MY STORY: THE MAKING OF AN ARAB-AMERICAN MASTER CALLIGRAPHER
Growing Up in Gaza
Conveniently, the elementary school I attended, and where my father was the school principal, was across the street from our house. As the son of the principal, I could walk into my fathers’ office between classes or during breaks. In my unannounced visits, I could not help but to notice that behind his desk, there was a framed piece of Arabic calligraphy with two lines from the Quran in Jeli Talik style. I would read it and stare at it. At home, we also had a good-size library. I would look at the titles, names of authors and publishing houses on book covers; and would think to myself the writing on these books and at my father’s office looked so finished, so clean.
In the sixth grade I fell in love with the Arabic language at the hands of a great teacher Mr. Al-Hanifi. Also in the sixth grade the same Arabic teacher taught us his version of Ruk’a- a quick cursive Arabic calligraphy style for daily use. I started competing with classmates in “nice writing” on paper at school. After school the competition employed another medium: we would write with charcoal and chalk on nicely painted walls of people’s homes in the neighborhood.
My self-training continued by imitating book titles and classic calligraphic writings. I also discovered the various styles of calligraphy and would imitate them. In high school, I was recognized in my neighborhood as someone who could write nicely. I wrote a sign for a new tailor shop, for example. It must have been horrible, but no one had enough knowledge of calligraphy and its intricate rules to know the difference. Calligraphy standards were low.
Moving to Ohio
I finished high school in Gaza and arrived in Toledo, Ohio to study mechanical engineering in 1983. I continued reading Arabic literature books and practicing my calligraphy, as I knew it, from time to time. I was recognized for my nice writing among the Arab students at University of Toledo. They would ask me to write sings for some activities. I also wrote a grave sign for a deceased Lebanese woman.
Around 1989, while I was working on my PhD, I actually developed my own modern style of Arabic calligraphy. My modern designs do not conform to the strict rules of classical Arabic calligraphy. They are highly stylized, but remain legible with tremendous simplicity. I exhibited my modern form in US cities, and designed company logos, book covers, CD jackets, wedding invitations, and others. Some of my early designs in this modern form have an iconic look to them, some people thought. I continue to produce in, and polish, my modern form.
Moving to Chicago
After I received my PhD in mechanical engineering from University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, I picked up and moved to Chicago. I had gotten very board in Toledo. I did not have job in Chicago and no prospects. I just wanted to get out of Toledo to the big city. A friend of mine and I rented an apartment in the north side of the city. After few months, I accepted a position as a research and development engineer at a telecommunication company in the West Suburbs. My job was to design cooling systems for electronic equipment. After about a year in this position, I figured I had money to take a trip to Istanbul. That was 1998.
First Trip to Istanbul
During my graduate studies, I had made a couple of Turkish friends from Istanbul and I told them one day I would pay them a visit in their home city. They finished their master degrees and went home, and I stayed in touch with one of them, Cahit. Cahit and I were close as we had formed a music band: he played the bağlama which is a Turkic stringed musical instrument very popular in Turkey. I played percussion for him. Together we played Turkic folk music and we actually had few gigs in Toledo in coffee shops.
Few days prior to my flight to Istanbul, I called Cahit on his cell phone (cell phones were new at that time). I left him a message informing him of my flight details and asking if could meet me at the airport. I took a flight from Chicago to Istanbul and I landed in Ataturk Airport. This airport is humungous and super busy. I was bewildered and eventually made my way out. There was no Cahit waiting for me. For a while, I did not know what to do. From questions to strangers here and there, I figured out that people usually head toward Taksim Square- the heart of Istanbul. From the Square, there are public transportation to virtually all other areas of the gigantic city. At that time, the Square was basically a huge station for public transportation. (At some point in time, it was closed to vehicles and it remains. Now only pedestrians can pass through it.) So I took a bus from Ataturk Airport and arrived at Taksim Square. I was thinking to myself: now what? I did not know which direction to turn or where to walk. After sometime, I thought I should get to a hotel, settle in a little and think about my next step. I did not have any hotel in mind. (Cahit had told me that his parents had bought him a new apartment and that I could use it while in Istanbul.) The only plausible solution was to flag a cap and ask the driver to take me to a hotel. So I did, and it was all up to the driver. He drove me to a place he knew, and told me some of the people that worked at the hotel knew Arabic. Did I mention that I did not know a word of Turkish!
The hotel was humble I would rate it between 2.5 and 3 stars. There was an odor coming out of the bathroom, not because it was dirty but of some bad drainage design. I found out later that this was common in Istanbul to some extent. The smell was noticeable all over the room; nonetheless I was happy to have shelter. It was late afternoon. I washed and laid down a little. It was time to call my calligraphic contact in Istanbul: Mr. Mohammed Tamimi. Master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya had given me Mr. Tamimi’s contact information and said that he would be able to help with issues related to calligraphy. After figuring out the convoluted way of making a phone call at that time, I managed to talk to Mr. Tamimi and made an appointment with him for the following day. I was tired and sleepy due to time lag, but did not want to go to sleep so early. I resisted for a while, but then I fell asleep. I was worried about missing my important appointment the following day. After few hours of sleep, I woke up in the middle of the night (around 3 or 4 AM). I stayed up for a while and tried to go back for sleep, but could not.
