Calligrapher at work
“You don’t breathe much when you are doing this,” Zakariya comments as he begins to write, his reed pen squeaking on the polished surface of the paper.
As he demonstrates his work, Zakariya explains how many steps are involved before he actually sits down to produce a piece of “beautiful writing.” Ink, made from the soot of linseed oil he burns in his back yard, is combined with gum arabic and water and stirred for hours. Each sheet of paper used is individually sealed and smoothed with three coats of varnish, burnished and then aged for at least a year.
And in order to make the calligraphy pen, or kalem, Zakariya adds, “You have to learn how to be a wood carver.” Woody reeds such as cane or bamboo are preferred, and must be aged for a minimum of four years.
Once the tools, paper and ink are prepared, the next step is choosing the text: preferably a selection from the Qur’an, a quotation from the Prophet Muhammad, a maxim or a poem. Zakariya designs the piece and practices calligraphing the text in order to create a stencil. This stencil, with the outlines of the letters marked with pin-pricks, is called a kalib, or mold. Placing the stencil over the piece of paper chosen for the work, Zakariya lightly dusts it with charcoal powder, transferring the design as a series of dots onto the final surface.
Uttering “Bismillah” (“In the name of God”), Zakariya begins the final stage. “You can do wonderful things when the ink and paper are cooperating,” he notes, as his pen travels slowly and precisely across the page. Depending on the complexity of the design, several pens are generally used for each work.
Finished with the design, he cleans up some of the edges with a scraping knife. “One of the ideas of calligraphy is to make the work so neat when it is finished that it looks as if it grew that way, like a plant,” he says. The writing is then burnished with a smooth agate set in a handle, to bond it to the paper, and decorative borders or gold illumination may be added.
This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the January/February 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Photograph © Fedai Sait/Istanbul