The art of Arabic calligraphy lives on through Omani artist Shabib Jamal Al Balushi whose canvasses bring the ancient form to new audiences, as Shahzad Raza discovers.
Shabib Jamal Al Balushi is an architect running an engineering consultancy firm – but give him a pen and he’ll create magic. Words flow from his brush to come alive on canvas, stroke by stroke as, through his delicate motions, an ancient art form still breathes life. A fascinating form of writing, Arabic calligraphy is Shabib’s forte and his claim to fame. To him, calligraphy isn’t just a way of writing, it’s a symbol of the past that connects him to his roots – and it’s a passion he’s held onto since he was a young child.
“I was drawn towards calligraphy since my childhood,” he says. “Even when I was in secondary school I liked to write. I love keeping different types of pens, pencils, erasers, etc. Calligraphy has been a part of my life because most of it is just writing. I used to draw as well – be it my friends’ faces, trees, or natural landscapes. But nothing was more interesting to me than calligraphy because it’s derived from the Holy Quran, and it helps me relax. Also, writing with the wooden pen called the ‘kasab’ – dipping it in ink and writing with it soothes me. All these things contribute to my attraction towards calligraphy.”
Though there are many ways to play around with words through poetry, painting, or carving, Shabib is greatly fascinated by calligraphy because, unlike other art forms, it’s derived from the Holy Quran and carries significance as a form of religious expression.
“We use different shapes, colours, and styles to make the text look like art. You can see large versions of this form of Islamic art in mosques,” he explains.
Elaborating further on the types of Arabic calligraphy he says: “There are six types of Arabic calligraphy styles we can use to make text decorative. They’re Al Thaloos, Al Naskh, Al Ruq’ah, Al Koofi and, then, Al Diwani which is my favourite because it’s the most customizable type and allows you to be most creative. The Holy Quran, however, is written with Al Naskh style because it’s the easiest to read.”
What inspired and drove him down this path of expression?
“Firstly, it has to be my parents because they encouraged me to pursue calligraphy as a profession and stand out from others. They wanted to hear people call me ‘Artist Shabib’ and they always believed that I had what it took to become successful as a calligrapher,” he says.
“I also owe my success to my teachers who supported me and encouraged me to follow my passion in this art. I was 10-years-old when I started Arabic calligraphy. My teachers, Mohammed Al Nouri and Mohammed Al Obaidi, helped me a lot. And it’s been 21 years now studying and practising this art,” he adds.
Which calligrapher impressed him most?
“One of my biggest inspirations is the late Turkish artist Mustafa Haleem. I studied his art and his style. His way of writing words fascinated me and stoked my interest. Even my own style is inspired by him,” he explains.
Pursuing calligraphy has also been a source of personal and professional pride for Shabib – especially during exhibitions.
“I feel proud during exhibitions, some of which attract ministers and dignitaries to my work. In 2018 I presented my work to His Highness Sayyid Moad Al Said who was delighted to see my work and, because of him, a lot of people got to know about me and my work. So that felt great”.
Talking about whether calligraphy has a future in Oman, Shabib is quite optimistic it has.
“But we need to work hard,” he emphasizes. “You can’t just sit idly and expect a brighter future. You need to work hard and practice more if you want your dreams to come true.”
Responding to a question on whether there are good calligraphers in Oman, he says, “There are only a few and some of them are my friends. This art is still in its early stages here as most people interested in Arabic calligraphy are still studying.”
What should a beginner do to become a good calligrapher we ask?
Shabib wants to motivate Omani youth and upcoming calligraphers by offering some advice on how to start their journey.
“First of all, you have to do research,” he says. “There are a lot of people who claim to teach calligraphy but don’t do a good job doing so. Calligraphy is more than just writing text in a fancy way – and that’s what you have to learn. Another thing you need is patience.
You can’t become a good calligrapher overnight. Some people take twenty or even 30 years to succeed. It just depends on how hard you work for it and how much it means to you. Anyone can learn Arabic calligraphy if they actually want to and work hard for it.”