After few hours, I took a taxi to the place where Mr. Tamimi’s office was. He worked at the Research Center for Islamic Art, History, and Culture (IRCICA). This organization was housed in the Yildiz Palace (Yıldız Sarayı in Turkish) located on a hill off Barbaros Bulvarı in Beşiktaş district of Istanbul. This palace is a massive complex of royal Ottoman pavilions, villas including the Yıldız Theater and Opera House, the Yıldız Palace Museum and the Imperial Porcelain Factory. The palace was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdülhamid II left Dolmabahçe Palace because he feared a seaside attack on the palace, which is located at the shore of the Bosporus, and ordered the renowned Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco to add new buildings to the Yıldız Palace. IRCICA occupied only one section of the Palace. (I have recently heard that IRCICA moved to a new location in Sultan Ahmet).
So I arrived and met Mr. Tamimi and conveyed Zakariya’s regards. The man was very hospitable, friendly and extremely helpful. We remain friends ever since. He suggested that I start my calligraphy studies with grand master Hasan Çelebi, for not only Çelebi was a great calligrapher and teacher, but he could also speak Arabic. I swiftly agreed and made another appointment to meet Çelebi at Tamimi’s office in few days.
Meeting My First Teacher Hasan Çelebi
Hasan Çelebi is a Grand Master Calligrapher, Khalifa or heir to Hamid Aytaç the last giant of the Ottoman School, and arguably, the leading calligrapher in Turkey — and perhaps, in the entire Islamic world. He is accredited by many for preserving and reviving Islamic calligraphy in modern times in Turkey. The art of Islamic calligraphy suffered a big blow in Turkey when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abandoned the use of Arabic letters to write the Turkish language in 1928. Çelebi is big-boned man with strong features and deep voice. He has a lot of presence but anyone around him would feel at ease. He smiles most of the time and enjoys a good sense of humor. The man seems to have some sort of goodness that fills the air around him.
Hasan Çelebi hails from İnce Village in the province of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia (Asian part of Turkey). He began learning and memorizing the Holy Quran at a young age, and he loved paper and letters. He traveled to Istanbul by train in order to attend an underground madrasas (schools for Islamic education) in Fatih and Üsküdar, both old religious districts of Istanbul, and eventually finished memorizing the whole Quran and became a hafiz. In 1963, Çelebi was appointed as imam of the Sultantepe Mosque of Üsküdar in Istanbul. One day he met a talented stone carver, Yusuf Efendi, who introduced him to Hamid Aytaç, one of the greatest Islamic calligraphers of the twentieth century. In 1964, he started studying the art of calligraphy with Hamid at a time when Islamic arts were overshadowed. (As the Ottoman State (the last Islamic dynasty) vanished, arts that relate to Islam also experienced decadence.) Çelebi received his professional practicing certificate in Sülüs and Nesih styles from Hamit Aytaç in 1971. He did not leave his teacher until the teacher’s death in 1982. Çelebi also studied Ta’lik and Riq’a styles with Kemal Batanay and received his Ijazah in these styles in 1980.
Çelebi’s calligraphy works decorate some of the most important Islamic buildings in the world. He produce Islamic calligraphy panels for the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah in 1981. In 1983, he restored the calligraphy panels in Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, Saudi Arabia. In 1987, Çelebi produced calligraphy panels for the Quba Mosque. He also produced some of the calligraphy pieces on the newly constructed parts of Masjid al-Jum’ah and Masjid al-Qiblatain- all in Saudi Arabia. In addition, he has restored many important calligraphic panels in Istanbul that had been written by top Ottoman calligraphers such as Rakim. For example, he restored the calligraphy pieces on the inner dome of the Blue Mosque and the calligraphy on the inner dome of Hırka-ı Sherif Mosque in Istanbul. Çelebi has been teaching Arabic and Islamic calligraphy since 1976 and has given practicing certificate (Ijazah or icazet) to over 50 students from all over the world. He was awarded the Culture and Art Great Prize by the Presidency of the Turkish Republic in 2011, and was honored by President Erdoğan in 2014.
Remember my friend Cahit? He never responded to my voice messages that I left him prior to my arrival in Istanbul. I called him from the hotel and got a hold of him. We met and I moved to his new apartment in the outskirts of Istanbul. Cahit worked for an automotive company at the time. He would go to work in the morning, and I would tour the city. We would meet in the evening and go out to dinner or a café to hang out. Few days later, Cahit came home smiling and said: Guess what? I said what? He said: “I have just got your voice mail on my cell phone!”
