My Story: Becoming a Calligrapher

“Let us offer you a deal.” Those words, spoken to me by Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, would change my life — and bring me eventually into the company of M. Ugur Derman. It was January 1984, a cold winter day. We were in Ihsanoglu’s sedately ornate office in the Yildiz Sarayi in Istanbul. Across from me was Hasan Celebi, successor to the great Hamid Aytac and the leading calligrapher in Turkey — by extension, in the entire Islamic world.


“Let us offer you a deal,” Ihsanoglu repeated in his impeccable diplomat’s English. “In order to make progress in calligraphy, you must give up all you have learned and learn everything again from the beginning, from your hoca, who will be Hasan Celebi. If you accept, we will help you.”


Years of searching and self-instruction had landed me in this place, among these people here at the Research Center for Islamic Art, History, and Culture (IRCICA). I had reached a crisis in my art: I could make no progress. I had run into a barrier — calligrapher’s block, if you will. But now what was I to do? It seemed a bit insulting to be faced with such a choice at the age of 44. I could politely decline, walk away with my pride intact, and go see the sights of Istanbul. Or I could ignore my pride, roll up my sleeves, and begin.


Twenty-three Years Earlier

In 1961 I had just returned to Los Angeles from my first trip to Morocco. I was a cocky young machinist, itching to get on with life. I resumed my job in one of the small rag-tag factories that served the growing Southern California aerospace industry, but I wanted more. Morocco had opened my eyes to a different world — a new language, a new culture, a new religion. I began teaching myself Arabic and converted to Islam.


One afternoon, walking along Santa Monica’s Wilshire Boulevard, I happened to look into the window of the local Oriental rug dealer. What I saw framed on the wall pulled me into the shop. “What is it?” I asked the Armenian shopkeeper. “It’s a piece of Muslim calligraphy,” he replied, “but it’s too expensive for you, kid!”


Thinking, “If I can’t buy it, I can make it,” I went to the local library and began to track down works of calligraphy to admire and try to copy. Primarily, I found black-and-white photographs of Kufi Kurans, ancient manuscript pages, and lines from firmans. I even bought an incomplete 19th-century Persian Kuran from an Iranian antique dealer. I cut lengths of bamboo into what I thought a calligrapher’s pen would look like, tried all the different inks I could find, and used every conceivable type of paper. Discovering how difficult it was to copy from these examples made me try all the harder, made me want more than anything else to write calligraphy, to become a calligrapher.


I made my first levhas that year and gave them to friends and to my mosque. They must have been outrageously bad. I knew no one remotely qualified to offer constructive criticism. The only pieces of Islamic calligraphy I could actually handle were works brought from China by my friend Suleiman Ma, who fled the mainland at the time of the Communist takeover. These were elegant pieces, but their dry, airy brushwork was not what I was after. I wanted the magnificent solid and electric line of the classical thing.


By 1964 I had saved up enough to go overseas again, and I spent the next two years moving between Morocco and England. In Morocco I studied Arabic, art, and religion on my own in mosques and libraries; in England I studied calligraphy from ancient works in the British Museum, scratching a living by restoring houses and performing on stage with a comedy group called Bruce Lacey and the Alberts. A.S. Ali Nour, an Egyptian artist I had met in Morocco, was then working for the B.B.C. in London. He had been introduced to Islamic calligraphy in Egypt and showed me how to use the classical Arabic sources to research the history and lore of calligraphy.

Back in Los Angeles, I went to work for an art dealer, restoring original antiques and crafting a collection of Age-of-Enlightenment-style bibelots, sundials, and scientific instruments. In my spare time, I immersed myself in the little-known literature of Islamic calligraphy, basing my writing on the method of the 11th-century Baghdad master Ibnul-Bawwab and his Mamluk disciples. I developed my skills in gilding and illuminating and began experimenting with paper coatings, burnishing, lamination, adhesives, inks, colors, and marbling.


My work was progressing — I was even making money at it — but by 1980, I began to sense an obstacle to further progress. Dr. Esin Atil, then curator of Islamic art at the Freer Gallery in Washington, suggested I seek renewal in Turkey, the heartland of calligraphy. She told me about the newly founded IRCICA and introduced me to its head, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who accepted me as a candidate for study. Thus it was that, with some trepidation, I found myself on a flight to Istanbul in late December 1983.

Starting Over

“In order to make progress in calligraphy, you must give up all that you have learned and learn everything again from the beginning, from your hoca, who will be Hasan Celebi. If you accept, we will help you.”


