Surat al Ikhlas

“Surat al Ikhlas”

I would like to share a work of calligraphy I made in the winter of 2014. Here I have Surat al Ikhlas in what was intended to be Kufic Arabic script. Kufic, the oldest form of Arabic script that emerged from borrowing elements of the Nabatean and Syriac abjads, traditionally excludes the i’jam. I’jam, the dots that you see on the Arabic letters, is seen in modern Arabic script to help distinguish some consonants from other consonants. I decided to add the i’jam dots, and also softened the traditional Kufic edginess of the letterforms. I suppose we can classify this piece as Kufesque. I composed the entire Sura in a curved manner so it could hang beside a rounded mirror in an aesthetic fashion.

Oh, before I get carried away: Sura is the Arabic word for “chapter”, but specifically refers to a chapter in the Qur’an. Ikhlaṣ is Arabic for “purity” or “sincerity”, and is derived from the root X-L-Ṣ (khaliṣ: sincere, loyal; pure).

Here is the translation and transliteration of Surat al Ikhlas:

“Say, He is G-d. the one (and only) • G-d, the eternal (the absolute) •
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten • And there is none comparable unto Him”
Qul howa Allahu ahad  Allah-us-samad •
Lem yeled, wa lem youled
 • Wa lem yakun lehu kufwan ahad

 I initially sketched this on a notebook during a weekend of my last semester of college. It took me two months to decide to turn the sketch into a proper piece (I was a full time student, and this was but a leisure activity for me). After I turned in my thesis, finished my internship, and graduated, I took another good look at what I created in Arabic, and then decided . . . hey, why not in Hebrew as well?!

Ikhlas b’ivrit, before the gold leaf application

The ontological and concise nature of this Sura is appealing, and not just from an Islamic or a religious perspective. Many monotheists, whether religious, secular, or agnostic, may find the message of this Sura to be one they can relate to.  This Sura is especially relatable to some one of the Jewish faith, as one of the shared foundations between Islam and Judaism is: “Lam yeled wa lem youled”. In other words, our main idea of the nature of Allah/YH*WH (swt) is the same.  For that reason, I decided to work on a Hebrew version of Suratal Ikhlas as a way to bridge the two religions of Islam and Judaism closer together and to promote the fact that humanity lies beneath the same Creator. I found the translation from Arabic to Hebrew, and practiced a bit with composition. I allowed the text to spiral from upper-right corner, inwards, to create a circle.

In geometric symbolism, circles are shapes that mark divinity and absoluteness, while squares symbolize our mortality and the material world, as the four-points of a square symbolise one ending and another beginning (in contrast to the ‘unending’ form of a circle). Next time you find yourself in a mosque or temple/synagogue, look above at the domes, windows, mosaics, and other polygon shapes that dominate the architecture. When you visualise an octagon, you can see how it lies mid-way between a circle and a square. In other words, such polygons lie between this world and the celestial realm.
That is why domes and arches in sacred buildings are often imperfect/angular circles—because of the symbolism associated with polygons as straddling between the material hemisphere and spiritual hemisphere. To learn more about sacred geometry and mathematical elements found in nature, I highly recommend The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation, and Cognition by William Mitchell.

I also found the extremely different forms of the two scripts quite fun to play with — Arabic is a very linear script, whilst Hebrew is very squarish and blocky. So, I thought it would be an additionally interesting contrast to have the blocky forms of Hebrew composed in a round layout, as I already had the Arabic version in a curved layout. 
The Names of G-D

The words “Elohim” (later changed to “Eloqim”, upon the request of my Sephardic friend*), and “YH*WH” (occurring twice) in this draft were inked with gold leaf. The “-im” suffix of Eloqim is the plural form of Eloh (Eloh=Allah). However, do remember that the “-im” suggests the Royal We of the Divine, and not the idea that G-D is in multiple parts.

One last thing to point out, is that Allah, Arabic for “G-d”, can be rendered as YH*WH (in Hebrew) when flipped upside down. If you are familiar with both Arabic and Hebrew scripts (btw that makes you awesome), I encourage you to use your imagination. Start with the lower-right corner YH*WH. Since the spiral makes the Hebrew script on that side upside-down, you can easily see how the Hebrew YH*WH can be read as “Allah” in Arabic (the ה read upside down form the letters ا and ل in Arabic). Basically, we tweeked the Hebrew letterforms just a bit, so that when flipped upside down, it resembles the Arabic letterform for Allah. The bar at the top of the ה  was stretched out so that it could resemble the linked letters of the word الله.

Indeed we are all one, under the same One Creator, whether Allah or YH*WH. To be able to write His name once, in a way that is legible in two languages, is reflective of that unifying view.

