Middle Eastern Art


SOCOTRA, Yemen . . . a celestial island of Dragon Blood trees and dragonflies.

Her fragile ecosystem is falling apart. It was a slow death at first; climate change is a familiar culprit. Her wounds took a turn for the worse amid the ongoing war against Yemen. The world must not turn away from this injustice. If the war ends tomorrow, we might salvage her rare charms, and with persistance she may even flourish. Socotra was once the most alien-looking place on Earth, untouched by man’s corruption. Alas, the islands’ sanctity has withered away in recent years . . .

Socotra, Yemen . . . a military base for foreign invaders.

Dragon Blood trees, formally known as Dracaena Cinnabari, are so called for the thick crimson sap that runs through their trunks and branches, much like the blood that runs through our own bodies. These trees breathe. The resin has been used since ancient times for its medicinal properties. Our island, with all its endemic flora and fauna, only became a UNESCO World Heritage site in this past decade. As I write this, GCC troops are vandalizing Socotra’s environment from the surface all the way down to the marrow. Thousands of Dragon Blood trees that have grown undisturbed for four centuries, are now being uprooted and killed in mere minutes — all it takes is a push of a few buttons on a bulldozer to kill these ancient trees. Many Dragon Blood trees are being exported into the UAE for aesthetic purposes. There, these trees shrivel up and die, as the UAE’s habitat is not natural for them to thrive.

Dragon Blood trees today are literally bleeding between the firm grips of warfare. Socotra has become another playground for supremely wealthy savages. The endemic life that once made her beautiful is being exploited faster than her ability to reproduce, and the life that remains, falls into decay.

This is the current reality, but how can we — the concerned citizens of Earth — put this nightmare to an end? Unfortunately, the world’s leading powers focus only on selfish political agendas, showcasing military strength, and immediate self-gratification over the future of our shared ecosystem, world harmony, and steady perseverance towards a greener and happier planetIf only there were a way to stop this madness before it’s too late.

About This Painting:
Socotra is an island that lies just south of Yemen and east of the Horn of Africa, on the Arabian Sea. Desolate, yet mythical. This acrylic painting depicts the dragon blood trees and dragonflies that call Socotra their only “home”. On the foreground, I illustrated an anguished dryad sipping her dragon elixir (i.e., gahwa Yemenia). 

This was my first time using acrylics, and it took some getting used to. The quality of the final piece is not as I imagined it to be, because I used gouache as a base layer, and the canvas I applied on was meant for water-based paints. I do plan to create an improved version of this piece in gouache and on a much larger canvas. 

Random Thought:
Socotra is a living example of the phenomenon where hearts of gold attract toxicity. Exceptionally kind-hearted people accept bad souls, by giving them the benefit of the doubt, and trying to bring a positive influence into their unstable minds and troubled lives. Many times, those with hearts of gold become emotionally exhausted, whether they realize it or not, as their positivity has been sucked dry.

For detailed information on these trees, this article by Linda Crampton, is very informative. This article by Michael Horton, details the devastation and divide that Yemen is now facing, as KSA and the UAE continue to take advantage of the chaos they caused.

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.