We shook on it, and that afternoon I took my first ferry ride to Uskudar and walked up the Baglarbasi Road to Kurucesme and the Selam-i Ali Cami, where Celebi was the imam. The interior of the mosque is a marvel, a fantasia in calligraphy. Every interior space is strategically adorned with Celebi’s writing and decorated with the work of a good nakkas. Great works of Celi Divani sail across the walls, large levhas of Celi Sulus hang between faux marble panels and faux porphyry columns. Kusaks of Celi Sulus articulate the upper walls and kasnaks encircle the dome drums — all in surprising colors, all supporting and playing off the architecture. This interplay of architecture and calligraphy was exciting to see, and I knew then that I would be working with a real master.


Following prayer, Hasan Celebi gave me the basic tools of the trade — two reed pens, paper, and an inkwell with ink and lika — and the lesson began. The teaching process goes back to at least the 11th century, and its conditions and techniques are observed to this day among the Turkish hattats. The hoca sits with the student standing or sitting next to him to get a clear view of his hand. The hoca then writes the mesk — usually, two lines of Sulus with two lines of Nesih between them — in plain view. The student concentrates on every aspect of the master’s technique, takes the mesk home and practices writing and rewriting it, then takes his work to the hoca for correction. Using red ink, the hoca goes over the student’s work, writing the letters as they should be done (cikartma) and marking things to note. This process derives from the classical Islamic study pattern taklid, in which the student follows and copies a known master of a subject until the master signifies the student’s ability and competence to proceed on his own. The master indicates this by granting his icazet, or permission, which allows the student to work alone. In Turkey, the icazet is granted as a document called an icazetname, usually a beautifully illuminated levha. Receiving it is a great honor, a milestone in one’s career, but it is only the beginning of becoming a calligrapher.


That January day, my icazet was a far-off dream. Normally, calligraphy students go to their teachers once a week, taking two to five years to master the material. But with only one month in Istanbul, I went every afternoon to Celebi and practiced far into the night and every morning; it was agreed that I would continue my lessons by mail after I returned to the United States. All our communication was in Arabic, as my spoken Turkish was virtually nonexistent, as was Celebi’s English. My first lessons had so many red correction marks on them Celebi joked, “It looks as if your mesk has chicken pox!” Still, it was a time of intense study and concentration, and I found it immensely satisfying. As the Turks say, Ask olmayinca, mesk olmaz. It is also said that for a student of hat, this is the most peaceful time of life, and I found that to be true. The pressure is to assimilate knowledge and action, not to perform.


As I watched Celebi at work, I was surprised to see how slowly he moved his pen and what a loud screeching sound it made. I realized that I had to concentrate intensely on the exact movement of his pen. Part of the success of calligraphy lies in making letters consistently the same size and shape. By watching the letters come into being under Celebi’s pen, I began to understand what they should look like and how big they should be. Then, comparing my attempts to his, I was gradually able to bring elements of beauty and order to my previously chaotic work.

The Traditional Course of Study

I began, as calligraphy students traditionally begin, with Sulus and Nesih, two of the famous Six Scripts originally formulated by the Abbasid masters in Baghdad, Ibnul-Bawwab and Yakut-i Mustasimi. The six are usually paired: Muhakkak and Rayhani, Sulus and Nesih, Tevki and Rika. Sulus and Nesih were the Ottoman scripts par excellence. Nesih — a small script used for texts, most famously for Kurans — is roughly one-third the size of Sulus, which has a more monumental and spectacular character. Both scripts have real presence and artistic power. Both are suffused with subtleties that baffle the beginner. The experienced seek these subtleties — they make the difference between old work and new, between Ottoman and non-Ottoman work, between poor work, good work, and great work. The two scripts are theme and countertheme; that is why they are taught together and often used together to write murakkaa albums. Sulus also has a celi form that is based on normal Sulus and studied after the student has learned the basic script. Celi Sulus can be written straight, in lines (duz), or stacked and interlaced (istifli) into rectangular, circular, oval, or even pear-shape or teardrop configurations.


The first half of a course in calligraphy is called the mufredat (units or simple shapes) and normally includes from 15 to 20 lessons. The first lesson begins with a famous prayer for success: “Lord, make it easy and not difficult. Lord, make it result in good.” (In Nesih, a besmele is sometimes used in place of this sentence.) This is followed by the individual letter shapes and their variations. After these, the student works on pairs of letters, beginning with B: B + elif, B + B, B + C, B + D, and so on throughout the alphabet. These are the building blocks of calligraphy, which will eventually allow the student to write spontaneously, as though “sight reading.”


The first four or five of these lessons are usually the hardest and may take many, many repetitions, even years. Once the student has passed the mufredat, he begins on the murekkebat — lessons in which the mufredat are used in sentences, such as poems, odes, or sayings of the Prophet. At this point, the student begins copying a work by an old master, which may have many pages, called kit’as. This method is the only one to have proved itself over the centuries. There are no shortcuts to good calligraphy.

