One of the joys of living in Saudi Arabia was seeing Arabic calligraphy, especially the “bismillah” and other renditions of verses from the Qur’an, expressed artistically in various media. “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” is a key phrase in Islam. It prefaces ritual prayer, and is said often throughout the day, to oneself or out loud, when embarking upon a task.
I remember an outing to the desert with a group expats from King Faisal Specialist Hospital, in which I worked. Our Saudi driver said it before starting the bus. He said it quietly, almost to himself. After that, I noticed other Muslims saying it, often before doing something new or something that involved the well-being of others. I liked the phrase. It encompassed the best of intention, the realization that we act in faith, without the assurance of the consequences of our actions, and in the acceptance of whatever result followed.
I began seeing calligraphy everywhere, especially the bismillah, which always graced the letterhead of official stationery. In the suq, I saw wonderful wall hangings, some painted, some inked, some sewn with gold letters on black velvet. Book covers in the Arabic section of bookstores showed dramatic, often shiny gold calligraphy, and I never could decipher the titles, even after I learned how to read Arabic. In the women’s cafeteria of the hospital hung a large panel painted in bold brush strokes of mauve, purple, blue, yellow, green, with flecks of gold and diamond-like textures that caught the ambient light.
I know nothing of the art or science of calligraphy. All I know is that seeing it pleases me immensely, fascinates my eye and engages my heart. I won’t mind learning how to do it. Until and if I ever do, I’ll remain content with looking at it, especially at the bismillah.