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The making of the Gulf News calendar

Our artistic 2018 calendar celebrates the timeless art of Arabic calligraphy

Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche
Abzeed and Adeeb worked on several drafts before shortlisting the ones that made it to the calendar
Gulf News

As we approach the end of this year, Gulf News is all set to print a very special publication — the Gulf News calendar for 2018. Every year the calendar focuses on a theme related to the local culture and environment, featuring commissioned artworks, high-quality photographs and well-researched information about the subject. Recent themes include Arabian horses, musical instruments of Arabia, fables, myths and legends from this region, Arabian perfumes, local landscapes, scenes from everyday life in the UAE, and traditional Emirati jewellery.

The 2018 calendar continues this tradition by celebrating the timeless art of Arabic calligraphy and the beauty of Arabic poetry. It presents original artworks featuring verses from poems by legendary Arab poets in different calligraphic styles along with information about the origin, history and distinctive characteristics of each style.

This artistic project was in the making for more than 10 months and involved creative contributions from calligraphers, digital artists, researchers, translators, art directors, printing experts and many others. Weekend Review went behind the scenes and spoke to the artistic, technical and logistics teams working on it to see how the entire theme was brought to life.

Naheed Patel, Promotions Manager, Marketing and Sales, Gulf News, who conceptualised and coordinated the project describes it as a labour of love. “As always, I began thinking about the theme in February. The concept was crystalised when our editor-in-chief, Abdul Hamid Ahmad, suggested using verses by important poets from the Arab world to illustrate different calligraphy styles. It was a challenging theme not only for the researchers and artists but also for our printing team, because we wanted to depict the depth and diversity of Arabic calligraphy in an authentic way and create a calendar that is artistic as well as informative,” Patel says.

The project was developed by Promoseven 360 in close collaboration with Gulf News. Mark Shadwell, the agency’s executive creative director worked with a team comprising art director Duaa Abzeed, copy writer Sheldon Serrao, translator Kamal El Din Hassan Salih, and finished artist Ali Moussa.

“The Gulf News calendar is always a great project to work on because besides being beautiful to look at, it also seeks to enrich people’s understanding of different topics, especially subjects regarding this region and Arabian culture. For me, the most enjoyable part of this year’s calendar was learning about Arabic calligraphy. We researched various sites and sources and spoke to master calligraphers to understand the history of this ancient art form and the intricacies of each style. We wanted to showcase the rich history and variety of Arabic calligraphy by displaying as many different styles as possible, but since most professional calligraphers specialise in a few specific styles, our biggest challenge was to find a calligrapher who was proficient in many styles. We were fortunate to find Mohammad Adeeb, a Dubai-based Jordanian calligrapher who is very versatile,” Shadwell says.

Adeeb is an engineer by profession, but he is also an accomplished calligrapher who has exhibited his work around the world and won many awards at international calligraphy competitions.

“I started training in calligraphy at the age of five and wanted to learn as many styles as I could because each style has its own beauty and special character. For this project I have tried to use styles that best represent the geographical and chronological spread of Arabic calligraphy across the region. Calligraphy is a deliberate and exacting art, so this was a huge challenge for me not only because I had to refresh my skills in some styles that I have not used for a long time, but also because of the limited time in which I had to create my artworks,” he says.

Adeeb’s choice of calligraphic style for writing each verse was based on the ideas and emotions expressed by the poet. His intricate paintings reflect the content of the words, conveying the mood and meaning through visual imagery created with the graceful forms of the letters.

For a verse by Abu-I-Baqa Al Rundi that speaks about not letting life’s luxuries deceive you, he has used the simplicity of the Ruqu’a style; and he turned to the exquisite, decorative Shekasta style to write the words of Elia Abu Madi that urge people to appreciate the beauty of life and see the beauty in everything.

Since Amr Ibn Kulthum’s verse refers to water, Adeeb has written it in the harmonious Diwani style, using the intertwined letters to create the sense of flowing water. For Hafez Ibrahim’s words describing the Arabic language as a vast sea with precious pearls buried in its depths, he chose the Kufic script with sharp angles, layering the words to depict depth and highlighting the dots on the letters to represent the pearls.

Adeeb used the graceful and exclusive Tughra style for Ahmad Shawqi’s poem eulogising the birth of the Prophet (PBUH). “This style was first used by a Turkish chieftain for his secret signature in the 13th century, and has evolved to become a symbol of imperial splendour. During Ottoman times this script was used only to write the names of the rulers and calligraphers were forbidden from using it anywhere else. Hence, it was appropriate to use this script here,” he says.

Other styles he has used in the calendar include Thuluth, which is one of the oldest calligraphy scripts dating back to medieval times, Diwani Jeli, a script used in the Ottoman courts, the refined Persian Nasta’liq script, the elegant Naskh that was used in religious texts, and Ijazah, which derives its name from its usage in writing certificates.

