From script to font, Arabic’s struggle to reclaim its calligraphic beauty

Arabic has struggled to retain its calligraphic beauty in print typefaces. But determined typographers have taken up the challenge of producing fonts that are expressive and reclaim the grace of the language.

Nadine Chahine, teaches a workshop on Arabic Typography and Calligraphy at the Raffles Hotel Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
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For a language with a rich, visual, calligraphic history, the advent of the printing press was not kind to Arabic script.

The beautiful handwritten scripts for which Arabic was famed did not translate well into the printed word. Ever since, Arabs have had to make do with limited and shoddy imitations of their calligraphy or with Latinised versions of fonts.

The printing press was invented in the 15th century with Latin script in mind, so the development of Arabic script, as with that of other eastern languages, lagged far behind.

In the West, artists, technicians and typographers constantly experimented with new type designs to make the printed page easier and more attractive to read. The same did not happen in the Arab world.

Arabic script struggled to adapt to mechanical typesetting machines, then to the digital format used by modern technology.

This is reflected in the fact that there are fewer than 1,000 digital Arabic fonts, compared to more than 80,000 fonts – and counting – in the Latin script.

Dr Nadine Chahine, an Arabic specialist, has conducted workshops at the Dubai Arabic Calligraphy Exhibition and describes typography as the voice with which a language visually communicates.

Dr Chahine emphasises the need for fonts that are relevant to Arabs to describe how they see their world.

“In Arabic, this visual representation is missing,” she says. “If you want to be sporty and active, you can’t find a font that will represent that in Arabic. It is like you want to speak but you do not have the words, as the words are the typefaces.”

Dr Chahine says design cannot be separated from the cultural and political landscape. “Typography is an enabler for a cultural view because if we have ugly looking posters or books, it’s as if we Arabs do not deserve better than this. But if we aim higher, then typography is a projection of how we want to be.” She warns against continuing to create content that looks “ugly and outdated” because it puts off younger people from speaking and interacting in Arabic.

“We need to be able to show that Arabic and its face, the script, is evolving to meet modern demands. Otherwise, the language will slowly deteriorate and will end up in a museum.”

The historic challenge to Arabic printing, she says, is that the printing press “was a mechanism that had already been developed for Latin, and Arabic – with its complex script – had to try to fit in.”

Things did not improve with digital technology. Dr Chahine describes the quality of the computerised Arabic fonts in the 1980s and ‘90s as “awful and ugly”.

“There were very few people who were trained in the art of good typefaces. You would have a calligrapher drawing the design by hand and then it would be scanned and automatically made into a font without the process of testing and correction. As a result, we ended up with poorly made fonts.”

Dr Chahine, who did her doctorate in legibility, says too little research has been done on the readability of various Arabic type faces. While Arabic typography has reflected changes of aesthetic taste, a script pleasing to the eye is not necessarily the most readable, she says.

What is needed, she believes, is more research to ascertain the Arabic reader’s response to the different typefaces they see every day.

“Are the typefaces difficult to read? Do they slow reading speeds? We need to be able to develop good typefaces that encourage reading, because we have very low literacy rates and people are not reading. An Arab reads only four pages on average a year,” she says.

But not all is doom and gloom. The advance in digital technologies over the past decade means designers now have the means to reclaim what was lost with the printing press and create a truly modern Arabic script.

“The advent of OpenType software does away with many limitations, and now it is truly possible to design typefaces which are true to calligraphic standards or create new fonts,” says Dr Chahine, one of the pioneers in this movement.

“The technology has in the past few years evolved to a point where the time needed to create a font has decreased by 60 per cent. This is revolutionising the industry.”

Pascal Zoghbi, a leading Arabic type designer and typographer, says his field is still in its “nascent stage”. “The industry still faces lots of challenges. For example, we only have about 10 Arabic typographers who could be considered to be the best in the industry, while in English there are hundreds,” he says.

Piracy is another major headache for the industry. “Just like with any content produced in the Arab world, we suffer from lack of copyright protection. If we need more investment in this market, then we need to protect the copyright of the content creators, or else they will not be able to generate an income from their work.”

Another challenge is the lack of university courses that teach type design in the Arab world. Mr Zoghbi, who has a master’s degree in typeface design from the Royal Academy of Arts in the Netherlands, says the handful of professional Arabic typographers earned their degrees in the West.

Dr Chahine agrees. “Such courses are desperately missing here,” she says.

“We cannot improve the quality of Arabic typefaces if we only have a few designers. If we want to change the status quo, we need to train and support hundreds of designers.”

She says that despite her prolific output for the past 12 years, she has only managed to design 70 fonts.

While many organisations support calligraphy, she feels typography is neglected. “What we read on a daily basis is in type, and typefaces are not found in calligraphy. We need a balanced approach that supports both the fields,” says Dr Chahine.

Some support has come from Dubai Culture, with the Dubai International Arabic Calligraphy Exhibition, which runs until May 15.

Dr Chahine’s workshops provide training for designers, which she says are “very necessary” to provide a platform for experienced typographers like her to pass on knowledge to those just beginning their work.

“We need to see language as a tree that needs to be constantly watered,” she says. “If you leave this, then it dies of neglect. But if you keep nourishing it, then it will adapt and grow.”