Joy in the Alphabet of Life
The alphabet in Urdu, is تَہَجّی, तहज्जी, tahijji. It is an Arabic word. The English word “alphabet” is from the Greek alpha, bēta, and the Latin alphabetum. But what came first, the letters or the words?
In the beginning
Somewhere around the 9th century BCE a group of Phoenicians not interested in traveling around the Mediterranean choose to stay home to make symbols and give them sound. Or maybe the reverse. They decide to collect letters and words. What do the others think of them? Did they resent them luxuriating in symbols that were growing into thought? Or did the magical aura of thought over action give them a power that kept others beholden?
There was calligraphy…and lots of it
For Selma and me, before there was meaning, there was script. And before there was script, there were letters. And hours of stylized lettering. Like many of you, as children we spend hours with calligraphy pens, kalam and takhti practicing the letters in English, Urdu, and Arabic. The beauty of the letters is like the sounds they make. That pure beauty before the arrival of meaning. Like a baby, the carefully crafted letters make me smile.
Calligraphic memories of the alphabet
A fountain pen with a calligraphy nib and a bottle of blue-black Pelikan ink, mummy makes sure we always have a good supply. And then the four-lined writing paper, the kind that accommodates no more than four words per line. But sometimes it isn’t words that we write. Sometimes it is a line of closely linked, a’s, c’s, and q’s.
The c’s look like waves. My waves are like a choppy day on San Francisco Bay. Selma’s are a calm night on the Malaga coast. Our calligraphy predicts our future homes.
Each letter has its place related to lines that have already been drawn. At times, a letter grandstands at the opening of a sentence, and at others it announces the end. Sometimes it must connect with the letters on each side, smoothly, mixing in becoming one of the group. And then there are those that connect awkwardly and prefer their own space, distant from others.
Decades later, Selma combines calligraphy with her art, like the piece below:
Mummy’s handwriting is still meticulous. From her notebooks in college, to the letters she wrote to her family as she sailed from the UK to Pakistan, we see the flourish of an artist, a calligrapher.
Below is a section of her letter. Read more of that letter and her voyage here.
Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art