The Family Album

Life in Pakistan and England

In our family album, the extended family is gathered for an Eid celebration in Chakwal, Pakistan, somewhere around the year I was born. Later, three sisters dressed in their primary school uniform smile at the photographer. This is the official photo from their time in England. Near the end of the album, two of those sisters, now adults, look out at the grandeur of Toledo, Spain. Our memories, however, are clearer than photos in an album. 

Urdu Calligraphy on Takhtis

One such memory is that of Abidah, our father’s sister, teaching us what she loves most, calligraphy. We are at that age of daydreams and listlessness and silly crushes. But we keep these thoughts to ourselves and sit at a desk in the courtyard with our takhtis, our wooden pallets. We do not use them in school—they are old-fashioned and cumbersome—but Abidah insists on teaching us calligraphy in its purest form.

Reed pens

A Persian Verse from Conference of the Birds

She hands us silk sachets of black powder, as well as brightly colored ink pots. We add a few drops of water to make black ink. Abidah’s delicate fingers shape the reed pen into a flattened nib. Looking at us to make sure we are paying attention, she dips the pen into the ink and masterfully writes a couplet by Attar:

ما شنیده ایم پادشاهی است که او را سیمرغ می‌خوانند\ فرمان او در خاور و باختر جریان دارد.

We have heard that the monarch called Simorgh/Commands the east and the west.

Conference of the Birds by Attar
Conference of the Birds by Attar

We cover the pallets with the copied lines, twisting the reed pens we try to replicate the beauty of the script. Like birds on the horizon, the strange calligraphic forms of Persian characters hover above and below the line, just like Urdu, the language we speak, and Arabic, the language in which we pray.  We are gratified by the beauty of the text, the meaning of the lines. Soon the words will disappear when the takhti is washed clean. To prepare for the next lesson, we will apply a fresh layer of clay and leave it in the sun to dry.

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