Dr Jamal Naja meets me in a coffee shop just down the road from his home in Alamuddin Street, a quiet almost mischievous face, greying hair, and he lays – with great care – a black packet on the table in front of him.
Tripoli in northern Lebanon is an overwhelmingly Muslim city and Naja has a PhD in Islamic studies. But he is also a calligrapher and the black packet contains his pens and brushes. “Now, Robert, take these two pencils and drop them on the floor.” I do. One sounds low and hollow. The other sounds high and brittle. “The higher the note, the better the pencil,” he says.
Calligraphy is an Islamic rather than a mere Arabic form of art, partly because Muslims disapprove of the human image in religious work. Iran has at least 200 calligraphers but in Beirut, it is a dying art – Naja is one of 10 authentic calligraphers left – and the computer is slowly destroying these craftsmen. Naja picks a sheaf of glossy, bright pages and a tiny inkpot and his pens and pencils scream over the surface as if they are alive, louder than chalk on a blackboard. Continue reading