Few years prior to my visit to Istanbul, I had read a big volume written by Henry Glassie called Turkish Traditional Art Today. This book presents the living arts and artists of Turkey. It is an ethnographic inquiry into the nature of art, and combines current (1993) theories of folklore, anthropology, cultural geography and art history. It was a fascinating book and it included a vivid description of Istanbul. When I read it, I decided to visit Istanbul one day. Istanbul, the seventh largest city in the world, is a vibrant, historic and cosmopolitan metropolis. This magnificent city has a distinctive relationship with four water ways: it occupies the hills overlooking the Marmara Sea, the Black Sea, the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. It is a transcontinental city, with one third of its population living in Asia and the rest in Europe. Its rich Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history has fostered an eclectic populace. The city enjoys wonderful architecture with churches, palaces and imperial mosques lining its hills. Many important people made comments about Istanbul. Here some examples Napoleon Bonaparte: “If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Gerard De Nerval: “People were right when they say there is no other place on earth as beautiful looking as Istanbul.” Alphonse de Lamartine: “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” Orhan Pamuk: “Life can’t be all that bad, I’d think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus.”
When I was there, I toured the older part of the city on foot. I would walk more than eight hours a day. I started with the touristy parts of course- the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) with thousands of shops, the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) the fragrant trove of spices and fruits, the awe-inspiring Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), Topkapi Palace with its panoramic views of the Bosphorus, The Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) built for Süleyman the Magnificent with the architectural genius of Mimar Sinan, the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, and others. All what I had heard and read was true and more.
First Calligraphy Lesson with Çelebi
Few days later, it was time to see Çelebi for the first lesson in his small private school somewhere in Üsküdar. There I met his son Mustafa, a master of tathheeb or tezhip- the art of Islamic manuscript illumination. Master Çelebi wrote the first line in the curriculum of the Thuluth and Naskh styles (Sülüs ve Nesih in Turkish), and placed the measurements of each letter in red dots. He graciously gave me some ink, reed pens and practice paper and told me to imitate the line he wrote; and asked me to come back for corrections in a week. He also sharpened one reed pen for me. I took the materials and went back to Cahit’s apartment to practice. Nothing worked! The pen did not move the way it did with Çelebi; the ink did not flow as it did with Çelebi. I made some scribbles on the paper and the nib of the reed pen broke due to too much pressing. (I learned few years later that this was a common problem for beginners.) I was very frustrated. After few attempts in few days, I wrote the line. It did not look anything like what Çelebi wrote, but I had something to show in the next meeting. I went back to him. He looked at my exercise (mashq in Arabic or maşk in Turkish), and basically rewrote the whole line in red, indicating that everything I wrote was wrong. I got one letter correct the ra (R). He told me to repeat the line. The following week I went back to him with a new mashq. This time nothing was correct; he wrote the line again. It turned out that I had gotten the ra correct in my first mashq by pure accident! This was the last meeting with him as my visit to Istanbul was coming to an end. We agreed that I would send him exercises to correct by mail.
During my stay in Istanbul, I was advised by Tamimi to purchase the exercise book (mashq or maşk) of Mehmet Şevki Efendi or Mehmed Showqi Efendi (1829–1887). Şevki Efendi was the greatest Ottoman calligrapher of his time in Thuluth and Naskh. His style developed into a school that calligraphers, including contemporary ones, take as a reference. My teacher Çelebi does too. Mehmed Şevki Efendi was born in Kastamonu. He moved to Istanbul as a young boy and learned Thuluth and Naskh from his uncle Hulusi Efendi. He received his icazet at the age of twelve. He was inspired by masters that came before him, such as Hafiz Osman and Mustafa Rakim. He is reported to have said: “They (great masters) taught me calligraphy in the world of dreams.” He penned twenty-five copies of the Holy Qur’an and many other works. The great Sami Efendi said: “Şevki could not write a letter poorly even if he tried to.” Şevki taught Husnu Hat (Islamic or Arabic or Ottoman calligraphy) in the Ministry of War in the Beyazıt quarter and in a number of schools. As for his private lessons, he would not accept more than ten students at a time, in order to ensure that he could devote enough time for each student. He taught calligraphy to the sons of Sultan Abdulhamid II for two and half years at the Princes’ School in Yildiz Palace. Sultan Mehmed Reshad V also studied with Şevki, when he was a prince. After his death in 1887, it was discovered that Şevki spent charity systematically on 30 poor people in Istanbul and Kastamonu. Among his top students were Filibeli Haci Arif Efendi and Mehmed Fehmi Efendi.
