Bilal al-Zain: Using calligraphy to communicate a message

'Psychologically healing people with art': Lebanese artist Bilal al-Zain hopes to spread positivity with calligraphy
5 min read
24 August, 2018
The New Arab Meets: Calligraphy artist, Bilal al-Zain, who believes in the importance of words and using calligraphy to communicate a message.
Bilal works to change how people around him view calligraphy [Catherine Cartier]
When Bilal al-Zain shares how his interest in calligraphy began, he laughs and recalls a moment of doodling in his eighth-grade history class.

"I wrote the letter 'waw' and coloured it in," he says and snaps his fingers: from this moment, he immersed himself in studying calligraphy, an art rarely taught in Lebanese schools.

Today, Bilal paints walls in Tripoli, Lebanon, his hometown, and designs handmade items. He believes in the importance of words in our lives and strives to use calligraphy to communicate a message, often featuring the words of Arabic speaking musicians and poets.

Bilal studied with a local calligrapher for ten years, until his curiosity extended beyond commercial work.

"Calligraphy is very wide and diverse, and needs time, patience and focus," he says. 

"The most important thing is to train your eye to see what is beautiful."

Despite his studies, he still feels he hasn't given calligraphy enough time and aspires to earn an ijaza, a doctorate-like degree for calligraphy masters, but his options to do so in Tripoli are limited. Although Tripoli used to be home to several master calligraphers, only one or two remain in the city.

Bilal elaborates on another challenge in his field: "In Arabic calligraphy, there are a lot of secrets: in the letters and in writing certain words, and not everyone will give you them."

In Arabic calligraphy, there are a lot of secrets: in the letters and in writing certain words, and not everyone will give you them

He wants to travel outside of Lebanon to see how calligraphy artists work in other parts of the world and mentions eL-Seed, a French-Tunisian calligraffiti artist whose art combines Arabic calligraphy and graffiti.

But Tripoli, his home city, significantly shapes his work. He explains, "Sometimes when you walk at night in various neighbourhoods, there is a sort of spiritual atmosphere. The simplicity allows you to see things in a deeper way and gives beauty to everything you see."

The seaside and old mosques, some of which date back to the 1300s when the Mamluks controlled Tripoli, are his favourite places in the city.

"The feeling of the ancient places helps you to settle inside." Though many of its historical buildings have been damaged by events both natural and man-made, residents are proud of Tripoli's rich heritage, which is also known as "the City of Science and Scholars."

While calligraphy has long covered the walls of mosques and Quranic schools in Tripoli, it also spills out onto the streets.

Read also: The storytellers of Syria: Displaced women keep tradition and history alive with folktales

Bilal, along with other talented local artists, has painted several walls. One features a lyric from the beloved Lebanese singer Fairouz, another includes the words of Elia Abu Madi, a Lebanese poet who immigrated to the United States.

He remarks on the importance of these artists' legacies: "Although many poets, musicians, and authors have died, until now, we continue to seek refuge in their sayings. Imagine their words, beautifully written, and how deeply they can impact you."

The potential impact of words motivates Bilal, an avid reader himself, in his artwork, and he too hopes to leave something behind to inspire others when he is no longer present.

But Bilal believes that one doesn't necessarily need to understand what is written on a piece of artwork to appreciate it.

"It's like I am hearing a song or seeing a drawing. I look at it and I like it, and when I know the meaning, it increases the value even more," he explains.

Bilal showcased cups and mugs engraved with calligraphy in his first exhibition [Catherine Cartier]

Bilal, like many artists in Tripoli, feel that people do not give art the value it deserves, despite the many talented artists from the city.

In the 1970's and 80's, a collective of artists known as "the Group of Ten" held yearly exhibitions, which were widely attended by residents from a range of backgrounds and founded the Lebanese University Faculty of Fine Arts in Tripoli.

Today, Bilal explains that his work is taken for granted, with little consideration for his training or efforts, and that Arabic calligraphy does not have the respect it deserves.

Bilal works to change how people around him view calligraphy: he recently participated in his first exhibition, which featured local artists and their handmade work.

Along with framed calligraphy pieces, Bilal showcased cups and mugs engraved with calligraphy. Through this work, he aims to integrate calligraphy into everyday use.

My role as a calligrapher is to draw words in a way that communicates their message and impact people through my art

Bilal understands his role as a calligrapher as far from commercial and business work.

"My role as a calligrapher is to draw words in a way that communicates their message and impact people through my art."

While his own calligraphy teacher deeply impacted him, he asserts "I consider any person who writes a beautiful word to be inspiring – a person who really loves their work feels that many things around them can be inspiring."

Bilal sees that art has a role in the psychological healing of people, like many other artists in Tripoli.

In 2017, two graffiti artists spelled out salam (peace in Arabic) across the rooftops of two formerly warring neighbourhoods.

Other initiatives have trained young women as graphic designers and introduced youth and former fighters to playback theatre.

He cautions that the impact of art takes time and art alone cannot solve the original problem: people's mindsets must change.

However, he says: "Maybe I can create peace in my place on the street, in a small way."  

Though Bilal has dedicated over half of his life to studying calligraphy, he insists "I know a small amount, and I love to give it when I can."

Catherine Cartier is a researcher who has spent four months investigating the folk narrative traditions of displaced Syrian communities. She is currently based in Tripoli, Lebanon, where she is researching the role of arts in conflict resolution.

Follow her on Twitter: @CatherineCarti5

The New Arab MeetsClick on our Special Contents tab to read more on our ever-growing archive of interviews