Preserving Islamic art: The patient work of an Arab-Israeli calligrapher

Sunday 02/10/2016
Artwork by Mohammed Kalash

Kafr Qara - The entrance to Moham­med Kalash’s gallery is an un-sanded and unpaint­ed, sun-weathered front door — the work of his own hands 39 years ago.
“I can’t paint it,” Kalash said, with an appreciation of its age. “If I do, it will not look old anymore.”
Kalash, 65, is a carpenter, a de­signer and self-taught artist. He has an eye for the arts and the ability to find beauty in even the roughest piece of wood. His artwork, though not limited to, specialises in Islamic calligraphy and arabesque.
Arabesque is an ornamental design consisting of intertwined flowing lines, originally found in ancient Islamic art. It consists of a repetition of floral, calligraphic and geometric shapes.
At a time when handmade items and appreciation of art are losing importance, Kalash said: “I am the only craftsman in Israel preserving this form of art.”
Kalash’s gallery, Arabesque, which is in part of his house, sits in­conspicuously on a quiet side street in Kafr Qara, an Arab village in Is­rael. From the outside, its simplic­ity and the lack of a sign betray the fact that inside are four rooms filled with handmade furniture and art­work covering the walls. Even the ceiling boasts large wooden panels fashioned by the carpenter.
True to Arab hospitality, he of­fered a reporter a cup of strong, bitter Arabic coffee. He claimed that the bitter taste comes from new coffee grounds being added to old coffee grounds that have been used over and over and the coffee itself is more than 100 years old.
A pot of zaatar tea, Arabic for thyme which is widely used around the Arab world, and plates of cake and fruit were on the table. In an atmosphere of comfort and crea­tivity, Kalash discussed his life and work, while touching on past and recent politics and Islam.
Kalash studied carpentry and design at a technical college in Tel Aviv. He began teaching at Don Bosco, a Salesian Catholic technical college in Nazareth. Being the only Muslim teacher there did not cause discomfort. Instead, he said, he felt respected.
He remained at Don Bosco for 11 years and then began teaching in Kafr Qara until 2003, when he reached the age of retirement. Then he decided to dedicate his time to his art.
Kalash, who is self-taught in cal­ligraphy and in Islamic art, includes verses from the Quran and quotes from Arab poets in his intricate de­signs.
Some of the pieces are painted on glass, the colours carefully chosen. Others are from wood and thick paper made from the roots of ap­ple and cherry trees as well as flow­ers, which he cuts into the desired shapes.
“This special paper is not avail­able in Israel, so I have to travel to Egypt to purchase it,” he explained.
As he walked around his studio, going from piece to piece, he de­scribed certain aspects of his art. Pointing to a large piece hanging from the wall, he said, “This has the 99 names of God on it.” The light behind it reflected the names carefully written in blue and sur­rounded by orange, red and white geometric designs.
Referring to a large wooden piece he had created, he explained the usage of the six-point star that is of­ten associated with Judaism.
“Contrary to what most people think, the six-point star is not Ju­daic,” he said. “It was used before there were religions. Islam has its own interpretation of what the tri­angles in the star mean and so does Judaism.”
Several items hung on the walls of his workroom. The desk held a large piece of wood and Kalash had pencilled a pattern of geometric shapes on it. Part of it was covered with the root paper.
Carefully and patiently meas­uring each piece, Kalash cut and placed them into the design and taped them together. They would be glued together later. This was the beginning of yet another of his works.
The amount of time that goes into each piece of art varies accord­ing to the style and whether it is on glass or wood. The woodwork is more time consuming because each piece must be cut to an exact size and shape so that it fits the piece next to it. Kalash’s carpentry skills come in handy and he does all the woodwork and bases for his tables.
Kalash said: “Although it is tiring, I do not look at the time. I like what I do and I do what I like.”
Kalash has exhibited his work in various museums and galleries and in art centres in Israeli and foreign educational institutions. He also gives workshops and lectures about Islamic art.