In the mid-’80s, in a war bunker in Basra, Iraq, a primary school-aged Wissam Shawkat was falling in love with his art.
Above him, missiles were raining down. The Iran-Iraq war was in full swing, and schoolchildren like Shawkat had to spend weeks at a time under shelters.
But, as is the human way, Shawkat managed. Some might say he thrived. A few weeks earlier, in an art classroom, his teacher had introduced him to the concept of calligraphy: showing the students how to write some letters in chalk – four letters, to be precise. “That was enough for me to be captured all my life by the beauty of letters,” says Shawkat.
As the war worsened, Shawkat’s neighbourhood in Basra cleared out. “There was no one left on our street due to the random bombings – we moved to the north of Iraq to Mosul until the war was over.”
Shawkat’s memories from that time are still strong. He remembers being a 14-year-old working in a sign shop, practicing calligraphy on everything from cloth to marble to gravestones, the latter of which were plentiful due to the ongoing wartime.
But the experience was formative. Shawkat was gaining confidence – plus a neat holiday wage, which he re-invested into buying calligraphy books and tools.
He still tells the story of the day his older brother came back from school, showing him a piece of paper with his name written in different styles. Shawkat was besotted. His father bought his brother a calligraphy book, which his brother one day passed down. It would become a major influence on his future work. “I still have that book to this day,” he says.
As he grew, Shawkat’s path veered slightly. He had to complete compulsory army service, a particularly tough time as Iraq was under embargo and sanctions. Shawkat still found time to do calligraphy work for his army superiors. By the time he finished his service, he went to work as a civil engineer for a small firm. He lasted a week.
“I quit the job. I really hated it – I decided that engineering was not for me.”
Rapidly, he was invited to participate in a calligraphy exhibition in Basra, and took home an award. The work hasn’t stopped since: Shawkat has gone on to exhibit widely, and has regularly been sought-out by brands from Tiffany & Co to Chopard to reimagine English-language logos into Arabic script. Combining the ancient with the modern is a niche skill, but something that has made Shawkat a singular talent across the region.
By 2004, he had created his own style of script, aptly named Al Wissam, bridging together decades of work into a single collection of letters.
“What I wanted to express is that calligraphy should never stop evolving or developing. It’s a big mistake to stand still on the classical scripts we have and continue using only those. After all, classical scripts, at one point of time, were new and modern compared to the ones that came before them.”
Yes, Shawkat bemoans the dwindling number of people practicing Arabic writing skills, but as for calligraphy? He thinks its momentum is only building.
“Arabic calligraphy became more popular – and the number of people who practice it is more than 10 times what was there 20 years ago. Calligraphy is living its golden time now.”