When calligraffiti artist Karim Jabbari picks up a paintbrush, a spray can or a light-painting pen, regardless of the wall or intangible space in front of him, he breathes new life into a centuries-old art form.
“In my work, I’m trying to redefine how we see and how we perceive the Arabic calligraphy,” Jabbari explained to me as we headed up into the sky a few metres (correction: four storeys!) on a mini-forklift at the site of his latest mural in Montreal.
“People are getting really away from it, and I wanted to bring it closer to the young generation.”
Jabbari, a trilingual, soft-spoken Tunisian in his late 30s, is one of the world’s best-known artists in the world of calligraffiti: a growing form of artistic expression that merges graffiti art with Arabic calligraphy.
“It’s actually showing people in the Arab world that they can be proud of their language and use it in a graffiti scene,” he said.
“This is what it’s all about: instead of Latin letters, why don’t you use Arabic letters?”
Inspired by Tunisian poet
Getting Jabbari to Montreal is a result of a partnership with Montreal’s graffiti festival, UnderPressure 2017, and researcher Hela Zahar, a doctoral student at Université du Québec en Outaouais who’s examining the significance of urban Arabic calligraphy in Montreal, Paris and parts of Tunisia.
Perched with him against the wall on one side of the Al-Omah Al-Islamiah Mosque at Ste-Catherine and St-Dominique streets, I watched as Jabbari worked patiently with an elegant brush stroke.
He churned out — in a way perhaps similar to a computer programmer at work — copper-coloured Arabic script on the brick wall that he’d painted black just hours earlier.
Jabbari says his work is, indeed, a kind of binary code: he uses the dot and two letters — alef and lam — the A and L in Arabic script that define a word. (Most of the lettering in Jabbari’s work is from the Kufi script, one of several styles of the art form, with origins that date back to old Aramaic.)
This beautiful, repeating pattern is then broken from time to time with words from a poem by Tunisian poet Aboul-Qacem Echebbi.
Zabbari rattles off the script in Arabic for me, then loosely translates its meaning: “I would like to understand the universe, but I am unable to understand myself.”
‘Those people that surround you all over the city, all of these immigrants, all of those minorities: they are treasures. It’s up to you to just go and then discover them.’– Calligraffiti artist Karim Jabbiri
“It’s really calling people to understand each other,” he explained, “and probably focusing on the good side of people.”
“Especially talking about the Muslim community of Montreal, being harassed and bombarded every time something happens around the world, then we are the first to be judged.”
“You know what I want to say through my art?” he offers. “I want to tell people, man, you can find me beyond your hate. Just get enough courage to just jump that hate, and then you’ll find me waiting for you.”
“You will find a treasure in ‘the other’ — those people that surround you all over the city, all of these immigrants, all of those minorities: they are treasures. It’s up to you to just go and then discover them.”
Calligraphy ‘gave meaning to my life’
Born in Kasserine — a city in the interior of the African country and a hotbed of dissent during the Arab Spring — Jabbari’s very personal connection to calligraphy explains the passion he has when he speaks about the art form, the history of Arabic languages and what he’s trying to do with his talents, beyond making beautiful art.
Karim’s father was a political foe of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president from 1987 until he fled early in 2011, and under Ben Ali, his father was imprisoned for more than 10 years.
As a result, Jabbari had to get to know his father from afar.
“I had to learn how to live without him through his books so I was like, all the time, digging in his books and trying to imitate the handwriting in his books,” he said.
His father’s imprisonment meant Karim and his family were isolated in their community.
“People were avoiding us because we were like a potential danger for them,” he said.
Calligraphy ended up helping to heal some of those personal and social ruptures.
“All of a sudden, because I’m a calligrapher, people in school would come around me and dance around me to appreciate my skills.” he said. “So I felt that calligraphy gave me something — gave a meaning to my life when I was a child. And I decided when I grow up, to give back to calligraphy what I can.”
Leading Tunisians ‘toward the light’
Jabbari studied and lived in Montreal for 14 years but returned to Tunisia in 2013, after the Arab Spring and Ben Ali’s departure. Since then, he’s focused his work on building confidence in young people in whom he sees himself.
Upon his return to Kasserine, along with other young artists in his community, he painted 250 metres of the city’s prison wall — the same prison where his father had been detained.
It was “the longest mural in Tunisia,” he said. He called the event Toward the Light.
Young people ‘destroyed from the inside’
Karim also started the city’s first Street Art Festival, inviting international Arabic-speaking artists from around the world to share their skills.
‘I felt that we cannot build a country unless we build the man inside each one of us.’– Karim Jabbari, on helping marginalized Tunisians
“One thing I realized when I went back to Tunisia after the Arab Spring, people were destroyed from the inside,” he said. They felt marginalized, he explained.
“I felt that we cannot build a country unless we build the man inside each one of us,” Jabari said.
“This is what I did through these projects: I would grab them separately, talk to them as they were important, involve them in every aspect of the project. And I felt that I left behind some people that are willing to succeed.”
His goal is to build an institution where people can practise their art, especially urban art — and certainly calligraffiti.
Karim Jabbari’s mural is painted on the side of Al-Omah Al-Islamia Mosque, at the southern corner of St. Dominique and Ste. Catherine streets. It’s part of UnderPressure 2017.