To say Hussein Alazaat is passionate about Arabic calligraphy would be a terrible understatement. Scroll through his Twitter feed and you’ll find an eclectic mix of photos featuring vintage Arabic type from storefronts, children books, billboards and even sewer covers in Jordan, Kuwait and beyond.
A senior designer at SYNTAX – a leading design and branding studio in Jordan – Hussein has hosted Arabic calligraphy workshops across the region, including for young Syrian refugees in Turkey. In Amman, the young Jordanian designer and father of three, has quite literally left his mark through his ongoing mission to bring visual design into the public arena. Back in 2012, for instance, Hussein helped create the social initiative, Wajha (meaning “façade” in Arabic) with his design comrade Ali Almasri. The project is perhaps best described as a public typography intervention, where the duo has revamped old signage on storefront facades in underprivileged areas of urban centers like Amman and Zarqa, creating a fusion of retro design aesthetics and modern design trends.
More recently, Hussein launched an experimental art project that has sought to spread the culture of Arabic calligraphy by using Jordanian currency as its medium. Dubbed “From Alef to Yaa”, the project saw Hussein inscribing a single Arabic letter on a one Dinar note, everyday for 28 days, before sending them off into the world for everyone to discover.
What inspired you to start “From Alef to Yaa”? What were you hoping to achieve?
I was always amused by the writings and scribbles found on paper money. Sometimes you’ll see numbers scrawled in the margins, or names or even jokes. One particular writing that deeply touched me were the following words penned on a one dinar note: “Farewell my last possession”.
This inspired me to look at one lowest denomination as a communication tool to spread the beauty of Arabic calligraphic letters, putting them literally in the hands of the people. It’s really the same philosophy that drives our work with Wajha, where we believe that art and design shouldn’t be exclusive and seen only by the elite at art galleries and private collections.
How much of this is your creative response to the state of Arabic calligraphy in Jordan?
Big time. The state of written Arabic in Jordan is quite terrible. There is simply no respect for the classical or the modern forms of that art, and I feel the main reason is due to a lack of serious art education in both public and private schools.
What was unique about the different styles you used for each letter? What was your favorite?
I tried to use a different style of lettering form in each one. The surface of the Dinar is a bit rough, so ink doesn’t stick properly to it, which limited my choices a bit. My favorite one was the letter “ض” combined with the old bookshelf behind it, because in the end, Arabic is the “language of the ض”.
What do you envision the reaction might be should someone stumble upon your work in his or her wallet?
I hope it evokes curiosity and gets people to a state where they’re accustomed to seeing their language beautifully written. But the problem remains that most people do not pay a lot of attention to such details. I’m also a bit concerned that authorities by question the legality of the project, given that I’m using official banknotes as a medium for my art.
Where would you say your passion for calligraphy comes from?
Something in my blood I guess. My father and grandfather had good handwriting, so maybe it came from them. But the person that has really inspired my passion, specifically when it comes to the fusion of Arabic calligraphy and design thinking, was Mohiedeen El Labbad’s articles in my childhood favorite magazine, Majed. I used to read them when I was a 10 years old, and Labbad wrote about design culture, art critique, originality and preserving Arabic identity in our daily works. It was his words that put me on this career path ever since.
To what extent has the shift to digital influenced the state of Arabic calligraphy? Has it helped or harmed?
I don’t think it harmed or helped. Arabic calligraphy is a genuine art that relies on paper, ink and pen, so the calligrapher has all the creative possibilities playing inside that holy trinity. These days, we have digital calligraphy on tablets and calligraphy using photography and lights techniques, but I would consider all of these to be experimentations and nothing more. I can’t call them genuine art practices.
What’s your plan for this particular project?
I’m thinking about creating new versions of the Dinar calligraphy, with new tools and different experimentations with the art form. And maybe I’ll convert the first original 28 Dinar collection into an art installation for the public to see.