Tunisia’s ancient calligraphy style in jeopardy

Calligraphy by 15-year-old Nour Fadhloun, youngest participant in calligraphy exhibition “Our Kairouan.”

While calligraphy has long been re­nowned as an im­portant artistic dis­cipline in the Arab world, it has struggled to retain cul­tural recognition in recent years. In Tunisia, calligraphists have raised the alarm that the country’s ancient Kairouan script could go extinct.
“We are trying to sensitise people about the importance of preserving the Tunisian script of Arabic callig­raphy, which originated in the town of Kairouan in addition to promot­ing other established scripts of cal­ligraphy,” said Abdessalem Bejaoui, president of the Tunisian Associa­tion of Calligraphy.
“Not many people today realise that Tunisia has had its own script of calligraphy, one that was used in writing most of the historical religious documents that are pre­served now in Kairouan.
“We wanted to avoid the tag of the Arabic font to make it more in­clusive of all types of fonts that are not recognised in the Arab world. Calligraphy is an art that can be also explored with other disciplines of art like painting, music and theatre. The idea is to help evolve the art of calligraphy to preserve this ancient art.”
Mohamed Anwar Trabelsi, a lo­cal calligraphist, pointed out that the Tunisian script, which gained popularity in North Africa between the fifth and tenth centuries, had a significant effect.
“The Kairouan script is a school of calligraphy in North Africa. Kai­rouan is credited with inspiring other scripts. For instance, the cal­ligraphy scripts used in Mali and Andalusia are all from the Kairouan school of calligraphy. Some chose to add more fluidity to their font like Andalusia and the Bedouin in Sudan kept the rigidity of the font,” Trabelsi said.
“During the Hafsid rule, Tunisian calligraphy thrived as the first pen in Islamic history was manufac­tured. It also bears influences of Italy, Andalusia and the orient with the waves of immigrants to Kair­ouan.”
This unique history is emblem­atic of Tunisia’s multicultural land­scape, said Bejaoui, who stressed the need to modernise the art.
‘’The Tunisian script of callig­raphy helped establish the Quran during the Islamic rule as the use of Arabic fonts was often associated with promoting the Quran, which we acknowledge and deem sacred,” he said, adding there is “a need to make it more contempo­rary.”
“It is not acceptable that we remain blindly attached to the old pat­terns. We live in a world of technology and pro­gress, which urges us to also try to explore the other aspects of the art. The Tunisian script cannot be only restricted to writing Quranic verses but should be explored in other instances of art,” he said.
Bejaoui and Trabelsi have worked to educate the public, particularly young Tunisians, on the country’s rich history in calligraphy. In Sep­tember, a calligraphy exhibition organised by the Tunisian Associa­tion of the Arts featured 51 works by 32 calligraphists. Last year, an exhibition titled “Our Kairouan” — a reference to the art’s origins — showcased Tunisia’s script to inter­national calligraphists.
“We have a long tradition of cal­ligraphy in Tunisia,” Bejaoui said. “We work on teaching all scripts of calligraphy, including the Ottoman and others but we want to focus on the Kairouan script. We can’t make progress without protecting and developing our roots.”
Despite the art’s significance, a lack of cultural awareness and ac­cess to products has made it diffi­cult for artists specialising in callig­raphy, he said.
“We don’t have an industry for the products we use for calligra­phy,” Trabelsi said. “This is normal as the effect of technology is reach­ing deep. In Iran and Istanbul, the market of calligraphy is alive but here we are struggling because of the rupture between the present and the past. Many people don’t believe that calligraphy can be art.
“People use calligraphy painting as decoration and gifts and people thought of it as common so the politics of the government didn’t encourage recognition of the cal­ligraphists as artists. It was a pro­fession to write documents and painting. More research into the history of Tunisian calligraphy can help establish it as art as it would strengthen the status of calligraphy as art. More people should lobby and carry this job. These are ele­ments that can help.”
Tunisian calligraphists are trying to promote the art to younger gen­erations to preserve the tradition and help the art flourish.
“Children find it fun to draw the letters. There are other techniques they learn like drawing on the wa­ter,” Bejaoui said. “It is all art and not just a writing font that can be on the wood and one-stroke tech­nique.”
“We hope younger generations manage to bring calligraphy to flourish like it used to be, he added. “One must not overlook the impor­tance of calligraphy in preserving our heritage.”
Roua Khlifi
is a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.