Once Adeeb’s original renderings of the verses done on handmade calligraphic paper were ready, Abzeed stepped in. In collaboration with Adeeb, he scanned and digitally enhanced the paintings by making some colours more vibrant, cleaning the rough edges of the lines, picking out certain forms for highlighting, and selecting key parts to be embossed in silver during the printing process. He also embellished every page with digitally created floral and other decorative motifs associated with each style, before sending them back to Adeeb for a final touch-up by hand.

“I come from a family of calligraphers and am deeply interested in this art form, so this was a dream project for me. To make the calendar look authentic, we wanted to print it on handmade calligraphic paper. This was not possible due to technical reasons, but we are happy that the Gulf News printing team found a way to achieve the same look and feel with ordinary paper,” Abzeed says.

While Adeeb and Abzeed worked on the artistic part of the project, Shadwell and Serrao researched the history of Arabic calligraphy and the various styles, and prepared write-ups featuring interesting information about each one. Meanwhile, Salih, who has a great love for Arabic poetry, and over two decades of experience as an Arabic writer and translator, began researching the selected poets and poems and translating them into English.

At the same time, Patel and her team at Gulf News were busy collating important dates and information to be included in the calendar. “Our calendar is a work of art, but we keep in mind that it has to be functional art. We take pride in the fact that the Gulf News calendar provides comprehensive information in a simple format about local events such as the Dubai Desert Classic, Dubai World Cup, music, literature, film and food festivals and religious holidays as well as international events ranging from the Golden Globe Awards and important sports tournaments across the world to dates such as World Autism Awareness Day,” Patel says.

After all these elements were aesthetically combined and the finishing touches done, it was the turn of Ravi Sreenivasan, Production Supervisor at the Gulf News printing press, to complete the project.

“The agency had scanned traditional calligraphy paper with special resolution and lighting to create a background for the artworks that looked like handmade paper. Our job was to give the calendar a feel of being printed on handmade paper. To achieve this we used special coating processes such as soft touch coating after the pages were printed. And finally, through a different process, we applied delicate silver foiling to key parts of the artwork subtly highlighting the visual imagery created by the calligraphers. We were happy to take up this challenge and showcase the artistic capabilities of the Gulf News printing press,” Srinivasan says.

Copies of the calendar will be distributed to Gulf News associates across the world. They will also be given to participants of the Gulf News Fun Drive, and other events supported by Gulf News. Patel is currently busy organising the logistics of hand delivering or mailing thousands of copies across the UAE and abroad.

“I hope people will appreciate the artistic elements and the information in our new calendar and enjoy having it on their desk throughout the year. Hopefully they will even want to keep it after 2018 as a collectible piece of art,” Patel says.

The poets and their golden verses

The poets whose verses appear in the calendar are some of the most respected in the Arab world. They include: 

Amr ibn Kulthum (526-584), whose ‘qasida’ (ode) is one of the seven that comprise the celebrated anthology of pre-Islamic verse known as Al Muallaqat. 

Lisan ad-Din ibn Al Khatib (1313-1374), a Moroccan born in Granada, who was one of the most celebrated Andalusian scholars in the 14th century, and whose poems decorate the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada. 

Abul A’la Al-Ma’arri (973-1057), a blind Syrian poet and philosopher who is regarded as one of the greatest classical Arab poets. 

Hafez Ibrahim (1872-1932), from Egypt, who was known as the Poet of the Nile and the People’s Poet because his political and social poems expressed the concerns of ordinary Egyptians, and criticised British occupation of his country. 

Ahmed Shawqi (1868-1932), an Egyptian poet and playwright, who is known as Prince of Poets (Amir Al Shu’ara) for pioneering the modern Egyptian literary movement by introducing the genre of poetic epics to the Arabic literary tradition.  

Abu-I-Baqa Al Rundi (1204-1285), who was born in Seville and wrote a handbook on poetry. He is best known for his poem mourning the sad fate of the Islamic Andalusian kingdom in Spain. 

Jareer (653-728), a poet and satirist, who was born in Iraq during the reign of the Caliph Othman, but also spent many years in Damascus at the court of the Umayyad Caliphs. 

Al Imam Al Shafi’i (767-820), a jurist, who was one of the four great Imams, and whose legacy on judicial matters and teaching led to the Shafi’i school of fiqh. He wrote more than 100 books about the principles of jurisprudence, as well as many poems that addressed morals and good behavior.  

Al Mutanabbi (915-965), an Iraqi poet, who is one of the most prominent and influential poets in the Arabic language. His work has been translated in many languages. 

Elia Abu Madi (1890-1957), was born in Lebanon, grew up in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and moved to the United States after being exiled by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. He was a reputed journalist and served as chief editor of the Arabic magazine Meraat ul-Gharb before founding his own periodical, Al-Samir. He published several collections of his poems, which are very well-known in the Arab world.

Jyoti Kalsi is a writer based in Dubai.