K

arim Jabbari began practicing calligraphy at the age of twelve. Growing up in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime and seeing his father imprisoned, Jabbari experienced a difficult childhood. Calligraphy became a necessary form of expression for him, allowing him to make sense of the tumultuous world around him and to say what he could not in words. Old Arabic scriptures are featured in his calligraphy as a means to engage with his background and revive dying traditional languages. Jabbari also uses his artistic gift to teach and inspire communities with workshops for children and projects such as the Back to Basics initiative, which focuses on drawing children towards art and away from modern technology. He is also a street graffiti artist, graphic designer and one of the most respected light calligraphy artists in the world. His art graces the walls of many streets in the world, but he finds his origins in his home, Tunisia, and hopes to revive the art of Arabic calligraphy there. Despite his vast worldwide impact, Jabbari still identifies himself simply as a lover of letters, for this love of letters drew him to the art of calligraphy in the first place.

Q: Calligraphy helped you through a difficult childhood. How did your childhood allow you to find calligraphy?

A: That sentence really says it all. I was studying in a school for elite students, and I remember I heard that my father was imprisoned when I was in school. I was studying away from my family. I was very young, 11, when I heard that my father was a political opponent to the president and was [sentenced to] thirteen years in prison. I really felt it when I went back home. I didn’t realize what it was exactly. Day after day, I didn’t see my father and felt very sad. Day after day, I went and sat in the same place where my father used to sit. He has a beautiful couch like this (he points to the Weekend couch) and an amazing library — he loves to read a lot. So I started looking at his books, very old scripture, and the love of letters started when I was very young. It helped me in my childhood. Because of my father, no one was talking to us — we were rejected and like the public enemy in a way. In school, everyone would ask me to write their name, and in a way, calligraphy gave me a life: a social life.

Q: What is the significance of the Arabic language in your calligraphy?

A: I come from Tunisia, so my origins are Arabic. The style of calligraphy I’m using is very old; it’s called Kufic. The idea behind that is to go back in time to when the Arabic language was freshly extracted from a language called the Nabataean. The Nabataean was extracted from the Aramaic, which is known as the mother of all languages. This means that I’m inviting people back in time, to just enjoy our differences and the way we were. I’m telling people all languages come from the same source, so we should have a lot of common ground where we can discuss peacefully. My work is a way for me to say: let’s go back, and let’s discuss. It’s like the delta of a river; when the river gets close to the ocean, it splits. What I’m doing is bringing people back to the source.

Q: What is light calligraphy, and how did you start pursuing it?

A: I was always looking for new ways to incorporate calligraphy, and I saw this technique online called light painting where people use long-exposure photography and use light to create some random shape. What I did is try to apply this to Arabic calligraphy, which means using organized movements of the light and us[ing] light as a pen to write in space. I don’t mostly focus on light calligraphy. I do a lot of street art and social work. It’s hard to put me in a class; I try to be very versatile.

Q: What do you see as the role of videos in developing and showcasing your art?

A: Videos are language nowadays. With the internet and social media, one thing disappeared from our lives, and that’s patience. Making videos is a good way to reach people, and short videos can be very effective.

Q: Can you tell us about your projects, such as Back to Basics and the Streets Urban Festival?

A: Back to Basics is the program I started with, and I’m always trying to keep it alive. It’s actually using art to pull kids away from the destruction of modern technology, which means we do sessions where we read books, screen movies and documentaries and have final discussions. They’re not allowed to bring their phones. You see people who you know are able to make conversations online, but are so shy in real life and can’t make real-life conversations. I’m trying to elevate them and push them to have normal lives, because a life behind screens is not a normal life. Streets Urban Festival is the festival I founded in my hometown, and it’s Tunisia’s biggest street art festival. My upcoming project I’m focusing on is a tour around the world. I’m going to start it hopefully in Australia, where I’m going to look for the history of calligraphy in different countries.

Q: Why is calligraphy important?

A: If you look at calligraphy deeply, it’s a serious matter. The problem nowadays is that we’ve deserted writing. We are typing. Imagine, in one generation or two generations, the art of writing itself will be lost. I’m trying to go around the world and look for these massive calligraphies and learn from them; to show the way people have dedicated their entire lives to learning this beautiful art. It was developed by human beings since the first alphabet we know, which is the cuneiform. Calligraphy and the art of writing were the main mediums to transfer knowledge. Everything we know now was transferred by our ancestors through writing and books. If there was a blackout for three days in a row in America, you’ll see what I’m saying — it’s serious.

Q: How do you think calligraphy and art can help young people?

A: I give workshops, and what I’m trying to teach people is patience and perseverance, because that’s what calligraphy is all about. [Calligraphy is] about repetition and repeating the same gesture over and over again so you learn. These are the two values we need in our lives: if you have patience and perseverance, you will succeed in your life no matter what you do. It took courage for me to make the decision to pursue my art, and at one point I ended up broke, but I persevered. I started as a taxi driver dreaming of doing something, and that’s what I’m doing now, because I had the courage to make decisions in my life.

Q: What would your advice be to young people wanting to pursue calligraphy like you?

A: When I made the decision to [pursue] calligraphy, it was a very, very competitive field. But it’s all about how you can make something different, where you’re the only one who is able to do it. I think we need to be very creative in what we do. We need a lot of patience and hard work. This doesn’t just apply to calligraphy but to the art scene in general. Now, being in the art scene, I can see it from the inside and some of the tools of success are to be very, very creative, to develop something that’s uniquely you, and to work it again and again and again, until people recognize you with your style.

Q: What is your vision for your calligraphy in the future?

A: I’d like to travel the world and share, hoping to ignite somebody’s creativity. All I do is write, all I do is use ink and write, but I hope I can help some people to be creative and inspire them. When you see what’s happening around the world, it doesn’t look good, but I always try to be very positive in my way of thinking. I wake up every morning, saying: that’s a new day, I’m going to make the most of it, I have people around me who love me, and I’m trying to spread this beautiful art. That’s what keeps me going.