My first visit to Istanbul officially introduced me to Ottoman calligraphy, Istanbul and Turkish culture. It was overwhelming experience but very valuable. Upon my return to Chicago, with the materials I brought back from Istanbul, I started a slow and painful practice, usually in the evening after work. I would send my teacher Çelebi an exercise every once in a while; sometimes every other week, sometimes once a month. It would take few months for the corrections to come back by mail, not because my teacher did not correct them on time, but because the Turkish postal service was very slow in delivering letters within Turkey. I made little or no progress for a couple of years. My exercises would come back all red. It turned out, as I learned later, that a student of calligraphy goes through series of illusions: because the eyes are not trained, the novice thinks that what he or she writes looks great and is correct according to the rules!
Relocating to Puerto Rico
After spending about four years in Chicago working for the industry, an academic opportunity came about at University of Puerto Rico- Mayaguez. I took a job there as a visiting professor of mechanical engineering. Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean that is considered US territory. I thought I would enjoy the island for a year; but I ended up staying there for four years. After the first year, I was eager to move back to the US, and so I started looking for a job. My stay in Puerto Rico felt transitional. I did not practice calligraphy as much as I should have. Nonetheless, I would send my teacher an exercise here and there. There was no progress to speak of. I was still writing the same first line that my teacher wrote for me few years earlier in Istanbul.
Moving to Michigan and the Start of Talik Training with Zakariya
I secured a job as an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University of Detroit Mercy; and I moved to Detroit suburbs in the summer of 2005. It was time to focus more on my calligraphy training. One thing came to mind: I was always attracted to the Talik style of Arabic calligraphy. I thought to myself, why not study Taliq with Master Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya? I had no idea how that would affect my training in Thuluth and Naskh with Master Çelebi. One day I called Zakariya and asked him if he could teach me Talik. He agreed and said that I should pay him a visit in Arlington, VA for few days to get more acquainted with the process and take some lessons. So I did. I was supposed to stay at his house, but his wife Sally got sick prior to my arrival, so I stayed in a close by hotel. Zakariya Hoca would pick me up in the morning to spend the day with him, and then he would drive me back to the hotel in the evening.
Mohamed Zakariya is a very interesting man. He is a master of few arts: calligraphy, ebru, gilding, illumination/ornamentation (tathheeb or tazhib or tazhip), wood turning, restoring antique art objects, intricate metalworker, script identification in Islamic manuscripts, among others. He has produced historical scientific instruments of various kinds. Zakariya grew up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s. In 1961, at the age of 19, Zakariya accepted Islam and began to learn Arabic and Islamic calligraphy during a visit to Morocco. Around the same time he travelled to London, and studied calligraphy from ancient works in the British Museum. Zakariya settled in the Washington, D.C. area in 1972 and continued self-training in calligraphy.
Based on the advice of Dr. Esin Atil, then curator of Islamic art at the Freer Gallery in Washington, Zakariya travelled to Istanbul in January 1984 and met Hasan Çelebi for the first time, at the Research Center for Islamic Art, History, and Culture (IRCICA), and became his student. This was facilitated by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu who was the head of IRCICA at the time, and eventually became Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation from 2004 to 2014. Zakariya spent a month in Istanbul under the auspices of IRCICA. He went every afternoon to Çelebi and practiced every morning and far into the night. It was agreed that he would continue his lessons by mail after his return to the United States. Zakariya studied sulus and nashi scripts (the Ottoman scripts par excellence) with Hasan Çelebi and received his diploma (icazet or icazetname) in 1988. His master project was a hilye-i-saadet.
In Istanbul, Zakariya met and befriended M. Ugur Derman who is considered the world’s leading authority on the Ottoman/Turkish school of the art of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy. Derman authored some very important works on this art, e.g. The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage. He also edited Kalem Guzeli- Mahmud Yazir’s definitive treatise on the art of Ottoman calligraphy. He owns a sizable collection of rare calligraphic works produced by major Ottoman calligraphers. Later Zakariya translated some of Derman’s books from Turkish to English, e.g. Art of Calligraphy and Letters in Gold (catalogue for the Sakip Sabanci collection).
During his stay in Istanbul, Zakariya also started taking lessons in Talik from Dr. Ali Alparslan- a master calligrapher and a professor of Old Turkish literature at Istanbul University. During his life (D. 2006), it was agreed in Turkey that he was the top teacher of Taliq style according to the Ottoman Turkish School. Zakariya received his diploma (icazet or icazetname) in talik script from Ali Alparslan in 1997. In his multiple trips to Istanbul, Zakariya learned the rudiments of ebru from Alparslan Babaoglu. Eventually, Zakariya developed his own style of tezhib drawing from examples of Ottoman Baroque.
Zakariya has traveled frequently to Turkey and the Persian Gulf and has exhibited and lectured extensively in the US and abroad. Recent highlights of Zakariya’s achievements include solo exhibitions at the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha, Qatar and the Bellevue Arts Center; and group exhibitions in Dubai and Kuwait. Zakariya designed the “Eid Greetings” U.S. postage stamps for the first time in history of the US. He is the first one to bring the traditional course of calligraphy training, or the Ijazah system, to North America- a historical event indeed. Zakariya is considered by many the preeminent ambassador of the art of Islamic calligraphy in America. With no formal education, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012.
