Arabic Language Day: meet the calligrapher behind Dubai's first street signs

In 1980, Abdul Fattah came across a job advertisement in a local newspaper in his native Egypt to work for Dubai Municipality

Growing up in Egypt as a child, Abdul Fattah vividly remembers watching his father as he wrote beautiful Arabic calligraphy on a large blackboard hanging in their home.

At just 8 years old, he picked up his first quill and started to mimic the pen strokes taught by his father. Very quickly, he got a feel for the unique art form.

“Talent is a gift from Allah. I realised early on that he gave me the gift of being able to write calligraphy,” Fattah tells The National.

“Some people are born with 10 per cent talent, others with 100 per cent. I think I had a lot, but I practised so much, too.

At that time, not many people could write Arabic calligraphy in Dubai. The next thing I remember was them saying ‘get him a visa’
Abdul Fattah

“I did chores and with the money I bought books on calligraphy and spent hours at that blackboard. I perfected my gift and I love to teach people about it.”

Now 68, Fattah has been in the UAE for more than four decades and it was his love of calligraphy that brought him here.

In 1980, he came across an advertisement in a local newspaper in Egypt that Dubai Municipality was looking for an artist to help write some street signs in Arabic.

“I applied for the job and some officials visited Egypt and met with about 20 of the people who specialised in calligraphy, including me," he says.

“They asked me to write one sentence; it was ‘Medan al Bustan’, which, if I remember rightly, translated to roundabouts in the Bustan area.

“At that time, not many people could write Arabic calligraphy in Dubai; that’s why they came looking for people in Egypt.

“The next thing I remember was them saying ‘get him a visa’. They chose me for the job and that’s how I came to be in the UAE.

"I was just 27 years old and single. Now I am married with four children; my life is rich."

Working in the town planning department of Dubai Municipality for several years, Fattah, who recently received a 10-year golden visa, helped write some of the first Arabic street signs in the city.

From Al Maktoum Hospital Road and Salah Al Din Street in Deira, to greeting signs outside the Dubai Municipality and Executive Council of Dubai buildings, he says it is an honour to be part of UAE history.

He then went on to work for the public library and as a calligraphy teacher and tour guide at Dubai Culture.

Proudly showing off old photographs from his living room in Sharjah, the father of four says Arabic calligraphy should be an art form celebrated by all cultures around the world.

“We have 12 fonts in Arabic calligraphy,” he says.

“The early stages were very simplistic compared to the later developments in the script’s forms and glyph design.

“It became more complex as Islamic civilisations expanded. More characters, like dots, were added and different regions and countries created their own style.

“Actually, you will find that even Arabic people find it difficult to read some forms of calligraphy, despite it being their first language. That has a lot to do with the shapes and directions in which the text is written.”

Describing himself as an “Emirati-Egyptian at heart”, Fattah can now be seen in action by visitors to Expo 2020 Dubai for the next few months.

He will be writing Arabic calligraphy daily at the Sameem open-air pavilion in the Sustainability District, from 3pm onwards.

“I am a kind man. I think as an artist you have to have sensitivity and emotion, and I have this. All I want to do is make people smile with my art,” he says.

Updated: December 19th 2021, 11:40 AM