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Story Publication logo August 10, 2022

Moroccan Calligraphy: A Dying Art?



Instead of the typical Western embrace of an Arab country, this story examines how the youth asserts...


Inside the workspace of Mohamed Meslouhi, a calligrapher in Rabat. Image courtesy of Mohamed Meslouhi. Morocco, 2022.

In fall 2021, I took numerous calligraphy lessons with Mohamed Meslouhi, a prominent calligrapher in Rabat. Working with conventional mediums like the classic reed pen and ink is too limiting for Meslouhi. With a dry erase marker or even a broken piece of chalk, he amazes all his students with the variety of textures and precision of shapes he creates on the confines of the board.

Mohamed Meslouih normally uses chalk to teach his students the art of calligraphy. He demonstrates a variety of Arabic calligraphy ranging from Maghrebi to Ruqaa, then into Naskh, Thuluth, and Diwan. Image by Nadia. Morocco, 2022.

Meslouhi initially teaches each new student how to write in Moroccan script at the beginning of their lessons. The first step is to replicate perfect nuqt, or dots in the shape of a diamonds. Most students have pages upon pages of solely these dots. Students then progress to practice every letter of the alphabet until completed to perfection. Meslouhi claims that the Maghrebi font is the fundamental (and most beautiful) base of other font knowledge.

A picture of my notebook at the beginning of lessons, practicing letters. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

After completing every letter to perfection, a student can then begin to join letters together to form words.

The Holy Quran written in Maghrebi calligraphy font. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2022.

A classroom composed of doctors, dentists, writers, teachers and a master calligrapher. Image by A.R.M. Morocco, 2021.

Meslouhi values the small classroom setting of 5-10 students, as traditional education often consists of a master/apprentice relationship. In class, I witnessed and participated in the intimate, near-familial relationship between himself and his students; his students trickled in around 4pm every Tuesday, dipped ink to practice their scribing of letters and phrases while engaging in lively conversations that ranged from classroom technique to Moroccan politics, broke into the adjoining room for prayer together, and returned once again to enjoy each other’s artwork and company.

Calligraphy depends on subtle movements and accurate proportions, as the length and width of each letter needs to be in an exact ratio with a determined number of points made by the specific pen in use, because pen width varies.

Reflecting Meslouhi's process, I include the nuat proportions for the letter seen. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

It comes as no surprise when stating that true craftsmanship is becoming increasingly rare in our fast-paced and convenient world. Teaching skills like cursive handwriting is not a requirement in American education anymore, and this translates similarly into Moroccan society. My class from the fall had been in the range of middle-aged to elderly students, and though Moroccan friends and peers my age were also drawn to the rhythmic forms, there was minimal initiative to pursue the craft.

Much of the art relies on the fluidity of the Arabic language form, not to mention the deep religious significance of practicing virtues of ihsan, or beauty. The creation and appreciation of ihsan is a state of worship as it signifies the third part of the Muthalath el-Insaan, or the “Triangle of Man,” according to my Moroccan professor of Islamic mysticism, Mehdi Elberrichi.

Derived form course on Theology of Islamic Mysticism by Mehdi Elberrichi. Graphic by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

Reflecting the most harmonious (which also corresponds to the most initial) state of a person’s soul, ihsan is closely tied to the Arabic language, as Arabic is the (harmonious and initial) language of the Holy Quran, and no other language can take its place. Believers try to transition the world into a more heavenly environment by imagining architectural feats, drafting and reciting poetry, or in Meslouhi’s case, reimagining thoughts of praise, gratitude, and revelation through divine movement.

Arabic calligraphy is a vital part of Moroccan Islamic culture. From the walls of a Darqawi zaawaya in Fes. Image by Safi El-Gamal. Morocco, 2021.

Louh el-Hafiz in Meknes, (writing tablets of those who have memorized the Quran). Beautiful penmanship of revelatory content is especially valued throughout Moroccan society. Image by Safi El-Gamal, 2022.

So, as I holistically and specifically consider the increase in use of the English language among Moroccan youth, I wonder what this means for calligraphy, its practice, and its spiritual element. As youth still keep a grip on their religious heritage, do they want to preserve the larger role of traditional thought and work along with their modern pursuits? As the modern world begins dismissing tradition, what becomes of the fate of traditional education and craft? And in a larger sense, how does the role of ihsan shift within the Modern Age? What is the spiritual narrative of the youth of modern consciousness?

Editor's Note: Nadia and A.R.M., who took two of the photos above, asked that their full names not be used so as to protect their privacy.



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