Winter 2003

Abbar: building bridges

Has Yassar Abbar developed the
Arab world’s answer to Univers?

February 2003. I’m in Damascus at the behest of the British Council, giving a lecture at the ‘Type Is Image’ seminar, but also just mooching around, satisfying my curiosity, extending my knowledge. I have started to draw Arabic type, so a few extra days in the Syrian capital is perfect, allowing me to saturate myself in everyday life and learn what it is that connects the Arabic people to their typography, to find the daily reality of speaking a complicated language.

My guides to this world include designers Yassar Abbar, Ahmad Moualla and Leyla Haddad; curator Christine Tohme; and translators Laila Hourani, Vanda Harmaneh and Abdel Aziz Alloun. Over the course of many conversations with my new friends, what becomes clear is that within Arabic the typography may well be the simplest problem; the whole linguistic and grammatical structure needs to be realigned with contemporary Arabic speech. Some people think that the Arabic world has come to a point where it needs to shed some excess linguistic baggage, but it cannot choose an editor. (An unsuccessful attempt at simplification was made in 1936 by the Academy of Arabic Language in Egypt.)

The formal style in which Arabic is predominantly written, although widely used and understood, is an ocean away from how the language is spoken. Moualla, whose uncommon-sense approach is possibly the farthest away from establishment thinking, advocates simpler grammar and a more progressive education system, as well as easier typography.

Arabic is a full, complex language. On the plus side, its exponents can be expressive, fluid and dynamic in their use of words; and it does unify a diverse set of cultures. On the minus side, it takes a long time to get to grips with the complexity of its rules and systems – problems not unlike those encountered when learning English.

Both the spoken and written forms of the language are evolving slowly: contemporary formal Arabic, for example, is not that of the Qur’an. However the calligraphy that is its only visual representation has remained much the same since the seventeenth century. And though calligraphy may express the spiritual nature of the Qur’an’s words, it is not a practical communication tool for today’s world. This is where the fledgling Arabic typography fits in . . .

. . . Arabic is very versatile. It is flexible and fluid, you can push and pull it all over the place, and its calligraphic nature is very forgiving, from the complex mazes of Kufi to the woven puzzles of Thuluth. Abbar is making a path from the past to the future. He aims for an inclusive system, inspired by Frutiger’s Univers, and brings with him the subtle manoeuvres of calligraphers since Ibn Muqlah. His supporters can revel in the clarity of the wider possibilities and his critics should be as forgiving as the beloved words.

Thanks to the following for their invaluable help: Sarah al-Hamad, Deema Farouki, Laila Hourani, Sara Islam, Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès


Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Arabic Typography. Saqi, 2001

Tarek Atrissi, The Arabic user interface: Arabic type in new Media, 2001

Nihad Dukhan, Comments on the Modern and the Traditional in Arabic Calligraphy, 2002