The Khalil Agha School, Egypt’s oldest specialized institute of Arabic calligraphy, is struggling to survive as fewer and fewer people are interested in learning calligraphy. Many calligraphy institutes have already closed their doors.
“The numbers are decreasing every year due to the lack of available job opportunities, the rise of technology and the labor market demand for other languages, including English,” said Hassan Mahmoud, the principal of the school, to Al-Monitor.
The school was inaugurated on January 29, 1928 by King Fouad I of Egypt with the aim of training skilled calligraphers. There were teachers of Turkish and Egyptian origin and education was free, creating a large demand. Today there are 70 students and they have to pay school fees, as well as the cost of pens, ink and sketchbooks.
Located in Bab al-Shariya in Old Cairo, the school building is built in the modern Islamic style and its collection includes centuries-old paintings as well as many rare books.
Classes are scheduled from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.
“Students receive a diploma in Arabic calligraphy after four years of study. The school accepts students who are at least 15 years old and have obtained a diploma of preparatory studies,” said Mahmoud.
Since 1928, Egyptian schools have graduated several eminent and skilled Arabic calligraphers. One of the most popular Arabic calligraphers in Egypt is Khudair al-Borsaidi who founded an academy and a union for Egyptian calligraphers.
Borsaidi told Al-Monitor that the number of Arabic calligraphy schools has dropped significantly over the past decade, now standing at just 70 schools, down from 272 schools in 2006.
“The government has suspended financial support for Arabic calligraphy schools by removing free lessons and raising the cost of studies to 250 Egyptian pounds. [$14] per year for the certificate and 300 pounds [$17] for the honors year,” he said.
According to Borsaidi, students also pay the costs of study materials, including color ink and sketchbooks, which makes many drop out of school, especially if they have limited financial means. He added that the number of students fell from 12,000 in 2006 to less than 1,000 currently across the country.
“Arabic calligraphy is not only an art that reflects Egyptian culture and identity, but it can also be used to promote tourism and generate revenue for the government,” he noted.
Kamal Mogheith, a researcher at the National Center for Research in Education, said Arabic calligraphy was considered more important in the 20th century. “The subject of Arabic calligraphy is still taught in Egypt [elementary] schools, but this subject is neglected and its teachers are not qualified enough,” Mogheith told Al-Monitor.
But he nevertheless believes that calligraphy will survive. “Many young people want to obtain the Arabic calligraphy diploma because they are looking for other jobs in the Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates [UAE], Kuwait and Bahrain,” Mogheith said. He added that the UAE, in particular, still protects Arabic calligraphy despite it having reached high levels of technological advancement, as they consider it part of Arab culture and identity.
Ayman el-Beely, education expert and head of the Independent Teachers’ Union in Cairo, said the Khalil Agha school was established after former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Arabic script and adopted the alphabet Latin.
“Egypt established the school to improve and preserve Arabic calligraphy after Turkey abolished it. The school raised many pioneers of Arabic calligraphy around the world who wanted to modernize and reinterpret this Islamic art in 20th century,” he told Al-Monitor.
He noted that Arabic calligraphy evolved with Islamic civilization and played an important role in it, “not only as a means of understanding and transferring ideas, but as an art with its characteristics and aesthetic values. high”.
Beely added: “Arabic calligraphy has appeared in ancient manuscripts, building facades and wooden infills from the Abbasid, Fatimid and Mamluk periods, in Andalusian decoration and in the decoration of the Holy Quran.”
He said Arabic calligraphy in Islamic decoration is like imagery in Christian art because it has been one of the most important decorative elements used by Muslim artists. “There is almost no artistic work, mosque or lighthouse in Islamic countries around the world without Arabic calligraphy due to its characteristics which link aesthetic values with ideology,” he added. .
For Mohsen Abdel Wahab, learning calligraphy can mean finding work abroad. Working at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, Wahab, 45, has been carving Arabic letters on copper for many years. “Studying Arabic calligraphy in a school and getting a degree will be an advantage if I want to work abroad,” he told Al-Monitor. He is now in his second year.
Nawal Ibrahim, who wants to start learning Arabic calligraphy this year, said she has been interested in Arabic calligraphy since childhood. “I excelled in Arabic calligraphy in primary school; it was my favorite subject. But then when I got out of primary school and got married at 17, I didn’t have time to develop that skill,” Ibrahim, 53, told Al-Monitor.
“Now I hope I will master Arabic calligraphy and earn money from this skill and start teaching other people,” she said.
For Mahmoud, the study of calligraphy is an integral part of the country’s heritage. “Arabic calligraphy is part of Egyptian culture and the government must take serious measures to preserve it because if it is not, we will lose our culture and our identity,” he said.