There is never a dull moment at Bait Al Khatt. At this newly opened Arabic calligraphy studio at Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi, renowned artist and UAE’s first professional calligrapher Mohammed Mandi, teaches the intricate art of traditional Arabic calligraphy to all levels of students from beginners and intermediates to masters in the field.
Decorative letters and geometric patterns with delicate swirls, flicks and flourishes grace the flooring and glass windows of the studio where we meet Mandi as he sits with a young student, teaching her the strokes required to replicate a stylised form of the Arabic alphabet. Both the teacher and the student are focused on the movement of the hands as the pen he wields moves gently from right to left to produce a curvilinear form. Other students continue with the tasks assigned; patiently practicing the same letter over and over again using a combination of thick strokes and thin lines.
Located on the top floor of the Cultural Foundation, Bait Al Khatt or the House of Calligraphy is as an educational hub that focuses on both the historical and present-day teachings of calligraphy within Arabic culture.
The tranquillity of this serene, quiet space is broken each time Mohammed Mandi picks up his calligraphic tools. Then, the studio springs to life and pulsates with a vibrant energy as the ink begins to flow fluidly from his pen creating random brushstrokes that are instantly transformed into harmonious lines and artful loops. An embellished dot here, a hint of colour there, and in an instant, perfectly balanced and proportional letters leap out from the pages as if full of life and in motion, demonstrating this art form’s endless creative and decorative possibilities.
For more than 40 years now, Mandi has been practicing his craft and since 2006, has been imparting his knowledge and creative skills to both residents and tourists alike under the aegis of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH merged into the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority in 2012 which is now the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi). "For me calligraphy is more than just a passion or a vocation; it is the art of the soul and it is the hand that gives it its voice," says the artist who first discovered his talent for drawing at the tender age of five.
"Initially, I drew anything that caught my fancy, but it was around the age of 12 that I was drawn into the mesmerising world of letters," recalls Mandi, seated in his studio at Bait Al Khatt where some of his works are on display. "I was fascinated by the spaces between the letters in the Arabic alphabet – to me, it represented great potential."
"I particularly remember a Saudi Arabian magazine where the titles of the articles were all handwritten," he says. "It seemed like a stunning painting, not mere letters or words. I was so captivated by its beauty that I would cut these out and trace the letters to practice writing in a similar way."
He used two pencils to make the thick lines, says Mandi, revealing how he also slept with his paints and pencils next to his bed each night. "These were my most precious possessions and the only thing that mattered to me."
Although he was always complimented for his beautiful handwriting, the young Mandi was not content with merely imitating letters from newspapers and magazines. "I read up about famous ancient calligraphers and began to buy books on the art. I wanted to learn the rules of proportion, and how to blend themes and text, colour and size of lettering. I knew I had to acquire formal training in the techniques of this art form."
However, his decision to enrol at the Arabic Calligraphy Improvement School in Cairo was met with derision. "People mocked me; what is the purpose of pursuing such a trivial subject when all you have to do is just hold a pen and write, they asked. Nobody understood it then. They were aghast that I was going all the way to Cairo just to learn how to write better."
Looking at the portfolio of work he had compiled, his teachers in Cairo were eager to know how he acquired his skills. They were appreciative of his work but informed him that he would have to undergo a test to ensure that the body of work in the portfolio was indeed his own creations. "I was to be judged on the way I wrote ‘Bismillahi ar rahman ar Rahim’ – In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate," he remembers.
Mandi’s self-taught knowledge so impressed the panel of teachers especially Syed Ibrahim, a well-known calligrapher, that he was allowed to bypass the first half of the four-year course. "I was enrolled directly into the third year and I graduated the following year in 1977 at the top of my class."
Meanwhile, in June that year, he also participated in a regional competition with representatives of five other schools across Egypt. "Over a period of 10 days, we were tested on different scripts with the final day focusing on Islamic inscriptions. When the results were announced a few days later, I was named the winner in entire Egypt."
On his return to the UAE, however, Mandi couldn’t resist the urge to study further and so, he went onward to Istanbul, Turkey, to continue his learning. "Turkey has a rich tradition of calligraphy, spanning over 800 years of the Ottoman Empire, and it also has some of the best schools teaching the art. It was no doubt the ideal place to further hone my art."
Here, under the tutelage of renowned Turkish calligrapher, Hassan Chalabi, the young Emirati calligrapher improved his skills, learning new scripts and perfecting his art. "One of the most difficult tasks given towards the conclusion of my studies was to touch up my teacher’s new calligraphic artworks," he remembers. "I was paranoid that I would damage them, and obsessed over it day and night."
His teacher’s remarks on seeing the final result made Mandi very proud. "He was happy that I had accomplished the difficult task of keeping the original characteristics of his artwork intact; without altering it to reflect my style. That remains a treasured compliment to this day.
"Calligraphy is an art that requires incredible discipline," adds Mandi. "You have to put in a lot of time and hard work into it. You need to have patience and be passionate as well about the craft. When you start studying calligraphy, you never know when you will finish learning for it is a lifelong journey."
"My teachers – Syed Ibrahim in Cairo and Hassan Chalabi in Istanbul – are a true inspiration for me; I owe them so much. They were extremely generous with their time and the knowledge they shared and by teaching me to write letters with love and respect, they instilled in me the values of humility, patience and self-discipline. Under their guidance, I not only learned the art of calligraphy but also evolved as a compassionate and better human being. As I immersed myself in my studies, it also drove home the fact that just as there are no shortcuts in calligraphy, there are no shortcuts in life as well."
On his return to the UAE in 1985, Mohammed Mandi started to combine letters and words to create his signature style of three-dimensional compositions of images and figures. Using different shades and colours, his layering technique involves the overlaying of letters to forge the textual with the visual to create complex and artistic forms.
