» Ghani Alani: “Calligraphy is the link between man and the letter”
09.02.2010 -

Ghani Alani: “Calligraphy is the link between man and the letter”

© UNESCO/Michel RavassardThe 2009 Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture has been awarded to the Iraqi poet and calligrapher Ghani Alani.

Interview by Bassam Mansour


Ghani Alani is a laureate of the 2009 UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for culture. He sees the award as recognition for the art of calligraphy.

“In the beginning, there was Baghdad,” says Ghani Alani, as he evokes the role his city has played in the history of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy. It was the starting point for the other styles and different schools. But he recognises that the art of calligraphy has also developed in other great capitals of the Arab-Islamic world, from Andalusia to Bukhara.


“I was born with a pen in my hand,” he says. “I don’t remember any specific moment when I tried calligraphy for the first time,” he adds. “There were a lot of reeds growing in the neighbourhood where I was born, the kind that are used to make pens.” Ghani Alani started working at an early age. “My first job was with the railway company in Baghdad. I would clean the coaches during the day, and then go home and study in the evenings,” he explains. “On Friday, the day of rest, I spent my time studying and practising calligraphy.”


 “My teacher was called Hachem Mohamed, better known as Baghdadi. He was a pupil of one of the greatest masters of calligraphy, whose lineage goes right back to the Abbasid tradition, twelve centuries ago. I was thirteen when I first met him. For three years I submerged myself in the study of writing. Once I had finished the first phase of study, the second seemed easier. Forming one letter leads to making two, and these two letters go on to make a word, and then a sentence.”


But this Master of calligraphy was not happy just teaching him how to form the letters with his pen; he also encouraged him to see the link between man and letter. “Calligraphy has something to do with the soul,” he feels. The calligrapher’s pen is an extension of his arm, of his whole being. “My master never told me how to trace my letters. Instead, he drew my attention to the link between the body and the letter. ‘Our hands,’ he said, ‘are different, and their size affects the letters, so the letter is a reflection of the man.’”


“I learned this art from Hachem al Baghdadi, just as he, in turn, had inherited it from the founders of the Baghdad School. One day, he presented me with a diploma, which none of his other pupils had ever received. When a calligraphy master gives a certificate like this, he authorises his pupil to sign his works with his own name. The diploma becomes an ‘official’ paper, recognising that the pupil has truly attained expert status.” The document reads: “When it became apparent that the recipient of this magnificent certificate had assimilated the rules of Arabic calligraphy, had explored all the forms of this art and had excelled at them, I awarded him the right to affix his signature beneath his beautiful writing …”


Ghani Alani left Baghdad for Paris in 1967. “In Paris, I followed postgraduate studies in law and received a doctorate,” he explained. “I wanted calligraphy to remain a hobby, but my passion got the better of me. The lawyer hung up his robes and made a sharpened reed the tool of his trade. When the Dean of the Faculty of Law handed us our degree certificates, he said: ‘today you are ready to start studying law.’ What he meant was that our studies had given us the means to think. In the end, that is exactly what Master Hachem al Baghdadi had told us about calligraphy.”


“Once I had finished with Law, I went to the Art Institute in Baghdad, following the wishes of my teacher, Hachem al Baghdadi,” he explains. “In my first year at the Institute, a great Turkish master of Islamic illumination, Hamad al Amidi, had been invited. His teachings were very important for me. Indeed, I now practice both calligraphy and illumination, which is unusual.”


“From the outset, I tried to grasp the essence of writing in Arab civilisation. Starting with my own experience, I worked on the ideas of unity and continuity that calligraphy is able to express. It is rather like a river that the other arts feed into, like tributaries.”


For Ghani Alani, calligraphy did not develop in Arab civilization – as is often thought – because pictorial representation was forbidden. “This hypothesis is false,” he insists. “There are drawings in Islamic civilization, particularly in Turkey and Iran. And calligraphy can incorporate figurative images. The climax of calligraphy in Arab civilization is more because it is a society based on the word, and has been since pre-Islamic times, when poetry was the only art and the poet was the pride of his clan. And where there is the word, there is writing….”


Explaining the formal origins of calligraphy, he says “the straight line and the curve are found in every style of writing in the world and always have been, from pictograms to ideograms via ‘phonetic’ writing, which gave cuneiform script its syllabic structure. Since the invention of cuneiform, scripts have used the straight line and the curve. There are several illustrations in Mesopotamian writing, like the inscription of the Codex Hammurabi, where the characteristic of the letters is their straightness, contrary to what was usual at the time.”


Ghani Alani also gives us his opinion on Kufic writing. “I have never thought of Kufic script as being straight. Those who call it straight are making a major mistake, saying that all straight and angular writing can be called Kufic. The truth is quite different. This script can be traced back to before the building of Kufa, the town that gives it its name, during the Mu’aalaqat era (the seven most beautiful poems of the pre-Islamic era are inscribed in the entrance to the Kaaba, in Mecca). I, myself, prefer to describe this script as angular. It is true that the Kufi trend brought improvements and led to it being used more widely, both in manuscripts and in architecture. The School of Baghdad then created cursive script, which takes several forms, thuluth, diwani and naskhi which was used for printing.”


Although Ghani Alani cites the example of the Mu’allaqats, there are doubts about the very existence of these famous poems. “There will always be someone who doubts the veracity of these Mu’allaqats, he explains. “But it is certain that, since the pre-Islamic era, there have been texts written using the Arabic alphabet. Documents, treaties and agreements have been found, inscribed on stone tablets dating back to well before the Islamic period. And, in some archaeological sites, texts have been found inscribed on stone, the most famous being at Mada’in Saleh,” in Saudi Arabia. (This site is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.)


Ghani Alani has been living in Paris for over 40 years. Speaking of his relationship with the West, he confides that “I live in Europe, and the exchange that I have had with western society has been very productive, in both directions. And this, despite the difference between Arab and Western ways of thinking. Arab thought is based on the verb, whereas Western thought is based on the image. But the verb includes the image. The best example of this is poetry, which the ancients called ‘the register of the Arabs’.”


Receiving the UNESCO-Sharjah prize for Arab culture means a great deal to him. “Above all, it is a full recognition of calligraphy as an art, one which is part of the soul of Arab civilization, and forms the skeleton of this culture. But what is even more important is that the prize has been awarded to me as an Iraqi artist. This enables me to show another side of Iraq, unlike the images of war and violence that have filled our screens.”

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