Art and passion: Creative secrets of the Kiswa calligrapher

Time: 30 July, 2020

Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years.  (Supplied/ Reuters)
  • Mokhtar Alim Shokder tells Arab News about his remarkable journey and influences

RIYADH: With a steady and sturdy hand, a calligrapher’s passion and commitment to the art of the written word can be displayed through various mediums, but none more honorable than displaying that passion on the Holy Kaaba’s Kiswa (curtain).

Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years, which landed him the prestigious and honorable position he is in today.

As a third-grader, he joined a three-month calligraphy course during the summer of 1977 held in Makkah’s Grand Mosque. At the outset, he showed extraordinary skills, which impressed his teachers, and he was made a calligraphy teacher the following year.

With practice and determination, Shokder fell more in love with calligraphy and felt happier when his skills improved.

“I would practice for long hours each day because I loved Arabic calligraphy. My classmates would come and ask for tips on how to improve their handwriting,” he recalled. “I felt overjoyed, with a strong drive to perfect my skills. My colleagues and I would spend long hours training nonstop, with full focus on the tasks at hand to perfect our work.”


Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years.
(Supplied/ Reuters)

His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of “hooks” on the ends of ascending and descending strokes, considered to be one of the earliest forms of Islamic calligraphy and which is used in the Holy Qur’an. However, he uses the Thuluth font more often, because it allows for curved and oblique lines and slopes, and is used for writing on the Kiswa.

Shokder said that Kiswa writing methods had developed immensely, noting that the calligraphy takes a lot of time and requires patience and precision.

He was influenced by several calligraphers, especially the 19th-century Ottoman calligrapher Sami Efendi, whose works were prominent during his time for its attractive design for vowel signs, decorations, and numbers. Heavily influenced by his work, Shokder was impressed the first time he saw one of Efendi’s works, calling him a role model for all calligraphers.

After teaching calligraphy for several years at the Grand Mosque, he enrolled at Umm Al-Qura University’s Art Education Department in 1989 to hone his skills. He said he benefited most from Muhammad Hassan Abu Al-Khair, a professor at the department and a famous calligrapher known to participate in several competitions and exhibitions.

FASTFACTS

  • As a third-grader, Mokhtar Alim Shokder joined a short course during the summer of 1977 held in Makkah’s Grand Mosque. His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of ‘hooks’ on the ends of ascending and descending strokes.
  • Due to his extraordinary skills, he was made a calligraphy teacher the following year.
  • After teaching calligraphy for several years at the Grand Mosque, he enrolled at Umm Al-Qura University’s Art Education Department in 1989 to hone his skills.
  • His preferred type of font is Naskh, a sans-serif script that is characterized by the lack of ‘hooks’ on the ends of ascending and descending strokes.
  • However, he uses the Thuluth font more often, because it allows for curved and oblique lines and slopes, and is used for writing on the Kiswa.

“The artistic works need a lot of patience and precision. For example, to write five words using calligraphy can take you two to three months and sometimes longer,” said Shokder. “It is the execution of the work that takes a long time. Some people think that such an artwork that has three words can take an hour but this is not true.”

According to Shokder, calligraphers will spend long hours working and have to bear the pressure associated with executing such works, to hone and perfect skills with years of practice and training.

In 2003, he was appointed the sole calligrapher for the Kiswa, a position his father saw in a dream, a moment he cherishes deeply. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life and a great blessing from God, for which I will always be indebted. My father’s dream came true,” he said.

The methods of writing on the Kiswa have developed over the years. The late calligrapher Abdulraheem Ameen Bokhari, Shokder’s predecessor, used chalk to write the script on the silk cloth. In later years, silk-screen printing was introduced which allows the calligrapher to save the script and preserve it on a computer, a method which allowed the Kiswa’s calligrapher to improve the script.


Mokhtar Alim Shokder, a calligrapher at the Kiswa Factory of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah, fell in love with calligraphy at a young age and developed his skill over the years.
(Supplied/ Reuters)

“In older times, ink was used to write the words on papers, then the edges of the letters would be punched with a needle, the papers would be placed on a black fabric, the surface of which would be used for writing,” said Shokder. “Later, a transparent bag made of cloth would be filled with white powder that would be used together with the papers to punch letters on. An embroiderer would use a thread to identify the outside edges of each letter then start his process of embellishing.”

Shokder noted that the process of developing the writing methods was only approved after thorough studies had been conducted on the methods.

Writing on the Kiswa requires strong skills and long hours of training to master the skill. Another challenging part of his job would be the compound and overlapping texts, which require the calligrapher to try several times before reaching the desired outcome, which should be beautiful and with the logical order of words and combine all the elements of the art.

This article was first published in Arab News

If you want more interesting news or videos of this website click on this link  Arab News Home

Arab nations cannot afford to ignore the rise of women’s football

Time: 29 July, 2020

The women’s game in the region cannot afford to fall behind much longer. (FILE/AFP)
  • The 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is unlikely to see any teams from West Asia
  • The desire to accelerate the progress of women’s football can be seen across grass roots level

DUBAI: On Sept. 25, 2005, a football match that few people will remember or even have heard of, took place in Amman, with hosts Jordan comfortably thrashing an overwhelmed Bahrain 9-0.

But the result mattered little. This was a football match with a difference for the beaten team; it was the first time that Bahrain’s national women’s team – established in 2003 – had taken to a football field.