If all goes well, a warm relationship develops between hoca and student. The master accepts no payment and gives no grades; the student continues until he passes, quits, or dies. The hoca looks out for the student’s interests and needs in his art, introducing the student to the great calligraphers and their works and initiating him into the calligrapher’s tradition. In my case, Celebi took me to mosques, graveyards, and other sites where there were inscriptions by great artists. Knowing my interest in the religion, he took pains to present information from that standpoint.


The student’s goal, of course, is to be able to reproduce the teacher’s examples as closely as possible and eventually to compose one’s own works — even, ultimately, to develop a recognizable style. Once the student receives the icazet, he can sign his own name on his work using a traditional Arabic phrase, as in ketebehu Celebi (Celebi wrote it).


Meeting Ugur Derman

My time in Istanbul was to be even more intense and eventful than I had imagined. In addition to my lessons with Celebi, I was also beginning lessons in Talik, which I studied with Dr. Ali Alparslan, professor of Persian literature at Istanbul University. Alparslan — a student of the great Necmeddin Okyay — was then last living calligrapher in the 1955 book Son Hattatlar. My days were crammed with lessons and practice, but one day I was surprised to receive an invitation to meet M. Ugur Derman at IRCICA.


Derman was almost a mythological being to me, author of the most awesome works on Islamic calligraphy and the world’s leading authority on the topic. I especially treasured volumes 1 and 2 of Kalem Guzeli, his redaction of Mahmud Yazir’s immortal tour through the history of the art. How could I meet and converse with such a towering figure — especially given my pathetic Turkish?


I need not have worried. When Celebi and I met with Derman in Ihsanoglu’s office, we felt immediately at ease, despite the language problem. Derman showed us a rare murakkaa album (the first I had ever seen) by Sevki Efendi, which consisted of a hilye in four kit’as. The album took my breath way and I exclaimed, “Mudhish!” In Arabic, the word means “surprising” and “marvelous,” but in Turkish, it carries a meaning somewhere between “extraordinary” and “terrible” or “fearsome.” My choice of words struck us all as hilarious, and my Turkish friends still joke with me about it.


Oddly, though, my malapropism got us off to a good start. Derman showed us the mock-ups of his masterpiece-to-be, The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage. I said I would redouble my efforts to improve my Turkish so I could put this great work into English, but a translator had already been engaged.


That short month was my introduction to the world of Ottoman calligraphy, the city of Istanbul, and the hospitality of Turkish life. I had found myself among a group of learned, cultivated, and serious yet fair, open-minded, and humane people who were willing to share their art and culture with me. It was an overwhelming experience, and I took home with me a renewed sense of commitment and anticipation. Over the next three and a half years, countless mesks moved between Virginia and Istanbul until, in 1987, Celebi said the time to receive the icazet had come. I was to write a hilye-i-saadet and send it to him. If he approved it, it would become my icazetname. This I did, and Celebi then wrote his icazet text (with a little joke in it) and took it to the calligrapher Seyh Bekir Pekten to have him write the tasdik, or confirmation. These two texts appear under the hilye, and the whole was fully illuminated by Celebi’s son Mustafa, one of the modern masters of tezhib, the art of manuscript illumination.


I saw my IRCICA friends again in April 1998, when some 70 Islamic calligraphers took advantage of one of Saddam Hussein’s propaganda galas and met in Baghdad for a week of seminars and exhibitions. The political overtones of this oddly named “Festival of Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Decoration” were impossible to mistake, and it was wrenching to see Iraqis living under such cruel totalitarianism. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity to meet calligraphers from around the world.


Ugur Derman, Hasan Celebi, Ali Alparslan, Huseyin Oksuz, Huseyin Gunduz, Savas Cevik, and Talip Mert were the calligraphers from Turkey; they were accompanied by Mohammed Tamimi of IRCICA and a few journalists. I spent a good deal of time with them, as did my colleague from Japan, Fuad K. Honda, and it gradually began to dawn on me that I was understanding more Turkish than I expected.


Following the conference and a brief trip to Qatar, I met up with Derman and Celebi again in Istanbul for my icazet ceremony, which was held at the Cit Kasr of the Yildiz Sarayi under the auspices of IRCICA. Then it was home again to renew my study of Ottoman and modern Turkish and continue my study of calligraphy.


Over the next nine years, I made three more trips to Istanbul, and in 1994, I was given the task of re-translating Derman’s Art of Calligraphy, which IRCICA published in 1998. When that collaboration was done, Derman suggested I translate his catalogue for the Sakip Sabanci collection, Letters In Gold, which was to be shown in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.