During my first visit, Zakariya Hoca and his wife Sally were very kind and hospitable. At their home, I always felt as ease. I spent few days of constant practice and corrections. Zakariya Hoca wrote the first line of the Taliq training, which is the first few letters of the Arabic alphabet, and I would imitate his writing. My training was following the method of Najmuddin Efendi (Necmeddin Okyay), the last calligrapher in the 1955 book Son Hattatlar, and the teacher of Ali Alparslan (Zakariya’s teacher in Talik). Necmeddin Okyay was born in 1883 in Usküdar. He received his icazet in Divani script from Talat Bey, and his icazet in Thuluth and Naskh from Bakkal Arif Effendi. More importantly, he took lessons in Ta’liq and Jeli Ta’liq from the great calligrapher Sami Effendi. Necmeddin Effendi introduced a number of improvements in the writing of Ta’Iiq and Jeli Ta’Iiq, of which he was one of the finest masters. Necmeddin Okyay was a master of other arts: Ebru (paper marbling), binding, repair of old books and archery. He invented an original type of Ebru containing floral motifs (Çiçekli ebru). He taught at the Medresetül Hattatin (School of Calligraphers), the Sark Tezyini Sanatlar Mektebi (School of Oriental Decorative Arts) and the Academy of Fine Arts. He died in 1976 at the age in ninety-three and was buried in the cemetery of Karacaahmet.
Necmeddin’s teacher in Talik, Sami Efndi (Hattat Mehmet Sâmi Efendi, 1837-1912), was probably the greatest Ottoman calligrapher. In particular, his celi sülüs and celi talik works remain unrivaled. He designed the Tughra of Sultan Abdulhamid II. Sami Efendi was born in Istanbul and began to engage in writing since his early age, until the end of his life. He was very meticulous and produced master pieces that convey a lot of grace and elegance. He never neglected any detail and wrote very powerful error-free pieces that continue to dazzle our eyes. It is well-known that Sami Efndi would not release a work of calligraphy for over six months. Many master calligraphers learned from Sami; among the famous ones are Ömer Vasfi (1880-1928), İsmail Hakki Altunbezer (1869-1946), Mehmed Hulusi Yazgan (1868-1940) and Kamil Akdik (1862-1941).
I was making good progress in Talik; Zakariya was impressed. He said that I had a flair for Talik. After about two years, Zakariya had to travel to Istanbul, and of course he visited Çelebi. After Zakariya returned home, I had a phone conversation with him. In that conversation he told me that when he informed Çelebi that I was doing very well in Talik, Çelebi said that my progress in Sulus was not good. He added that Çelebi casually said that I could quit him and learn Sulus with Zakariya. In other words, and if I understood it correctly, Çelebi said something like this: if Nihad is doing so well in Talik and that you speak highly of his progress, you can have him as your student in Sulus as well. I was very sad to hear that, and decided to double my efforts in Sulus. So I did. I took few trips to Istanbul to meet with Çelebi and learn from him in person. My trips would last between one and three weeks at a time. In the fall of 2007, I stayed in Istanbul for about three months. I worked on Sulus and Nasih for 12 to 14 hours a day. In the following months, I also visited Istanbul few times. I finished the Sulus and Nasih curriculum and received my Ijazah from Çelebi in 2009 in an official ceremony at IRCICA. The Ijazah signifies the student’s ability and competence and allows him/her to proceed on his/her own. The icazet, or permission, also allows the student to teach calligraphy and sign his/her name on his/her works as a professional calligrapher. In Turkey, the icazet is called icazetname. It is a great honor and a big milestone on the path of calligraphy training. However, it is only a beginning of a long period of further refinement. Certainly, I was very happy to receive my Ijazah from Çelebi after a total of 11 years of learning.
It was time to focus on Talik training with Zakariya Hoca. I would visit Zakariya and stay in his house for few days every few months. In between my visits, I would send him an exercise every two weeks. I finished the mashk of Najmuddin and I thought it was the end. However, Zakariya Hoca said that I had to go through the whole published Hilye-i Hakani that was written by Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet Efendi (Yesârîzâde Mustafa İzzet Efendi, d. 1849). Yesarizade was the founding father of the Ottoman School of Talik style. He is the son of the great Ottoman calligrapher Mehmed Esad Yesari. The father wrote according to the Iranian School of Talik (Nastalik or Nastaliq), and his son did the same for about 28 years, before the son branched off and founded the Turkish School of Talik. Yesari means left handed. Yesarizadeh wrote his best pieces after 1844. Most of the calligraphy panels on buildings constructed during the reign of Sultan Mahud II were written by Yesarizadeh. He served as a kazaskar (military judge) in Anatolia and Rumelia.
