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The spirit of calligraphy




“Let the pen write from the heart that is joyous and free.”

Hafez-e Shirazi (Iran, 14th c.)


Calligraphy, I believe, is a spiritual path that leads, no matter the script, to that tranquillity of the heart that all sages across cultures talk about.

I first learned calligraphy from the Japanese and Chinese ancient and not so ancient masters. According to East Asian calligraphers and poets, the world is created with each stroke of the brush. And to quote François Cheng (China-France, b. 1929), calligraphy transmits the “original breath,” the one that gave rise to everything.

As I became more familiar and comfortable with Japanese calligraphy, I returned to what may be called my roots – Arabic and Persian scripts, and Islamic art in general. I felt the need to write down many of the poetry I was reading. I wanted to convey and share with others the emotions and the joy that Rumi, Al Ghazzali, and especially Hafez, brought to me.

And slowly, I came to the realization that I could bring one into the other; that the wisdom, the patience and the beauty that I felt while writing Japanese calligraphy, could be brought into the Arabic and Persian ones.

On the external side, each line, each dot must be alive, just like each stroke in writing a Japanese Kanji (character). Technic must be perfect and the writing should be imbued with grace and dignity, as the teachers of the Nastaliq style recommend.

Hayat (life)

Hayat (life)

Ma'a (water)

Ma’a (water)

As for the internal aspect, it is the spirit that dominates. As when writing a Kanji, to trace salam (peace – سلام) or ishq (absolute love – عشق), the very essence of the word should be the inspiration. In the case of Ishq, the calligrapher must feel absolute love, untainted by the ego and non-dual. For a word seemingly as banal as water (ma’a– ماء), the calligrapher must become the flow, the very purity and the life-saving aspects of it. And it is that energy that will move his breathing, his hand and his whole being, as he places the lines and the dots on paper.

In other words, writing involves working on oneself, on the technical side of course, but more so, one has to be “close to oneself” as Chusa, the celebrated early 19th century Korean calligrapher said. For me, it is a most liberating experience, as it is one instance when I am truly alone, disconnected from the mundane and yet, in tune with the great rhythm of the universe, with the whole and the unique.

More than a discipline or an art, calligraphy for me is a prayer. As Hafez said, to write, the heart must be filled with joy and it must be free. And I hope, most humbly, that my work may transmit that joy and freedom, so that others may feel tranquillity of the heart.

Technical note: I use a Japanese style calligraphy brush and black India ink. Works are done either on cotton paper, some hand made, or wood. When using paper, I use watercolours to set the background.


About the Author
Kenza Saadi holds a BA from Cornell University and PhD from Columbia University. She has been, for a better part of her life, a humanitarian worker in war thorn countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. She now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with her seven year old son, Anwar, and has family in Morocco and Afghanistan.
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