Palestinian calligrapher captures sovereignty through Quran
Ramallah - When the United Nations voted the Palestinian territories to a non-member observer state status in 2012, Palestinians felt sovereignty was attainable. The desire to capture the symbolic independence dominated the thoughts of calligrapher Saher al-Kabi.
Born in the refugee camp of Balata near the West Bank’s northern city of Nablus, one of Kabi’s early ambitions was to handwrite Islam’s holy scripture, the Quran.
“Initially, it was only about a masterpiece that will bear my name but it later became about Palestine and the need to preserve its name,” Kabi said.
For Palestinians, who are predominantly Muslim, the Quran is the most sacred text. It is the primary source of every Muslim’s faith and deals with subjects such as wisdom, doctrine, worship, transactions, law and the relationship between God and humans.
From an artistic point of view, the Quran presents a great challenge for calligraphers and artists as it is an opportunity to display fine talent through handwriting what is regarded as the most important work in the Arabic language.
“To write a single page, I sometimes work up to 14 hours and to apply tashkil, or Arabic diacritics, it takes more than 5 minutes per word. This is not an easy task and the text is extremely complex,” explained Kabi, who said he proposed his idea to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2014.
Abbas commissioned Kabi to work on the first Palestinian copy of the Quran, which will bear the name of the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, in Jerusalem.
“I knew the president would support me,” Kabi said, “but I didn’t imagine his extreme enthusiasm and immediate endorsement.”
The relatively unknown calligrapher, who has a master’s degree in economics but taught calligraphy at a local university, said he realised the significance of the task, not only because his name would be tied to it but because would be an unprecedented Palestinian achievement.
After being commissioned for the job, Kabi needed eight months to prepare, including calculating the diameters of the final manuscript, the type of paper, the pens and the ink.
“The material used in the production of the manuscript was mainly imported from abroad, including the traditional Japanese ink, which has been produced the same way for 300 years, and the chemical-free German paper that is made of egg whites and cornstarch,” Kabi said.
The chosen style for manuscript is known as Naskh, a simple and clear writing used to guarantee readability and clarity.
Kabi said he expects to deliver a completed manuscript around the end of the year. The final product is to be put on display in the soon-to-be-inaugurated Palestinian Museum.
Although the project is seen as a symbolic achievement for Palestinians, it is also a dream that Kabi is proud to have been able to bring to life.
“The art of calligraphy has fascinated me since I was a young boy,” he said. “I used to examine the work of a local calligrapher in hopes that I will grow to become a renowned calligrapher myself.”
Kabi studied calligraphy on his own as a teenager and then travelled to Iraq to master the art. Although the state of affairs in Iraq prevented him from enrolling at the University of Babylon, he joined the Iraqi Calligraphers’ Association and practiced the craft with Iraqi experts, gaining the experience and skill needed to carry out the Quran project.
The Palestinian Authority obtained official approval from Al- Azhar Al-Sharif, Egypt’s renowned Islamic institution that plays a key role in teaching Islam and preserving Islamic culture and heritage, which will ultimately give the manuscript its credibility.
“We work hand in hand with Al- Azhar Al-Sharif. I finish five parts and send them to be proofread. While the experts do their part, I start working on the next five chapters,” Kabi said.
After being proofread by a special committee at Al-Azhar, the next phase will be adding a distinctive style of illumination using liquid gold to complete the manuscript, which is expected to weigh 35 kilograms upon completion.
Mahmoud al-Habash, the president’s adviser for religious affairs and head of the committee supervising the project, said the Palestinian Authority is planning to print about 1 million copies in various sizes to be distributed in Arab and Muslim countries.
“By doing so, we aim to make sure that everyone remembers al- Aqsa mosque and their responsibility towards the holy city when they hold al-Aqsa mosque printed manuscript to read,” he said.