Hilye-i Hakani is a long poem depicting the moral and physical qualities of Prophet Mohamed (Peace be upon him). The published calligraphy album of Yesarizadeh had twenty-eight pages with four lines per page. It took me about two years to go through this phase of training under the guidance of Zakariya Hoca. The work I did impressed Zakariya and he took it to Istanbul to show it around. Çelebi was so impressed to the point that he granted me an Ijazah in Talik and; he said that my imitation of Yesarizadeh was about 80% accurate.
Nonetheless, Zakaryia and I agreed on another piece of four lines of old Ottoman poetry to be my master project. So I worked on that for few months and went through about ten or twelve rounds of corrections. It was finally ready. Zakariya Hoca kindly put some tazhib around it, and we took to Istanbul to be presented officially in April 2013, after about seven years of study. There was an Ijazah ceremony in IRCICA where few students were getting their Ijazahs from their teachers. The US ambassador to Turkey was present. It was a nice ceremony, and I was happy to close that chapter of my calligraphy training.
At that point, it was time to do three things: one was to refine my Sulus/Nasih and Talik in their normal small size, two was to start training in Jeli or Celi Sulus and Jeli Talik- the larger size of these scripts, and three was to try to produce some finished pieces. I started sending Çelebi Hoca some of my trials in Jeli Sulus and he would correct them. Zakariya and I decided that I should imitate Sami Efendi in Jeli Talik. I did that for over a year; I made some progress, but it was not enough.
Relocating to Istanbul
I wanted to be in Istanbul to get hands on training with master calligraphers there. I figured that I would need to be there not for weeks, but for months or years. As a university professor, I get a year off from my home institution every seven years, to do research at a different university. During this year, my salary would be reduced by 25%. I applied for my first sabbatical; I had talked to some professors at Istanbul Technical University (ITU) to see if that university could be my host during my sabbatical. They agreed and wrote an invitation letter. So in the fall of 2013 I moved to Istanbul with my family. We lived in Ayazaga Campus of İTÜ in a small apartment for visiting scientists. It was a difficult voyage. For the first time I had to deal with the Turkish system, since I was going to stay in the county for a year. That was a shock, and I felt that I had never been to Turkey! In all of my previous visits I was basically a tourists and did not have to get any official papers. I would stay in hotels, eat at resultants and practice my calligraphy. Life was good!
Advanced Training in Sulus with Davut Bektaş
After settling in, I wanted to start my calligraphy training. For Jeli Sulus, I went to Davut Bektaş. Davut Bektaş was born in Adana in 1963. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at Istanbul University in 1992. He started learning calligraphy when he was a high-school student. In 1981, Bektaş started learning sülüs, nesih and rik’a scripts from Hasan Çelebi, and obtained his Ijazah in 1994. He is considered Çelebi’s top student. Bektaş learned talik and divani scripts from Prof. Ali Alparslan, before Alparslan’s death. Bektaş studied the works of famous Ottoman calligraphers such as Sami Efendi, Halim Efendi and Hamid Bey very carefully. He went on to become a famed calligrapher. He won numerous international awards and exhibited all over the world. He has served as a jury member in many international calligraphy competitions. Bektaş has taught calligraphy at the Süleymaniye Library and the Traditional Turkish Arts Foundation in Istanbul.
In Istanbul, I divided my time between calligraphy and mechanical engineering research. I was lucky to have a nice quiet office at ITU’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Gümüşsuyu, which is on the hill between Kabataş and Taksim, both of which belong to Beyoğlu municipality of Istanbul. For my lessons, I would meet Bektaş once or twice a week at the Güzel Sanatlar Fakültesi in Rasathane. The travel from my office to meet Davut involved some walking, a ride in a ferry to cross from the European side to the Asian side of Istanbul, then taking a minibus from Üsküdar to Rasathane. The trip took about 1.5 hours one way. My progress with Bektaş was very slow. He was meticulous; he knew I was there to go through serious refinement, so he was very strict. I could count the Jeli Sulus letters I learned well from him on my fingers. I started working on a Besmelah and on Al-Fatiha. The first is four words and the other is six lines. These took me about a year. The Chinese have a proverb: “He who treads softly goes far.”
Reconnecting with Ahmed Fares
During this time I learned through some friends that Ahmed Fares was living in Istanbul. Ahmed is a great calligrapher from Cairo, Egypt. I had met him few years earlier in Istanbul, and we became good friends. At that time, he was taking lessons concurrently from Mehmet Özçay and Davud Bektaş in sulus and nasih. He figured that these two were the greatest and he wanted to learn everything he could from them. He eventually received Ijazah from them both. I had visited Ahmed in Cairo in January of 2013. We spent a couple of days together and we visited the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, which had a lot of treasures. I was very excited to learn that Ahmed was in Istanbul, so I got his phone number and called. He was living in Mecidiyeköy – a very congested district of Istanbul in the European side. We met and did some catching up. He offered to help me with Sulus; I agreed swiftly. We would meet once or twice a week in the evenings at a coffee shop close to his apartment. I learned a lot from Ahmed and he gave me a lot of invaluable advice on various aspects of calligraphy.