Although the calligraphy designs are my own work, I cannot take credit for Allah-YH*WH being shown in such a unifying way. Years ago, I found an old kabbalah article online that dissected the word YH*WH and discussed the symbolic attributes of the letters. Then there was an image shown with the word “Allah” beside YH*WH to show how similar the forms are. I tried finding the creative mind who came up with this, but it didn’t look like he was even credited in the article. If I ever find this person, I will link them on this post 🙂 Also, the final version of the Hebrew calligraphy piece in blue ink is no longer in my possession (it was a gift to said Sephardic friend), but I hope to remake a similar one soon.


Foot Notes:
*     Many conservative Jewish people refrain from writing our G-D’s name or having His name (his? its?) in written form in their homes.

Materials Used: Winsor and Newton acrylic ink, applied with rusty calligraphy pens on Bristol paper.




Sana’a: The Capital City of Yemen.

In this post, I introduce my first art piece of 2018, in which I combine lettering and illustration. The concept of the lettering was to have Sana’a written in four different scripts: Sabaean, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac. Those languages fall into the Semitic branch of languages, have similar origins, as well as some shared vocabulary, yet each claims its own alphabetical system. The concept of the illustration was to have the multi-lingual lettering mimic the appearance of Sana’a’s iconic cityscape. My goal for this piece is for it to convey the history of the diverse communities that inhabited Yemen throughout the centuries, and contributed to its heritage.

But First, Etymology!
The word “Sana’a” is derived from the Arabic root (Ṣ – N – ‘), made up of the letters, Tsade (*), Nun, and Ayin. Perhaps the city earned its name from the Arabic verb, صنع , (Ṣuna’), which  means: to make or to manufacture (also: to construct, to produce, and to build). 

Sana’a is more than the capital city of Yemen — it is the ancient capital city of Yemen, said to have been founded and settled by Noah’s eldest son, Shem.

Sana’a is more than the ancient capital city of Yemen — it is one that had been built, or maṣnou’ (**), from the rocks on the surface and up toward the sky. One that had been maṣnou’ from the very stones of its lush highlands, where the architecture could easily camouflage with its rocky environment, if it were not for the eye-catching stained glass windows that adorn every structure.

Sana’a is more than just an ancient capital city with structures rising up from the mountains — it is one that is being rocked with instability caused by external aggressions and internal devastations, yet still full of resilient city folk who carry on with their lives in spite of all their burdens.

. . . and still, Sana’a is more than all that. Come to Sana’a; see and listen for yourself. As you approach it, see it mystically rise up from Yemen’s highlands. Once within it, listen carefully to the echoes of varied languages bounce off the ancient walls of the city. Watch carefully for graffiti in a variety of scripts, belonging to those languages.

Sana’a was home to several languages and scripts that were spoken and written throughout the ages. Each of these languages have left their marks and diacritics over the southern regions of the Near East, which Yemen owes it’s rich heritage to. 

– “Sana’a” in Four Semitic Scripts –

The trained eye will notice that the top portion of this Art piece does not only consist of minarets and arches, but spells out “Sana’a” in the Sabaean script (Ancient South Arabian), which is read from right-to-left. Pay attention and you will see the letterforms. It is thought that Ge’ez, spoken just across the Red Sea in Abyssinia, came from Sabaean.









Just beneath the Sabaean script, I illustrated “Sana’a” in Arabic as صنعاء . Now this makes sense, as Arabic is Yemen’s official language today, and has been for some time. Under the Arabic, you will see צַנְעַאא in Hebrew. During the Himyarite Era of Yemen, which reigned after the Sabaean Era and spanned 630 years, Hebrew was the spoken language throughout the western parts of Yemen.

Finally, at the bottom, ܨܢܥܐܐ in Syriac. If Classical Syriac ever made it down to Yemen, it would have had to travel from the north-east to the south-west. It is likely though, that Syriac may have had its debut in the nearby Yemen, since Syriac inscriptions have been found as far as the Far East. I do know that throughout the centuries, before Islam was introduced to the region, some of the dialects of Akkadian, Assyrian, and Aramaic have been used in south-western Arabia.









I encourage you all to search for more Art pieces that unify Semitic languages. Sabaean, Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac: together, these languages (well . . . those who spoke them) built, or ṣuna’ou (***), Yemen’s heritage and its history.

Foot Notes:
*     The Ṣ sound in Sana’a is pronounced: “Ts”.
**   maṣnou’ — (passive participle, past tense) “has been built from”.
*** ṣuna’ou — (verb, plural, past tense) “they built”.

“Sana’a” written out in the Sabaean script.

