Arabic Calligraphy Course Teaches Students About the Aesthetic Value of Letters

June 13, 2016
Students hold art from a calligraphy project exploring Arabic letters

Minutes after online course registration began for the spring 2016 semester, MES/ART116 Arabic Calligraphy, taught by visiting artist and calligrapher Khaled Al-Saa'i, was full.

That response did not surprise Rachid Aadnani, lecturer in Arabic language and literature and the incoming director of the Middle Eastern Studies program. "Khaled has been visiting Wellesley since 2002 to offer his popular Arabic calligraphy workshops," he said. "Since his very first visit, Professor Louise Marlow and I kept thinking that it would be fantastic to have Khaled with us for a full semester or a year to teach his art...every student who had the chance to work with Khaled had nothing but praise for him as a teacher and as an artist."

Al-Saa'i, who was born in Syria, became nationally known for his calligraphy by the age of 18. He graduated from the University of Damascus in 1998 with a master's degree in fine art, and today he is internationally recognized for his work, which uses a range of styles to express feelings, thoughts, and sensations without becoming tied to the language.

"Perhaps the main goal of the course in my mind was to take students to an artistic place where they start seeing the letters of the Arabic alphabet as living entities that go beyond the usual take on letters as basic blocks to construct words to express specific meanings," Al-Saa'i said. "I wanted students to go beyond language, beyond message, and beyond meaning to discover the aesthetic value and potential of each letter of the alphabet."

Al-Saa'i looked for ways to guide students into new ways of looking at what may have become too familiar to appreciate. "[I want to] help them rediscover the beauty of the shapes of letters that have slowly been lost in utilitarian writing," he said. "I do this by sharing some of the thinking processes that I, as an artist, go through."

For example, he once demonstrated how to transform a "useless" piece of wood he'd picked up off the ground into a new tool simply by sharpening one edge and applying a layer of fabric tape. Soon, some of the students began using their own home-made pens and brushes to work on their projects.  

Al-Saa'i also helped the group see the intricacies in his own work, which features letters and words not on a straight or horizontal line, but interlaced with, superimposed over, or detached from one another, resulting in almost pictorial arrangements. Those juxtapositions create unique landscapes that express multiple dimensions, from the musical and verbal, to the spiritual, emotional, and sensual.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but artists are at their best when they play with our perceptions of light, depth, direction, and our expectations, among other things," he said. "I like people who view my artwork to get very close to it and try to get a sense of the layers, the intersections, the textures, and the tensions."

The Jewett Art Center featured Letters from the Seasons of a Wandering Mind: Recent works by Khaled al-Saa'i from February 29 to April 1. As the exhibit materials explained, "[The artist's] later work embraces the Arabic letter, while deconstructing and rebuilding it. His process allows it to populate and interact with a visual world that also incorporates oil painting, traditional ink calligraphy, mixed media, and collage techniques."

Through the use of a variety of media, Al-Saa'i creates a feeling of serenity and tranquility through his work, which is important to him. "There has to be a balance between the form of the letters and an aesthetic harmony—each enhances the other," he said in one interview. "On the other hand, light plays another role in my work—that of a metaphorical one, drawing on my reading of Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, and Sufi poetry."

The class's most ambitious project was a group calligraphic representation of lines from the poem "On Marriage" by Gibran, the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer (1883-1931). Each student was assigned a word or phrase from the passage—"Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,/ Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music"—and had to decide how to present her piece of the larger puzzle.

"This took quite a bit of time and planning. I wanted to bring the class together while allowing students a chance to be who they are and [be] creative in their own ways," he said. The Gibran text helped him "emphasize the importance of having one's own creative space while also being an integral part of a greater thing."

Aadnani photographed the students on April 28 as they brought their pieces together on the Wellesley Green. Later, the students hung the finished work on the Collins Cafe glass wall. "Middle Eastern Studies is a very small program but it has a tight-knit community of students and faculty who believe that a language only survives if its culture is celebrated and brought out of the classroom into open air," Aadnani said.

For the seniors in the group, working on Arabic in artistic ways was a beautiful ending to their time at Wellesley. "Some of these students became friends taking Arabic class at 8:30 in the morning four years ago," Aadnani said.

Muna El-Taha '16, an architecture major and Middle Eastern Studies minor, said the course helped her see the Arabic alphabet in a new way and appreciate each letter for its own form. "During class we would talk about which letters were our favorites or which animal each letter looked like, or which script we liked, not simply due to its appearance but also to the movement it allowed us to make," she said.

Mariya Patwa '16, a chemistry major who had studied Arabic in religious school since the first grade, agrees. "Sometimes we went as far as just using the shapes and movements which were the basis or fundamental unit of the letters in a given script style," she said. "Understanding color, use of instruments, and how to turn even 'a mistake' into something beautiful were a few of the broader things I took away from the course."