Advanced Training in Jeli Talik with Mustafa Parıldar
Few months after studying with Bektaş, I started looking for a Jeli Talik teacher. A couple of famous calligraphers in Istanbul indicated that Mustafa Parıldar is an emerging start in Turkish Talik. Luckily, my friend Said Kasımoğlu who works at IRCICA was good friends with Parıldar. The three of us arranged for a meeting one evening at Parıldar’s apartment in Üsküdar. Parıldar was very nice and cordial. I expressed my interest in learning Jeli Talik, and he was open to the idea. We had some Turkish tea and baklava and chatted for some time. Parıldar does not speak English or Arabic, so my friend Said was the translator between me and Parıldar.
Mustafa Parıldar was born in Şanlıurfa in 1982. In 1995 he began learning calligraphy from Mehmet Memiş. In 2007 Parıldar graduated from the Branch of Calligraphy at the Department of Traditional Turkish Handicrafts in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Selçuk University. He then completed his master′s degree at the same university. He took lessons in divanî, celî dîvânî, ta’lîk and celî ta’lîk from Hüseyin Öksüz. Starting in 2004, Parıldar taught calligraphy in Konya, the city of Mavlana or Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, in courses run by the city (Konya Büyükşehir Belediyesi, KOMEK). He eventually moved to Istanbul.
Few days passed, and I asked for another meeting with Parıldar through Said in order to show him some of my work in small Talik under the guidance of Zakariya, and to discuss with him details about my lessons and curriculum with him. We met in Mado- a pastry shop in Üsküdar. He said for learning Jeli Talik, I could write whatever I chose. He indicated that I should limit an exercise to a single line of few words, in order to understand and focus on fine details of Celi Talik. Parıldar gave two lessons per week, one in Üsküdar on Sunday afternoon in some vakif and one in Bağlarbaşı Kongre ve Kültür Merkezi on Saturday morning. I could go to either one. Bağlarbaşı was about an hour walk uphill from Üsküdar.
So I started, and Jeli Talik was added to my load. I would divide my calligraphy time between Jeli Sulus and Jeli Talik, and would see Bektaş (Davud Hoca) during the week and Parıldar (Mustafa Hoca) in the weekend, sometimes twice. I was very busy; juggling the two calligraphy training programs with my engineering research at ITU. It got to be tricky sometimes, nonetheless, I managed and kept pressing.
Meeting Irvin Cemil Schick
While I was in Istanbul, I corresponded with Zakariya Hoca by email. In one of these emails, he said that I should meet a friend of his İrvin Cemil Schick. I agreed, and Zakariya informed Irvin and put in a good word for me; he also gave me Irvin’s contact information. I contacted Irvin and set up a meeting. It was a small world indeed: Irvin lived about a block away from my office at Istanbul Technical University. His apartment was halve way between İTÜ Makina Fakültesi and Taksim.
İrvin Cemil Schick is a Turkish intellectual with a wide range of interests and publications. He is a prolific writer and speaker on topics such as Islamic Art, Intellectual History, Social History, Islamic Calligraphy, Ottoman Culture, Gender and Sufism, and other. (I am sure I am forgetting other areas of his interest/expertise). He grew up in Istanbul and was educated in the US. His academic training includes a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, an M.S. in Chemical Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics/Statistics, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has taught at MIT, Harvard University and İstanbul Şehir Üniversitesi. He is the author or editor of many books: Avrupali Esireler ve Müslüman Efendileri (2015), Calligraphy and Architecture in the Muslim World (2014), Murakka’-i Has (2009), Eternal letters from the Abdul Rahman Al Owais, Collection of Islamic Calligraphy (2009), Women in the Ottoman Balkans: Gender, Culture and History (2007), among others. Irvin translated several of Derman’s books to English. He also translated Mehmed Özçay’s book Light of My Eye from Turkish to English. Irvin spends his time between Boston and Istanbul.
In addition to all that, Irvin is a gentleman, very down to earth and generous. We became instant friends. We would meet for hours over extended breakfasts and talk about calligraphy and other interesting topics. He knew many good restaurants in Istanbul. He took me to some interesting events in the city: private art auctions, art dealers, calligraphy exhibits, etc. If it was not for Irvin, I would have never knew about these, and I would never have never has access to some of them. I enjoyed my meetings with Irvin and learned a lot from him.
Another Year in Istanbul!
Before I went in my sabbatical, I had applied for a Fulbright Scholar Award. The award is a grant that allows university professors to spend an academic year at a foreign institution collaborating on teaching and/or scientific research. The purpose of the award is to increase understanding and friendship between the US and other nations around the world through academic exchange. This prestigious award is administered by the US State Department, and the selection of awardees is made by a presidentially appointed board responsible to the Congress. A Fulbright Scholar is treated as a diplomat in many ways. Many of the people who had won this award went on to become very well-know; for example 43 of Fulbright awardees won Nobel Prizes. I got it! (Wish me luck with Nobel Prize….) The good news came when I was on my sabbatical in Istanbul. What this meant was that I could stay another year in Istanbul, and polish my calligraphy skills a little more. Because of the prestige of the Fulbright, my home institution University of Detroit Mercy agreed to extend my absence for another year. It was a dream come true.
