The boxy red-brick buildings of Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district are uniform in colour but slightly different in size and shape. Tightly packed together with a ramshackle appearance, they stand along narrow alleyways, where green and white sacks stuffed with rubbish lie in malodorous heaps. More bulging bags spill over balcony rails or pile up on rooftops beside dusty satellite dishes. One of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods and home to the city’s rubbish collectors, Manshiyat Naser is the unlikely canvas on which French-Tunisian artist eL Seed chose to paint “Perception”, a sprawling mural spanning more than 50 buildings.
Odd corners and asymmetrical patches of brickwork have been daubed with blue, orange and white paint, startlingly bright amid the adhesive dust and dirt. On a flat, earth-covered rooftop on which a herd of sheep mills calmly several storeys above the ground, two segments of the low wall have been whitewashed and covered with uneven orange triangles fringed with black. They seem abstract and random. But stand in the cafeteria on top of Mokattam, a nearby hill, and all these mismatched patches of paint suddenly come together, forming a single phrase written in Arabic calligraphy and thus transforming a collection of ugly buildings into a poem that celebrates the neighbourhood’s history and culture.
Manshiyat Naser is home to the Zaraeeb, a Coptic Christian community known to the people of Cairo as zabaleen – “rubbish people”. “I thought these people were living in the garbage, when actually they were living from the garbage,” says eL Seed. “I got this switch of perception and realised that I was wrong…Sometimes when you want to see someone’s real face you just have to change the angle.”
The phrase eL Seed chose is an aphorism attributed to St Athanasius of Alexandria, a third-century Coptic bishop: “He who wants to see the light of the sun must first wipe his eyes.” To the artist, it means that “if you want to judge anybody, you must first wipe away the dirt from your eyes, all the misconceptions that you have about somebody, or about a community. For me, the sunlight is the idea of truth.”
“Perception” took more than a year to plan and a month to paint. Instead of hiring assistants, eL Seed invited a group of childhood friends to work with him. “Even if I’d offered to pay a lot of money, nobody would spend a month in a place like this because of the smell, the difficulties, the logistics,” he says. While painting a fourth-floor balcony, he was attacked by a bull that was being kept in an apartment. He painted freehand, from a single photograph over which he had sketched the design. His friends used rollers and acrylic paint to fill the shapes he outlined, hanging precariously from rickety cranes above a sea of pigs, which the Zaraeeb breed to consume waste.
eL Seed is one of a growing number of street artists whose work is inspired by traditional Arabic calligraphy. Traditionally, Muslims believe that creating figurative images runs counter to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, which is why abstract geometric art and calligraphy flourished in the early days of Islam. Originally, calligraphy was not used to record information, but practised as a form of meditation by those seeking to capture the essence of universal harmony. “It was meant to give form to divine revelation,” says Samir Sayegh, a Lebanese calligrapher and contemporary artist. Jila Peacock, an Iranian-British calligrapher and contemporary artist, likens calligraphy to chanting, in which the meaning of the words becomes subsumed into the sound. “Image, like music, is a different language to the actual writing or speaking of words,” she says. “With the move away from figuration…the word became the image.”
Calligraphy, often used to pen verses from the Koran, was a means of communing directly with God. “The Koran is meant to be the word of God,” says Diana Darke, a writer and Arabist. “So of course that means that the script is revered in a way that is quite unusual, even exceptional.” From Islam’s early days, beginning in the seventh century, calligraphy was intimately entwined with architecture. Incorporated into the colourful mosaics of the Great Mosque in Córdoba and inlaid in jasper into the white marble of the Taj Mahal, it transformed the greatest monuments in Damascus, Al-Andalus, Baghdad, Cairo and Delhi – centres of philosophy, science and culture – into physical manifestations of the word of God.
Over more than a millennium new scripts proliferated, each with its own distinctive aesthetic: some angular and blocky, others flowing and ornate. By the Ottoman period, calligraphy was found everywhere from books, tiles, artisanal objects and buildings to official documents and state seals. The scripts were codified into fixed forms, each with its own precise proportions and angles. Formalisation, says Sayegh, “asphyxiated” the art. Calligraphy became the realm of artisans, trained to copy and reproduce rather than to create and innovate.
But in recent years, calligraphy has begun to fire the imagination of a new generation of young artists who are striving to create street art with an Arab identity. They ignore the rules of traditional calligraphy, instead combining its unique visual language with the conventions of graffiti. A predominantly Western art form has thus been co-opted to create counter-cultural Arab street art.
Calligraffiti started in Lebanon and Palestine before flowering in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria with the onset of the Arab spring. Public art had previously been dominated by Middle Eastern dictators, who commissioned statues and murals of themselves; in 2011, artists began to risk arrest and torture to spread the political and social messages inspiring the revolutions. Graffiti is cheap and quick to do, so although the authorities swiftly erase the work, more springs up to replace it.
In the Syrian town of Kafranbel, people use calligraphy as part of their struggle against the jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, using Twitter to post pictures of messages they have written. The militants frequently destroy the messages; the artists create new ones.
Not all graffiti is confrontational. In Lebanon, Yazan Halwani uses calligraphy to create portraits of Lebanese cultural icons: he hopes they will help unite a country divided by civil war. To make his work accessible, he avoids writing phrases, instead using isolated letters, layering and overlapping them. Passersby often stop to watch him work and he has become adept at sweet-talking policemen and security guards, convincing them that he is not engaging in vandalism but helping to beautify the city. A passing policeman once became so enthused that he put aside his M16 and picked up a spray-can to help.
In Egypt, where police are not as tolerant, Khadiga El-Ghawas combines traditional calligraphy, which she began studying at the age of six, with photography. She uses light sticks to sketch calligraphy in the air on the darkened streets of Alexandria, taking photographs that immortalise her fleeting performances. Her work, which leaves no physical trace, cannot be whitewashed by the state – unlike the hundreds of revolutionary murals that briefly adorned the streets of Cairo.
Perhaps because of its impressive size, eL Seed’s “Perception” is one of few works of graffiti in Cairo that is still there more than a year after it was painted. A book about the project, published in March, documents the creation of the mural. As the artist hoped, the words it celebrates are beginning to come true: so many people now visit the café on top of the hill to look at “Perception” that Cairenes have started to see Manshiyat Naser in a new light.