Until the publication of Professor Charbel Dagher’s 1989 seminal text “Arabic Hurufiya: Art and Identity” there had not been much in the form of a book that had documented the history and contemporary practices of what is often referred to as Letterism.
The title that Professor Dagher chose is a very apt one, as there indeed exists a strong link between Arabic identity and the letter. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaaba was adorned with the Muallaqat, The Suspended Odes also known as the The Hanging Poems. These renowned poems would be honoured by being written and displayed in public to be admired and revered.
With the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD the written word assumed another level of significance altogether as it was used to document the word of God. Prophet Mohammed's personal scribe Zayd ibn Thabit documented the Quran, that was until then written on palm-leaf stalks and thin white stones as well as from men who knew it by heart, and copied the texts onto sheets that he turned into a single bounded volume. In Ottoman Turkey, as in other parts of the Islamic world, a calligraphic monograph known as a tughra would almost certainly accompany official documents issued by the Sultan. Until the advent of modern schools across the Arabian Peninsula and well into Egypt, traditionally, when a child is educated they are sent to the Kottab, “the writers” to learn.
Although Hurufism traces its roots back many centuries Professor Dagher’s book is a study of its modern iteration that he regards as having emerged in the late 1940s in the Arab world. The book credits pioneering artists that have played a leading role in this movement such as Iraq’s Madiha Omar who was born in Ottoman Aleppo and went on to exhibit in Washington in the 1940s, to Iran’s Hossein Zenderoudi, one of the founders of the 1960s established Saqqakhaneh school of art that sits on the junction of geometry and calligraphy. Hurifusim is also very much a dynamic art form that continues to inspire a new generation of artists using digital media as well as street art in the Middle East and beyond.
Arabic Hurufism is today considered a major reference book used by scholars and art collectors. For instance, art historian Nada Shabout makes numerous references to the text in her 2007 book Modern Arab Art. Professor Shabout told me that "Dagher’s seminal book on Hurufiyah, as a modern phenomenon and its connection to identity, explained an alternative way of understanding the Arabic letter in 20th century art in the Arab world.” She added that the book “attempted a systematic classifications of what had become a very popular trend in Arab art.”
I was first alerted to the importance of the text thanks to my colleague Charles Pocock, the founder of Noor Library of Art which is housed in Meem Gallery, Dubai and is considered to be one of the most comprehensive libraries of Islamic as well as contemporary and modern Middle Eastern art. Mr Pocock alerted me to the unavailability of the book and suggested that translating the text into English would open up one of the key components of the history of modern Arab art to a wider audience. Subsequently I had a chance to attend a discussion by Professor Dagher in Tunisia during the Jaou 2015 cultural forum that was held in May 2015 and hosted by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation and proposed to him the idea of translating this seminal work.
I am constantly asked about which Western art movements inspired the Arab world; was it Cubism, or perhaps Abstract Expressionism? I always wished I could refer them to a text that would underscore the unique history of this modern art movement in the region. The translation of this book is very much part of Barjeel Art Foundation’s mission to expand knowledge of Arab art through exhibitions and publications.
It is my hope that that this translated and updated text will shed additional light on a movement that has for many decades played an important role in the development of the modern and contemporary artistic canon of the Middle East to a wider audience.
(Charbel Dagher : Arabic hurufiyya : Art and identity, translated from Arabic by : Samir Mahmoud, SKIRA, Milano, 2016)