Calligraphy is a Meeting with God

Artist Khaled Al Saai – A portrait, an encounter

Khaled Al Saai summarizes the history of Syria in a painting. In 2018, he has been an Artist in Residence at the Museum of Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

The beauty of the characters. The letter Schi with the curved arches and the three dots stands for Damascus

“Calligraphy is music for the eye”, writes Syrian-German author Rafik Schami in the afterword to his novel “The Secret of the Calligrapher”. “For the less”, answers Khaled Al Saai smiling, one of the ten most important calligraphers in the world. As an Artist in Residence of the Berlin Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, the native Syrian recently created the two-by-eight-meter painting “Syria – The Garden of History” in the Mschatta Hall. This painting will remain hung in the Mschatta Hall since from February 2019 onwards it will be integrated in a major exhibition entitled “Cultural Landscape of Syria – Preservation and Archiving in Times of War”.

The big picture is almost finished, remains of cut out photos are on the floor, ink brushes are to be seen, it smells of color. Behind a barrier Al Saai executes the last corrections, museum visitors stop and try to decipher the mysterious painting.

Khaled Al Saai as an Artist in Residence at the Museum of Islamic Art, Pergamon Museum in Berlin

The artist combines calligraphy with music

Khaled Al Saai was born in 1970 in Homs and grew up in a family of artists in Meyadin in south-eastern Syria. His family was known for art and calligraphy. At the age of four, he held a pen in his hand for the first time. “I imitated and copied my father’s art,” he says, “that helped me to open my eyes to the other arts”. Later, Al Saai moved to Damascus, where he earned his Master’s Degree in Fine Art. He completed a second  Master’s Degree in Calligraphy at the Istanbul Research Center for Islamic History and Culture. He describes the years of study  from 1990 to 1997 as an intensive time in which he also studied literature and music. That was in his blood.

Since 2000 he has been working with the Syrian musician Khaled Al Jaramani. To the different musical styles that Al Jaramani maintains, Al Saai looks for the appropriate calligraphy style. During joint performances Al Jaramani plays the Oud and Al Saai writes his calligraphy live, which is projected onto a screen for the audience via a projector. In Al Saai’s opinion one does not have to understand the letters. “I use the letters as an element and free them of their meaning. It allows me to play with them without language”. Thus the boundaries between traditional calligraphy and modern painting become blurred. Since 2014, Al Saai goes a step further and also processes photos in his large-format paintings.

Khaled Al Saai as an Artist in Residence at the Museum of Islamic Art in front of his painting “Syria – The Garden of History”

At first glance, the large picture in the Mschatta Hall of the Islamic Museum is a thunderstorm of Arabic characters, which often entwine and cover photos from Syria. It shows important places of Syria and their contribution to the world cultural heritage such as Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo. The high-format picture is divided into three levels, below are the scenes of everyday life, in the middle the most important works of Syrian culture and in the upper level spiritual worlds. Thus, the large, decorative letter Schi with its curved arches and three points for Damascus, but at the Sufis, Schin means also sun and light. At the bottom right of the picture is a street where the storytellers have been living for centuries, as Rafik Schami describes it in his books.

In the center of the picture Palmyra can be recognized with its typical decor, then the first alphabet of humanity from Ugarit. “The garden is my old Syria,” says the artist with some sadness. It is the only way for him to preserve and re-appropriate his ancient culture. The big characters symbolize the cities, the small fine characters stand for poems.

Khaled Al Saai in the Mschatta Hall of the Museum of Islamic Art, where he is an Artist in Residence with the support of the Foundation

In another, even larger picture, he painted a chronicle of the Syrian war, with barrel bombs and a red arrow symbolizing the blood spilled. The size of the place names indicates the extent of the war damage, thus Aleppo is written rather large.

“Calligraphy used to be a meeting with God, you had to be prepared, cleaned inside and out. The calligraphers dressed very beautifully and perfumed themselves before they wrote. The letters had to be painted with great concentration. Calligraphy is also meditation”, explains Al Saai. Currently living in Dubai and Boston, a third studio in France is planned for a major project this year on the Loire. The river reminds him of the Euphrates at Meyadin. Al Saai paints letters, cuts them out and puts them in the grass, photographs them. Or he paints them on transparent foils and brings them to life through the sun. An art that knows no boundaries.

Translation into English: Danii Kessjan