Women’s football had taken its first, small step in the GCC. It was only a matter of time before Gulf nations would follow other more established football neighbors like Jordan and Egypt in developing the women’s game.

But while Bahrain and UAE have followed in those footsteps, things haven’t exactly progressed elsewhere.

Fifteen years on, a revolution is taking place in women’s football. But it’s a revolution that seems to be going under the radar in the majority of the GCC, Arab countries and the Middle East at large.

On June 25, 2020, the announcement that Australia and New Zealand will co-host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was warmly welcomed across the globe. More than a month on, the news has barely made any waves in the region, especially considering one of the co-hosts, Australia, is a fellow Asian Football Federation (AFC) member state.

The 2023 World Cup will also see the number of participating nations expanded from 24 to 32, in line with the men’s competition, though the extra qualifying opportunities are unlikely to vastly improve the chances of Arab nations.

Across Asia, teams like Japan and China, as well as North Korea and South Korea, have for long been powerhouses in the women’s game, and now Vietnam, Thailand and Uzbekistan are increasingly looking to close the gap on the heavyweights of Europe and the Americas as well. For now, the West Asian region is being left further behind.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the women’s game has not captured the imagination, or even mere attention, of the regional public. No Arab nation has ever taken part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1988, and only a few ever make the AFC Asian Cup. Women’s football, for long a traditional taboo, remains a novelty even in these days of cultural progress. That remains the case beyond this region.

At the same time, any criticism for lack of the progress of the women’s game must come with acknowledgement of the socio-political environment, and hardships, that prevail in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. In many cases, football and sports in general, for men as much as women, are fraught with political and cultural obstacles which render them of secondary concerns.

But perhaps that is as good a reason as any to ensure the current rise of women’s football does not become the latest wasted opportunity; it’s not just the sporting aspect of women’s game that female athletes would be missing out on.

In recent years, women’s football has become a driving force for equal rights in sports, and beyond, something many regional nations are striving to put right.

In particular, the 2019 World Cup in France was a revelation, a true game-changer for the women’s game at so many levels. There were record attendances and worldwide record television audiences and perhaps for the first time ever, the tournament was enjoyed without the usual, stereotypical caveats.

Even the previous World Cup, in Canada in 2015, had seen major steps taken in the women’s game, with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) as ever, leading the way.

American captain and star of the last year’s World Cup, Megan Rapinoe, has for one transcended the sport to become a role model for aspiring female athletes and one of football’s most vocal advocates for women’s empowerment.

Ahead of winning the 2023 bid, Australia’s women’s team, the Westfield Matildas, took on Football Federation Australia and Fifa to achieve equal pay with their male counterparts. On Nov. 6, 2019 they won their case and the next World Cup will now stand as a beacon of gender equality and non-discrimination for female footballers.

It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect such giant steps to take place across nations were women’s football remains embryonic, and nor is there is a complete lack of interest by West Asian federations in promoting the game in countries like UAE, Jordan and Bahrain, and with Saudi Arabia indicating huge leaps in the coming years too.

Jordan remains the highest women’s FIFA-ranked Arab nation at 58, and thanks to the work of former FIFA Vice President Prince Ali bin Hussein and the Jordan Football Association, the team has won several regional tournaments and competed at continental level. And in captain Stephanie Al Naber, who had a spell playing at Danish club Fortuna Hjørring 10 years ago, they have a role model that young Jordanian footballers can aspire to emulate.

In 2018, the Women’s Asian Cup was held at Amman International Stadium and King Abdullah II Stadium in the Jordanian capital, two years after the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup had been a success. Jordan, as hosts, were the only Arab representatives in either competition.

In the UAE, a program of training for talented young Emirati girls over the last decade has raised the profile of the women’s national team, with age group selections taking part in invitational tournaments in Asia and Europe.

Having established a women’s team in 2004, a year after Bahrain, the UAE won the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF) Women’s Championship in 2010 and 2011, albeit with a team of mostly nationalised foreign players. Last year in Bahrain, fielding a team of Emirati players, the UAE finished fourth.

The desire to accelerate the progress of women’s football can be seen across grass roots level as well.

The UAE Football Association (UAE FA) has provided significant funding for the national team programs, as well as the seven-team domestic league, with Houriya Al Taheri – coach and technical director with the UAE FA – and Omar Al Duri, formerly a coach with Ghana’s World Cup squad, exerting a positive influence on a team now ranked 97 in the world, 13 behind Bahrain at 84.

In Saudi Arabia, Saja Kamal, a footballer with a massive online following has been leading a campaign to establish a senior national team in the Kingdom, and like Naber and Al Taheri, is a role model in her own right.

Women were only allowed into Saudi football stadiums as recently as 2017, but progress has accelerated in recent times. Earlier this year, an official women’s league was launched in the Kingdom that aims to encourage participation at grassroots and community level.

The 2023 World Cup may come too soon to see an Arab team taking part in Australia and New Zealand. But it should be seen as an unmissable opportunity to learn the lessons that other nations have taken on board, and plan ahead.

Perhaps regional countries could follow suit and co-host international tournaments. That would easily be within the capabilities of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Staging such competitions would indicate a commitment to the women’s game and to gender equality. Above all, it will bring the game closer to young female football fans.

The women’s game in the region cannot afford to fall behind much longer.

This article was first published in Arab News

If you want more interesting news or videos of this website click on this link  Arab News Home