"This is a laborious process and a single piece can sometimes take years to complete," says the artist who had his first solo exhibition "My Beloved Dubai" at the Dubai Shopping Festival in 1999. The same year, he left his calligraphic mark on the new Dh50 commemorative silver coin released to mark the 30th anniversary of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
The turning point in his career as a professional calligrapher came when he was approached on behalf of the Central Bank to design the Arabic script for the new Dh200 note around 15 years ago. "This was the first time that I was getting an opportunity to do something for the people of my country," he says.
The agency outsourced by the Central Bank to design the new currency note offered him a paltry amount for the work which he politely declined. "When asked why, I replied: ‘It’s because when people ask me about my work, I can tell them it is in their pockets’! Since then that’s been my favourite opening line to people I meet in the UAE for the first time!" he laughs.
Mohammed Mandi zeroed down on the angular and long vertical-lined Kufi Al Fatimi script for the new currency note to differentiate itself from other Gulf currencies that mainly used Thuluth or Naskh scripts. Incidentally, Kufi, the script he chose, is the oldest Arabic script and is so named because it was calligraphers in Kufa, Iraq, who adopted and developed the script. Kufi is based on strict geometric principles and for almost 500 years, it remained the only style used to record the word of God in the Holy Quran.
Mandi is quick to acknowledge that it was a team effort that went into the design of this new bank note. "Our objective was to create something that resonated with the people of the UAE. We wanted it to reflect the culture of the place. So the choice of colour, images, and other elements had to be chosen after careful deliberation."
Soon thereafter, Mohammed Mandi re-designed the rest of the country’s paper money too in a similar script and design pattern. "This has been one of my proudest achievements as my art had become ingrained in public life and that many more people could now see my work," says Mandi who is also credited with designing all the bank notes of Bahrain, as well as the 200 and 1,000 Syrian pound notes.
His distinctive scripts have since adorned the passports of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. He has also designed calligraphy for the logos of government ministries, private companies and commercial establishments.
Several government offices, mosques and hospitals in the UAE bear the unmistakable stamp of Mohammed Mandi’s signature style of overlapping words on their walls. Some of his works are considered to be landmarks in contemporary Arabic calligraphy. He was commissioned to write the UAE’s National Peace text in Diwani script for a mural of the Flag Island building in Sharjah. Amongst other prominent works, he has also inscribed 30 sayings by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Diwani script on 10 murals, which can be found at Umm Al Emarat Park in Abu Dhabi.
His most prestigious commission, however, came about when he was asked to design the 99 names (qualities or attributes) of Allah on the inside wall of the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, as well as the intricate patterns in traditional Kufi calligraphy inside the mehrab – the niche in the wall that indicates the direction of prayer.
Twelve years ago, Mandi again showcased the stunning effect of calligraphy in Islamic architecture when he was asked to create "something artistic" for the Islamic forum building in Penzburg, Germany. It was while listening to the adhaan or the call of prayer that he found inspiration for this work.
"I realised that the adhaan was never immortalised in a mosque," says Mandi who went on to script the call for prayer which the design company then worked on Photoshop, Illustrator and Autocad to etch it on to the minaret. "The idea was very different and modern and a move away from typical mosque architecture. I am now doing a similar project for Austria which will be ready early next year."
Mohammed Mandi’s calligraphic journey has taken him from paper and canvas to producing official documents, bank notes, coins and moving onward to murals with the work on the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque. "With my work now gracing buildings that will stand the test of time, I feel humbled that my art too will remain etched in the minds of the people forever."
However, it was an early work of his – a portrait of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan composed solely of the words ‘Zayed bin Sultan’ written in his trademark overlapping style – that continues to remain his most favourite work, he adds. Mandi, who worked on it over the course of a year in 1991, says, "The late ruler’s name appears around 200,000 times and his love of greenery and flowers is represented through the predominant use of the colours green and red. I like to think of Shaikh Zayed as an artist who nurtured and sowed the seeds of giving and of life as he laid the foundations of a new and modern UAE."
The ruler himself was very appreciative of the portrait, and remarked thus: "I have never seen anything like this before; no artist has ever drawn me in this manner."
Following the award of the ‘Al Hilya Al Sharifa’ certification in 2001 from the Istanbul-based Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) which certifies him to teach and transmit what he has learnt, Mohammed Mandi has been devoting his time mainly to teaching and holding calligraphy workshops for students and universities across the country.
The Al Hilya certificate with its gilded floral designs on its borders in black and gold occupies pride of place in his studio. "This is one of the greatest honours to be bestowed on a calligrapher and I call it my second wife," laughs Mandi. "When I received it 18 years ago, I couldn’t bear to part with it and kept it close to me even at night much to the annoyance of my wife!"
At Bait Al Khatt, Mohammed Mandi today teaches students of all age groups and nationalities. "It is not just Arabs; we also have Japanese, Chinese and American students here.
"I look upon the evolution of calligraphy as a plant that once was well-watered and cared for, then experienced a long period of neglect and is now being nourished all over again, waiting to grow and blossom," says Mandi who dreams of building a museum containing his lifetime’s collection of work, ideas and concepts, including the legacy of his teachers and the creations of his students.
"As long as there are art collectors and patrons who own these works and students who take the art form forward, calligraphy will thrive and flourish into the future."
Despite his decades of experience, Mohammed Mandi says he wishes to continue learning and take on greater challenges. "My teacher, Hassan Chalabi’s advice to me was to stay humble and always keep the door open for learning. I have always abided by that. I believe the world of calligraphy is like a vast ocean and I’ve only touched the tip of it. This journey is far from over; I’ve still got a long way to go."