Secrets lying in the swirls of blank ink

June 12, 2011, Sunday/ 12:51:00

Sometimes, walking around the stalls that line İstanbul’s squares outside mosques and museums, or the main street in a Mediterranean or Aegean resort you can be forgiven for thinking that tourists buy a lot of cheap quality tat.

Fezzes, banned by the Clothing Law of 1925 seem to be de rigueur for owners of these souvenir shops, and they do a lively trade in them for their customers. Stuffed camels and donkeys will probably delight some nephew or niece as a present from holiday, and Turkish delight is always a pleasure to receive, but one wonders how many of the 2 euro or 3 euro souvenirs ever receive a more prominent display than stuffed in the back of a drawer.

Of course, for the up-market present purchaser Turkey has much to offer. Stylish leather jackets, fine gold jewelry, exquisite İznik tiles and beautiful onyx or lapis lazuli are the envy of the world. But they, too, all have their imitations, that can be found next door to stalls of cheap designer T-shirts and, of course, the ubiquitous signs for “genuine fake Rolex watches.”

One present that is both economic and individual is calligraphy. In most tourist resorts you can find a man with a small stand lined with ink pots and carefully crafted pens. He will trace these across card or paper, leaving swirling flourishes of ink behind: look closely and each swirl has recreated a letter in the Latin alphabet. Look closer still and you can read the name of a friend or relative who is destined to receive this memento of a visit to Turkey.

The very word calligraphy comes from two Greek roots meaning “beautiful writing” and fine examples of the calligraphy are truly artistic gems that deserve to be framed and hung in pride of place.

The calligrapher’s art is an ancient art and a prized skill that is kept alive by talented artisans today. The small stall in a tourist bazaar may be its most accessible form today, but if you lift up your eyes and look all around you it is displayed in all its glory. Above an ancient gateway, lining the dome of a mosque, a plaque on a water fountain, picked out in gold along the wall of a palace or Sultan’s summer house, the calligrapher’s pen or chisel have left us with a permanent record of his skill and brilliance.

But in the Ottoman Empire scribes did more than just draw beautiful patterns with letters, words and mottoes. They would write letters for those who could not do so for themselves, they would write petitions to be presented to government officials, or even judges, grand viziers or the sultan himself. And the more exalted the person receiving the letter or petition, the more decorated the script had to be.

In modern Turkey this task has become more functional. When I first arrived here the “dilekçe” writers who sat outside government offices to help people complete forms had a typewriter, not a pen. However, I adore the old paintings, often by a master such as Osman Hamdi Bey, that show a customer watching anxiously as a scribe prepares their missive. Part of the delight is to imagine what was being communicated: a request for clemency, a letter assuring a soldier far away that his family is well and praying for his safety or perhaps an illicit love letter? The scribe was privy to all the secrets!

Award-winning author Rafik Schami conjures up similar images for us in his enthralling Damascene novel “The Calligrapher’s Secret,” newly out in paperback. As you would expect with an ideal novel to read during the summer heat, the old city of Damascus is painted as a world of jasmine flowering in courtyards, the calls of muezzins echoing around, or Sufi scholars and of black and white kaffiyehs.

Old Ardhalgi is a scribe who sat at the entrance to government offices under a faded umbrella; he would write out “requests, appeals, applications, petitions and other paperwork.” He did more than just write; he was a real agony aunt who would advise about all matters related to official business and life itself.

But he is not the calligrapher of the title. No, the richer would go to an artisan who could “make the simple act of letter writing into a cult full of secrets.” For, in this most developed form of Islamic art, calligraphy is described as “the photography of words.”

For young Salman, learning the secrets of the art from Hamid Farsi, it seems like magic. There is the secret of the ink-making, the secret of sharpening the pen, the secret of how to make it dance across the page, the secret of how to hide words within the swirls so that they can only be read by the trained eye… but none of these are the deep secret of this novel.

In Muslim thought, calligraphy links everyday speech with the Quran and the language of heaven. Many calligraphic representations are verses of the Quran, or the names of Allah or Muhammad. Gazing on them can inspire devotion and praise in the beholder. But this is not the deep secret of this novel.

Calligraphy can be used to unlock secrets, as those who admire its aesthetic lines can be persuaded to indiscretions by the beauty of the art. Rafik weaves words to reflect this effect: “The internal music of calligraphy works on the brain and then opens up the way to the heart -- like music, when you don’t know its origins and what it’s about but you enjoy it all the same.” Wily businessman Nasri uses calligraphy to ingratiate himself with the president and win contracts. But this is not the deep secret of this novel.

That there is a secret is evident from page one, where we are introduced to the rumors of old Damascus. “An incredible rumor began making its way to the tables of the little snack bars, and circulating among the first customers at the bakeries.” The wife of the most prosperous calligrapher in town has run away! The reasons why Noura fled are a secret to be unfolded in the novel, but they are not the deep secret.

The gossip grows and grows as it spreads. “The rumor had reached the east gate, and because by now it had assumed considerable dimensions it would not fit though the gateway. It rebounded from the stone arch and broke into a thousand and one pieces that scuttled away like rats, as if fearing the light, down the alleyways and into houses.”

It is prose like this that makes you feel like you have been whisked away on a magic carpet into a Middle Eastern scene where a host is telling the guests a long tale after a sumptuous banquet. The storyteller brings himself close to the listener by peppering his tale with corrections to the direction he is going in: “But that was not until decades later,” “But many important things happened in Salman’s life before that, and the story should turn to them first,” or “Now back to…”

All of these devices add to the sense that the layers are being peeled back, and that at some stage we will get to the real kernel of truth that comprises the calligrapher’s secret. For that we need to understand mottoes hidden in calligraphic works of art, such as “Others read in order to study; while we must study so we can read.” We need to penetrate the Society of the Wise, to discover who the Pure Ones are and learn how the thousand-year-old ideas of Ibn Muqla to reform the Arabic script can be so seditious and deemed to be a mortal sin.

If “calligraphy is the art of using black to bring pure joy to the desert of white paper,” then the author of these lines, Rafik Schami, in weaving a tale of love and despair, joy and pain, secrets and unveilings, uses the art of words to bring a similar joy.


“The Calligrapher’s Secret,” by Rafik Schami, published by Arabia Books (2011) 8.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-190669728-0

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