Derman came to New York for the opening of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and my wife and I had the good fortune of having him as our guest for a week that summer — and of introducing him to American beefsteak tomatoes. He still asks me regularly, “How are the beefsteaks?” And he still asks after the squirrels I’ve taken to feeding on my daily walks, on which he accompanied me that week.


Derman has his icazet in Talik from Necmeddin but does not practice the art. Nevertheless, he retains the hand and eye of a professional, and I was able to watch him work and learn from his skill and taste. This was especially fruitful in one particular case. I had a contract to produce an inscription in Ottoman for the banners that would be displayed when the Sabanci exhibition opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ugur Bey suggested we work together on the job and produce an authentically Ottoman inscription. His ingenious idea was to use an inscription by Sami Efendi in Celi Talik in addition to my composition and, by judicious cutting and pasting, arrive at an entirely new piece by the great master. This was a very important experiment for me, as it gave me an opportunity to observe hands on, as it were, the spacing and placement of the letters. The result was splendid, but the designers decided in the end to use only my circular composition in Celi Sulus.

The Triumph of the Ottomans

For the past decade, I have had my own private students. Seeing the teaching process from the other side has made me realize how important it is for the hoca to help the student learn to recognize and, ultimately, to create calligraphy that is truly effective. The Muslim world today positively bristles with calligraphy, from signs to magazine covers to television titles, and most of it is flat and lifeless. The Ottomans taught calligraphy as art, and as art, it “worked.” Non-Ottoman calligraphy, in my opinion, doesn’t work as well; bad calligraphy doesn’t work at all. In Western and Far Eastern calligraphy alike, there are many successful practitioners, but the Islamic world has relatively few. To thrive, calligraphy needs to exist in an environment that can both understand it and criticize it. The environment must also appreciate and support calligraphy if artists are to have an incentive to make it their life’s work.


The true triumph of Islamic calligraphy was arguably in the Ottoman period, but it is instructive to study pre-Ottoman work as well, to understand the evolution of the art throughout history. Only through knowledge of calligraphy’s origins and development can one understand what Seyh Hamdullah accomplished — that sea change that gave us modern calligraphy. Here, a study of Mahmud Yazir’s Kalem Guzeli is indispensable, if difficult. Not only did Yazir understand the important relationship of the art to religion and culture, but he had a critical understanding of its aesthetics as well. “The line must have a breath-like flow,” he wrote. Before Seyh Hamdullah, that flow is not evident; after him, it is more and more apparent until its culmination in the last century of the empire. I first noticed this flow in a large hilye by Fehmi Efendi in the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., where it is no longer on public display. At the time, I had no words to describe the effect, yet I found it boundlessly exciting, even electrifying. It was belagat (eloquence) made visible.


Recently, a colleague who works in the field of Arabic studies experienced the same effect when she went to see a large exhibition of Ottoman royal artifacts. The collection didn’t much impress her, she told me, until she found herself in front of a huge Baroque-style hilye by Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi. The work seemed to draw her like a magnet. She had never heard of a hilye, but when she read it, she felt in awe of the text and the art, almost as if transposed to a clearer state of perception. Such a work never tires the viewer; the more you look at it, the more you see in it. This is the effect that calligraphers try, not always successfully, to achieve.


It is what I hope for my own work. Along the way, I have learned the rudiments of ebru from Alparslan Babaoglu and paper preparation from Sabahattin Basaran and have developed my own style of tezhib, drawing from my favorite examples of Ottoman Baroque. I find this style, with its rugged vigor, uniquely congenial — perhaps because it has Western origins, like myself, yet is innately Islamic. It is not always what traditionalists expect (or want), but it points the direction I wish to take my own work.


In 1997, I received my icazet for Talik from Ali Alparslan at IRCICA, and I continue to work toward icazets in Celi Sulus and Celi Nestalik. The subtleties in these larger scripts make them difficult to master. The closer I get to them, the more they seem to recede from my grasp. The best works in these scripts exhibit a seamless perfection, an effortlessness that suggests the work is totally organic, that it grew by itself, rather than being the result of conscious hard work. Sometimes I wonder why I pursue such an elusive goal. But I cannot help but go after it, just like that time so long ago in the rug dealer’s store. Sometimes people ask me, “What does it feel like to do such work?” There is no good answer, except awareness of the standards that have been set for the art and the responsibility to be faithful to them. So, rather than think of myself as a calligrapher, I still think of myself as becoming a calligrapher.


Copyright 2000, Mohamed Zakariya. This article appeared in Irvin Cemil Schick, editor. M. Ugur Derman Sixty-Fifth Birthday Festschrift. Istanbul: Sabanci University, 2000.