Since his childhood in Gaza, calligraphy has held a special place in Nihad Dukhan’s heart.
From his self-taught beginnings — participating in competitions with middle school classmates and the development of a unique, modern form — to becoming a master calligrapher, the Detroit Mercy professor of Mechanical Engineering has invested a lifetime in this artform.
It was his love for the Arabic language that helped calligraphy to blossom into his passion.
“That was the beginning,” Dukhan said. “It’s a beautiful language, and its literature and poetry and so forth. That was the first love. And then calligraphy came after.”
His father was the principal of his elementary school in Gaza, and displayed a framed piece of Arabic calligraphy—two lines from the Quran—behind his desk, a memory Dukhan describes on his calligraphic website.
“I would read it and stare at it,” he wrote. He was captivated by it.
“There was something official about it. That is intriguing for a kid,” he said. “If I looked at the title of a book written in some very good calligraphy by some master calligrapher somewhere, for a little kid, that is intimidating, that is official, that is something a kid may aspire to do as good. And the same thing happens with signs for businesses, things like that. I looked at them, they were formal, they were strong, they were powerful, they were something I couldn’t do, but I could aspire to do.”
Before studying to earn his ijazahs, or master of calligraphy degrees, Dukhan was self-taught in the classical form of Arabic calligraphy. Those years, he said, led to bad habits.
“There’s a lot of self-deception in learning calligraphy. You may do something and think that it is correct and wonderful. It is because you are not trained to see the finer details,” Dukhan said. “It is similar to not hearing the half-note on the keys of the piano, for example. And even basic measurements of letters and proportions were wrong when I was self-taught.”
And then he made his own mark on the ancient art form.
“One day in Toledo, Ohio, where I was working on my Ph.D., my free modern form was born, with no intervention from me,” Dukhan said. “Frankly, as if I was witnessing this birth externally. I wrote the word ‘hope.’ The process of making that first word in my modern form was so instantaneous and was unedited. It happened so fast, as if someone else was doing it, not me. This was a very profound experience.”
Dukhan continues to hone his craft by producing commission pieces and speaking engagements. His basement doubles as an at-home studio and gallery, with framed originals of his work adorning the walls. Work that he’s produced has been sold and exhibited in the United States, Europe, Japan, Turkey and throughout the Middle East.
In some cultures, calligraphy is revered for much more than its beauty. The art form closely relates to several cultural aspects and has been passed down for centuries.
Dukhan uses the term “strong calligraphy cultures” to describe the cultural reverence and power of tradition associated with calligraphy.
“Within the Chinese, Arabic and Islamic cultures, the appreciations, love and reverence for calligraphy is not what we have here, for example, in America and Europe,” Dukhan said. “With the Chinese, calligraphy is considered one of the five excellences. It’s not just nice writing, it’s a lot more than that. It is connected to the history, religions, philosophy and taste.
“That explains in part of why calligraphy can go on for such a long time and can be propagated and continued through generations and still being appreciated and highly prized.”
Crossing cultural and language barriers is Dukhan’s goal as a calligrapher. He aims to attract more than an Arab-speaking audience, and he does this through his modern form of calligraphy, which doesn’t follow the rules of traditional Arabic calligraphy.
The use of visual packaging and universal themes are key in appealing to people of all demographics, said Dukhan.
“You have to package it in such a way that other people can appreciate it, because if you just write something, the first reaction you may get from someone who doesn’t know Arabic well is ‘I can’t read this. Forget about it, I’m not interested,’” Dukhan said. “But if you package it visually, you can have a direct, visual impact, so that you can you can captivate interest, aside from knowing the language and what it says. If you can accomplish that initially, without mediation, then you have a chance of explaining the meaning and what it says.”
Dukhan’s website showcases more than 30 pieces of his modern form calligraphy. His design for the word “pen,” he says, “is a graphical shape I wouldn’t have been able to do in the classical forms, but I arrived at in my modern form.”
Dukhan joined the faculty at Detroit Mercy in 2005 and teaches courses in thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics. He has the distinction of being a two-time Fulbright Scholar. He has been asked many times if his calligraphic work intersects with mechanical engineering and the answer is simple: “It doesn’t.”
“There isn’t really a direct relationship that I can think of,” Dukhan said. “Maybe, maybe at the very, very deep subliminal level where art and science come together. But I can’t pinpoint obvious things where I say, ‘Oh, this is common between engineering and the art of Arabic calligraphy.’ But maybe somewhere, deep in the brain, or in the subconscious where art and science converge. I don’t know, maybe there’s a place there.”
Images courtesy of Nihad Dukhan and his calligraphy website.