabet

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

On the surface, it is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, with a numerical value equaling number 1. But the letter frames different concepts. It signifies God, the only One, the First, the Beginning and the Last.

It is the letter alif of the Arabic alphabet that has captivated the artist Nada Abdallah. To this letter she has devoted her energy, time, skill and knowledge of Arabic calligraphy.

Abdallah does not hide her devotion to this letter. “Alif is the beginning, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and the first letter of the name Allah,” she says.

“Back to Alif” was the title of Abdallah’s recent solo exhibition held at Rawaq Gallery in the College of Fine Arts and Design, University of Sharjah, as part of celebrations to mark the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial

She chose the letter to show the beauty of Arabic calligraphy, demonstrate its history, styles and forms.

Her calligraphic works of alif come in different shapes, and can be seen on posters, sculpture, murals and animation.

“Transformation in the Arabic script styles can be observed in the alif of each script. With different measures and the vertical elevation of the letter, the signature of the style can be detected.”

“Transformation in the Arabic script styles could be observed in the alif of each script,” she says. “With different measures and the vertical elevation of the letter, the signature of the style can be detected. “

“The alif acts as the symbol of the script through which the experts can discern the style and type of script.”

Religious Significance

Abdallah’s artwork focuses on discovering the Kufic alif and demonstrating the possibility of spawning new styles using the latest media, digital design, and technology.

“Each line of alif starts with a sequence of dots and moves upward or descends downwards to form a vertical line of the sacred letter,” she says. “In turn, the letter morphs into different molds based on the script used.”

In the earliest manuscripts, the primary Kufic alif was short and bold, “reflective of the focus on the religious content rather than the visual,” she says.

In her artwork, Abdallah has transformed her fascination and devotion to alif into elegant elevated vertical strokes.

 “Alif’s journey from east to west, and from past to present, highlights the layers of development,” she says.

The Influence of Kufic Script

The Kufic script, a calligraphic script to which Ms. Abdallah is so attached, is thought to have been invented in the seventh century in the southern Iraqi city of Kufa.

The script reached its peak in the ninth century, illuminating Quranic manuscripts, parchments, inscriptions on tombstones, architectural decorations, bows and coins.

The Kufic script comes in different types and characteristics. Some of the most notable types of Kufic are Fatimid, Qairawani and Mamluki, among others, each designating a Muslim dynasty or a geographical locality of the Muslim world.

The Kufic script is renowned for its decorative style and motifs, with its foliated, knotted, floriated, square, and other types coupled with characteristics that can be unique, angular, rectilinear, horizontal, and playful.

A traveler to an Arab or Muslim country can see Kufic script almost everywhere, but probably without paying much attention to it. The Kufic script can be on logos, billboards, signages, newspapers and magazines, but most notably as part of architectural wonders in which verses of the Muslim holy book are carved on niches and walls of mosques.

Abdallah’s Kufic letterforms feature mainly traditional elements and themes that have become part of people’s lives in the Arab and Muslim world. Her work draws heavily on religious symbols. Muslims hallow alif as sacred, hence her interest in the letter signifying the Almighty.

‘Unity and Non-discrimination’

Another outstanding calligraphic artwork of hers draws on a saying by the Prophet Muhammed. Titled “Sawasiya” (“Equality”), the work visualizes the concept behind the prophet’s saying that “people are equal like the teeth of a comb” no matter their color, religion, orientation, or race.

“Within this context, the comb connotes unity and non-discrimination,” she says.

Like her “Alif,” Abdallah’s “Sawasiya” is based on ancient Kufic calligraphy “to connect with the devotional aspect of the content.”

“The text is represented in a dotted Kufic style developed specifically for this project,” she says.

Abdallah employs several dots to attract attention and “build visual lines and solid figures worthy of a greater focus.”

She produced and exhibited “Sawaisya” at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to highlight “the importance of unity, collaboration and connectivity.”

An International Career

An artist, designer and educator, Abdallah is the founder and director of Bilarabic Design Festival, a gathering seeking to promote Arabic culture and design as a dynamic platform for open-ended collaboration.

She has exhibited her work in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Korea, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries.

Her interest, work and research in Arabic calligraphy and typography go back to the 1990s.

“Sawasiya” (“Equality”), another example of Abdallah’s calligraphic artwork, visualizes a saying of the Prophet Muhammed, that people are equal like the teeth of a comb. “Within this context, the comb connotes unity and non-discrimination,” she says.

In the years she has been at the University of Sharjah’s College of Fine Arts and Design, Abdallah and her students have created Arabic fonts inspired by Arabic calligraphy, designed Latin fonts inspired by Arabic letterforms, and developed new ways on working with the square Kufic script.

Her students used Arabic typography from fonts they created to write the U.A.E. national anthem in the form of the Emirates’ flag. This design has been turned into a mural currently adorning the entrance of the college and was displayed at ATypI, the Paris-based Association Typographique Internationale.

Leon Barkho is professor of media and communication sciences at the University of Sharjah’s College of Communication and a professor emeritus at Sweden’s Jönköping University. In his previous work as a journalist, he held positions as a bureau chief with the Reuters News Agency and a staff writer with the Associated Press.



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