Materials Used: Prisma, Paris Paper, Gold Leaf, and fake Swarovski crystals.

Message from the Artist:
Yemen nowadays rarely makes headlines in the mainstream media, unless it involves protests or Yemen’s use of Qat. In the non-mainstream media, we see that Yemen makes more sombre headlines (but then again, at least it’s coverage): another airstrike, mass starvation, and the cholera epidemic. Little does today’s world know of Yemen’s positive characteristicsthe brilliant and picturesque architecture; the vibrant poetic culture that gave way to Yemen’s underground art and music scene; the highly sought-after coffee, incense, and silver jewelry that Yemen, since ancient times, exported to other areas of the Near East. . . and beyond.

In this post, I shared some of Yemen’s cultural diversity. In any future posts that concern Yemen, I strive to give the world a taste of the many splendours found in Arabia Felix.


“Sapari (Tema Temima)”


Later Draft: This is sloppier because I was using rusty old calligraphy nibs and dipping them in a variety of coloured inks (I tried, but failed, to do gradient swatches). The nibs caused abrasion on the surface of my sheet, so the inking was not applied evenly in certain areas! I used high-end inks and gold leaf, but the quality of my work isn’t quite better than my earlier draft with cheaper utensils (see below).

See the complete version (+ audio) of Sa’adiah ben Amram’s poem in the Piyyut database.

Long ago, I remember trying to get in touch with Yemenite musical heritage, during which an acquaintance mentioned Sa’adia ben Amram to me. Information was sparse on this 17th century poet from the highlands of northern Yemen (normally, I’d use Jstor for this type of search, but my student access expired…sorry, Google). It didn’t take much longer until I discovered that Orphaned Land, an Israeli progressive metal band that I hadn’t heard from since 2008, made a cover of one of Amram’s renown poems, “Sapari”. Amazing! The hybrid melodies between traditional Yemeni folk vocals intertwining with elements of metal was masterfully achieved (to my ears, at least)—I listened to the track several more times, and still didn’t know how to react!

I was captivated enough to find myself comparing the lyrics and the actual poem side-by-side, with the (limited) Hebrew I understood, whilst picking up new vocabulary in the process. To my excitement, I discovered that “Sapari” is often performed by many other Israeli musicians (whom weren’t all Mizrachi) in a variety of genres. The diversity and depth I find in many other Israeli songs, whether folk, reggae, or pop, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, or Sefardi, makes it so much more intriguing to me than…than the bland khaliji pop music I was constantly exposed to in Dubai, where every khaliji hit seemed like an uninspired mimicry of the previous khaliji hit (but hey, you are free to enjoy Khaliji music if it’s your cup of shai!).

I am a 100% halal-certified beef frank; don’t let the opinion of one Yemeni girl offend you.


Early Doodle: I did this on a train in a few minutes, using 1 simple calligraphy pen and gold Sharpie. Notice how much more refined the edges are (compared to above) and the even application of ink. In spite of the turbulence, I was more confident (perhaps because subconsciously, I knew it was just a draft). Just goes to show you, confidence and simplicity can sometimes make-up for lack of good-quality materials, even on a commute 😉

סַפְּרִי תַמָּה תְמִימָה
סַפְּרִי נָגִיל בְּתֵימָא
בַּת מְלָכִים הַחֲכָמָה
אָן מְקוֹמֵךְ סַפְּרִי לִי
עָנְתָה יוֹנָה סְעַדְיָה
לִי בְּפַלְטֵרִין עֲלִיָּה
וַאֲנִי תּוֹךְ לֵב אֳנִיָּה
בַּיְּפִי עוֹטָה מְעִילִי

Tell me, O innocent oneTell me, we will rejoice in innocence! Daughter of wise kings, where is your hiding place? Tell me. My dove answered: Sa’adya, I went up to the palaces. And I, though secretly I am poor, still I am robed in beauty.

If you are reading this post and can point me to credible references or exhibits regarding Sa’adia ben Amram or other Yemenite/Yemeni/Yemen-ish artists (contemporary or historic), please share! 😀 Preferably in English (or Arabic) since my Hebrew is weak. hehe.

Judæo-Islamic Calligraphy!

I plan to post my Arabic and Hebrew calligraphy on this page (hover mouse over Artwork in the Menu).

I posted one of my old scrap pieces below — two additional, much nicer pieces (+ more descriptions on the nature of this Judæo-Arabic category) can be viewed by following the above link!

People…near and far, time and time again…have always tried to claim a piece of this Land.

*** The content and imagery of my blog are still jumbled—I’ll post more work once I’ve upgraded to Premium. Woohoo! ***