Arabic calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy’s new heritage status gives hope to keep it alive

Intangible heritage is “living heritage”, according to Unesco. It is made up of “practices, traditions, knowledge and know-how”, as well as tools and spaces, which communities consider to be part of their cultural heritage.

The organization maintains two lists relating to intangible cultural heritage. These are the “representative” list, on which Arabic calligraphy has been inscribed, and another list of heritage elements “in need of urgent safeguarding”.

Baghdadi said the representative list was designed “to urge member states to take care of the heritage element and develop the skills of its professionals. It also instructs countries to prepare annual reports on the procedures that have been followed in this regard, to protect this element from extinction.

Syrian calligrapher Mouneer Al-Shaarani said UNESCO’s decision represented “an important step to preserve Arabic calligraphy, confirming that this art is still alive”.

He added: “Care must be taken to teach Arabic calligraphy to avoid making it a museum art that cannot be developed.

Limiting Arabic calligraphy to a heritage space would be a “crime”, Al-Shaarani said. “It must be freed from this framework and considered as an art from heritage by integrating it with contemporary arts.

A number of contemporary artists do just that. Among them, Heba Helmi, a potter who was taught by the late Mohamed Hamam. “Ancient forms of Arabic calligraphy do not meet the needs of contemporary artists, but they can inspire,” she said.

Helmi regrets the deterioration of calligraphy schools. “Caligraphy is no longer rewarding,” she says. “So, we have to move on by educating calligraphers to master an artistic space that frees them from the framework of decoration.

Teaching calligraphy in art schools

Al-Shaarani suggests creating special departments for Arabic calligraphy in art schools or specialized higher institutes. Existing calligraphy schools in most Arab countries “suffer from willful neglect by the government and their students don’t think their education is useful”, he said.

Baghdadi added that schools are too poor to pay teachers a decent salary. “In a pioneering country like Egypt,” he said, “a calligraphy teacher in such schools receives a salary that is not enough to buy a cup of tea in a popular cafe.”