Calligraphy in Yemen: Scripting Paths to Coexistence

Samar Abdullah
Khaled al-Ward has been active in the field of art education as a lecturer in calligraphy at the Azal University for Human Development in Sana’a. He is the presenter of The Beauty of Language, a television programme on Arabic calligraphy, and a contributor to the development of school curricula on the subject. After founding his self-named Centre for Arabic Calligraphy and the Arts in 2010, he started by displaying paintings and later switched to Arabic calligraphy. In 2020, he served as a judge in Yemen’s second calligraphy competition, in which 50 artists from around the country took part.
Khaled al-Ward at the Al-Ward Centre for Arabic Calligraphy and the Arts. © Soliman Ahmed / Arabia Felix Magazine

Arabia Felix: What was your goal in opening the centre?

Khaled al-Ward: I want to convey the importance of learning about the art of calligraphy and the nature of its philosophy. It’s about cultivating an ability to read the past through this lens and imparting this heritage to future generations. This is something students can absorb so it can become a tool to transform their world view.


AF: How does the al-Ward Centre for Arabic Calligraphy foster coexistence? 

KA: I want to reach people at a personal level by promoting the concept of acceptance and inclusion. Returning to our common heritage and culture helps do away with existing social biases among my students. Sensitising them to the beauty of calligraphy helps them find common ground. Through our discussions, we discover common values that bring people together.


AF: What difficulties have you faced in your career?

KA: The greatest obstacle is the financial aspect, especially given the lack of funding – not to mention relations among calligraphers, which are somewhat strained. Given the tension of the current political climate, reticence to address certain issues sometimes leads to a total breakdown of communication. But I still strive to be a messenger of peace and remain open to everyone.


AF: How popular is learning calligraphy?

KA: Despite our society’s limited attraction to the arts, calligraphy has surprising appeal. I see a lot of parents who want their children to improve their script. They make up the majority of students at the centre. I also see a greater interest expressed by female students because
they seem especially drawn to the aesthetics. 


AF: What skills do you need to learn Arabic calligraphy?

KA: Passion and dedication are the most important assets to learn this craft; talent is secondary. 

Calligraphy is a beautiful art whose requirements are very simple. Since its rules are uncomplicated, practitioners can gain experience through references and exposure to works by master calligraphers, or through teachers or institutions that help distil methodologies and resources for them.


AF: What makes each type of Arabic calligraphy unique
and which script is your favourite?

Arabic calligraphy has a beautiful heritage that will nourish future generations with an appreciation for the past.”

KA: According to historical books and references, Arabic calligraphy in the Hijaz region lacked diversity in its early years. When Islam was introduced, there was only one script, the Kūfic, in which the Koran was written. Arabic calligraphy flourished later in the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), when hundreds of new scripts emerged. Six of them are among the most widely used today: besides the Kūfic is Naskh, which is Arabic; Thuluth and Nastaliq, which are both Persian; and Diwani and Riq’ah, both of which were developed and widely used in the Ottoman Empire.

I tend to use Naskh because its inherent flourish is free of the rigid constraints of the Kūfic script. I also like the Persian scripts because of their fluidity and beauty.


AF: What is your vision for the future of Arabic calligraphy?

KA: Arabic calligraphy has a rich heritage that will nourish future generations with an appreciation for the past because of our ancestors’ glorious creativity. Calligraphy can have an aesthetic and cultural impact and hopefully draw people toward other arts. I love calligraphy because it broadens our cultural horizon to include music, drawing and other arts that complement calligraphy. Yemenis can feel proud to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps.


AF: How do you persevere amid the difficult, complex circumstances of the war?

KA: The love and passion for my country keep me going. It is my desire to make an impact with my rejection of war so I can help advance a culture of peace.


Al-Ward Centre for Arabic Calligraphy and the Arts page on Facebook.

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