I kept pushing with my training. With my corrected and relatively error-free works, I decided to produce finished pieces. I managed to get a few done on ahar paper. I took some to Hikmet Barutçugil- a famous master of ebru- to glue them on backing board and put some of his ebru paper as boarders around them. Hikmet Hoca produces ebru and gives lessons in his large studio, which he named Ebrustan. It is located in İhsaniye, which is about forty to fifty minute walk uphill from Üsküdar. I also took few to Özkan Tiryaki in Ümraniye to glue backing board and Indian paper, in order to get the works ready for tazhip. There was enough works to hold a solo exhibit at Süleyman Demirel Cultural Center, İTÜ AYAZAĞA, Istanbul. My exhibit was named “Spiritual Geometry: Modern and Classical Works from Michigan and Istanbul Collections,” (Ruhani Geometri: Modern ve Klasik Hat Sanatı Sergisi, Michigan ve İstanbul), and it took place during the month of February 2015.
My practice continued and I tried to absorb all the knowledge I could from my two teachers. I would often visit my very first teacher Hasan Çelebi to get his blessing during his lesson in Üsküdar on Saturday afternoon. His top students conducted the class for the most part. He would critique works of calligraphers who presented their work to get his opinion. He was impressed with my progress, and allow me to correct for some of his student, which is a big honor and recognition of what I had achieved.
I would take a day or two half days in the weekends to visit the sights of Istanbul with my family and experience the city as a visitor (enjoy the culture and the food). I did not have time to study Turkish, but gained some vocabulary and simple phrases. Sometimes I could get by; sometimes I could not.
Coming Home to Farmington Hills
My time in Istanbul was intense and eventful. In June of 2015, it was time to come home to Farmington Hills, Michigan. Since my return, I visited Istanbul a couple of times and kept up with my teachers there; and I will continue. I now have few students and can experience the calligraphy learning process from the other side. I sometimes draw on my long experience as a student to put myself in their shoes and be a good teacher. I also draw on engineering education pedagogy that I think enhances my calligraphy teaching and benefits my students.
I have had a few calligraphy jobs, since my return. Recently, I refinished my good-size basement and I have been using it as an office/studio where I practice and produce my new works. I am thinking of having a home gallery also in the basement. I noticed that my calligraphy production in Istanbul is typically better-quality than my production at my homestead! There is something in Istanbul that is good for calligraphy. Çelebi says calligraphy is in the air and in the water of Istanbul. After recovering from my long stay in Istanbul, I started itching to go back for the sake of absorbing some more calligraphy knowledge.
Leaving a Mark in Istanbul
Just before I departed Istanbul, I had visited the Rector of Istanbul Technical University Prof. Mehmet Karaca to thank him and to say goodbye. The Rector had opened my exhibit at ITU few months earlier. In that exhibit, there were few reproductions of some of my modern designs in the free form that I have described above. These few designs were very well-received; the Rector and his Art Commission liked them very much. I thought I would propose an idea that came to mind, and see if the Rector would like it. This was especially timely, since the Rector initiated a campaign to beautify ITU’s campus. I proposed that some of my modern two-dimensional calligraphy designs be converted to three-dimensional sculptures and installed in ITU’s campus. The Rector liked the idea and he said he would act on it. So I thanked him, left him some of my modern designs in the form of note cards and prints on paper and said goodbye. I thought to myself that the Rector was too busy with a horrendous number of commitments. İTÜ is the largest university in Turkey (32,000 students). It is among the top 3 Turkish universities from about 130. I figured that the Rector simply would not have time to pursue my proposed art project.
Alas, few months after my return, I received an email from the head of the Art Commission at ITU, Prof. Telem GÖK SADIKOĞLU saying that the work for producing a sculpture based on my idea had started and progress had been made. Specifically, ITU selected my modern design of the word ‘Pen’ to turn into a sculpture for their AYAZAĞA Campus. Telem Hoca actually shared with me some three-dimensional mockups/concepts of the sculpture. ITU had hired Mehmet Erkök, a sculptor and instructor at ITU’s Department of Industrial Design, Faculty of Architecture, to design and produce the sculpture. He made a large base for the ‘Pen’. The base had a couple of sculptural elements pertaining to ITU’s 250th anniversary (ITU was established in 1772.) The sculpture was installed in June of 2016, and it now welcomes ITU’s students, academicians and visitors at the Arı Gate of ITU’s AYAZAĞA Campus. An article with a photograph of the sculpture can be viewed at
© N. Dukhan 2017