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Eric: Arabic calligraphy

August 1, 2010

I recently had my first experience trying Arabic calligraphy, one of the most exquisite art forms on Earth. Having learned some Chinese calligraphy before coming to Minnesota, I thought the two would be really similar, just written in different languages. I was almost completely wrong.

The first difference is the tools. In Chinese calligraphy, we use ink brushes made of hair from different animals. In Arabic calligraphy, we use the qalam, which is made of reed or bamboo—it depends on the size of the qalam and how thick you want the strokes to be, it may be a piece of flat reed, or a thin tube of bamboo with one end cut off diagonally. The color of the ink is always black in Chinese calligraphy, while many different colors such as black, brown, blue, red are used in Arabic calligraphy. Traditionally you would use an inkstone with a little water to grind out black ink when writing Chinese calligraphy. For the convenience of modern times, we use bottled ink, which is the same as in Arabic calligraphy.

My first practices involved writing in a big font, but sit till took me a while to learn how to do properly. Like in Chinese calligraphy, you are suppose to sit up straight when writing. But because the way Arabic alphabets are structured, I actually had to write my practices with the paper facing me diagonally and wrote diagonally (using a pen you would write horizontally). Holding the qalam is not the same as holding a pen or a brush. The index finger should be parallel and attached to the thin side of the qalam, while the thumb is placed on the flat wide side of the qalam. My first few attempts were somewhat successful. I had the teacher’s version of the alphabet under my paper, and I just followed what he wrote with my qalam. The more confusing parts were to figure out which direction I should place my qalam at the beginning of each stroke and when to lift the qalam to start a new stroke. Unlike a brush, the qalam doesn’t really absorb the ink, so the color of one alphabet was not consistent at all.

After some practices, the teacher proceeded to tell me about the space certain alphabets have to have in relation to other alphabets. For example: the first letter in the Arabic alphabets, ا (which corresponds to “a” in transliteration), should be as long as the length of drawing three diamonds from up to down using the same qalam you are writing with; while the second letter, ب (corresponds to “b” in transliteration), should be as wide as three diamonds drawn horizontally. This was trickier to manage, as I was often focusing more on producing a stroke with smooth edges, that I didn’t pay enough attention to the structure of the entire letter. This happens in Chinese calligraphy too. There are times when I tried to write one stroke in a character perfectly, that I didn’t realize the stroke doesn’t fit in with the character as a whole.

Towards the end of the workshop, the teacher wrote my name and told me to repeat what he did. For the first time in my life, I failed at writing my name. Yes it’s quite sad, but I just had trouble producing the ر (corresponds to “r” in transliteration) the way the teacher wrote it. I saved the teacher’s version as a souvenir. (Since sand got into some parts of my camera, it now won’t focus, zoom in, or zoom out. I bought one of those disposable cameras, but that means I won’t be able to post any pictures until I have access to a scanner. I will try to put pictures up when I get them.)

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