Harmony between Arabic and Western typography

September 2007 -

Long queues leading up to the exposition area, attention in the national press of the Netherlands, heated comments on weblogs about the loss or the very enrichment of culture: seldom has there been so much ado about ... typography. Five new Arabic fonts led to a symposium discussing contemporary Arabic visual culture in Amsterdam on 24 August. And to El Hema: an exposition in the shape of a shop organised by Mediamatic. An exposition of t-shirts, price tags, chocolates and plastic bags. But the real point was the font.

El Hema T-shirt

The interesting thing about the new fonts is not only how they were received, but also how they were conceived. Teams of Dutch and Arabic typographers worked on designing modern Arabic fonts that can be combined with Western fonts without either of the two dominating. A difficult challenge due to the distance and the differences in background and experience among the designers. As well as the different writing traditions.

Nadine Chahine, one of the participating typographers, explains: "Graphic design is improving in the Middle East, but many of the projects are done in Latin script. The Arabic fonts are ugly and cannot be compared to the Latin ones. The beautiful things we have are in museums, but the things that regular people see on the street are so ugly! You want Latin and Arabic script on the same page without the two conflicting. The dream of a typographer who grew up during the Lebanese civil war: Please, no more conflict."

The cooperative project Typographic Matchmaking was an initiative of the Khatt Foundation. The objective of the Khatt Foundation is to initiate dialogue between the Arabic world and the Western world, and to contribute to an Arabic identity. The foundation hopes this will initiate cultural change. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès of the Khatt Foundation: "The font was a logical starting point. Script is an identifying part of the culture."

Identity is one word that was frequently repeated during the symposium. Not always in the same meaning, however. While visionaries talked about finding and communicating one's cultural identity, others were discussing the design of a good corporate identity. Because typographers need to make a living, too.

Het symposium over hedendaagse visuele Arabische cultuur, en de daaraan gerelateerde projecten, werden mede mogelijk gemaakt door het Fonds BKVB, de Khatt FoundationStichting Mediamatic, de Openbare Bibliotheek van Amsterdam en BIS Publishers.