by Rahul KumarAug 02, 2022
ا ب پ ت ٹ ث ج چ ح خ د ڈ …
Read: alif, bē, pē, tē, ṭē, s̱ē, jīm, cē, ḥē, k͟hē, dāl, ḍāl
A persistent and musical litany—interrupted only by the stern corrections urged by my nana—would resound from my maternal grandparents' drawing room on Saturdays and Sundays. These were the days, when, free from the strict and structured drill of school, homework, rest, and play—portioned unfavourably for our wandering minds—my brother and I would engage in lessons of language and theology with our elders.
These lessons, of lingos and bhashas and zabaans that sit at odds with the widely practised colonial language—in which I have conceived this essay—were forgotten by my brother and me with time. In the face of the Latin-script dominating Indian billboards as well as the dialogues of the most advertised films and the best marketed books, forgetting the semantics associated with our natal tongue was only inevitable. Hence, laden with the onus of persistently translating dialectal attributions to the english tongue, a lot of us have either given up the practice of our mother tongues or limited their usage to the scant interactions we tend to have with our elders, and to exoticised posters imprinted with short and popular couplets.
This experience of forgetting is common not only amongst the diaspora of the global east, but also among residents who continue to live in their native lands. The severity of such neglect registers in our minds when encountered with astoundingly beautiful usage of languages in literature and art, or by haunting encounters that clearly elucidate all that we have lost in an attempt to learn the tongue of our past colonisers. One such experience for me was watching a 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye, where a Muslim man, Mansoor—hailing from Pakistan, and a resident in the United States—is arrested shortly after the event of 9/11 by the FBI due to his Islamic background, and is detained, tortured and questioned at length in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In a scene from the movie, Mansoor is asked to read and interpret a series of Arabic texts. “I can read it, but cannot interpret it,” he utters, echoing the dilemma of various South-Asian muslims who are able to spell out Arabic text—written in the Nastaliq script, a modified form of the Perso-Arabic script—but are often unable to understand what they are reading, unless done with the help of translations running in the parallel.
While Khuda Kay Liye urged me to acknowledge the shortcomings in my theological learnings, a recent conversation with British-Arab designer Samar Maakaroun—about her work, that, like her identity, exists in the hyphenated space that both separate and link her two identities—helped me understand not only the beauty of our inherited tongues but also the power that languages and its usage holds, in establishing dominance and in asserting identity.
While the 20th century, laden with a continuous throng of countries attaining independence from European nations, was a period of confusion and haze where the larger populace from such countries struggled to make sense of their heritage and languages, recent times are witness to the revival of and appreciation for regional heritage, culture and language, perhaps as a way of moving out of the shadows of past colonists and autocrats, and onto realms that are more definitive, and certain of their identities. In a similar lieu, it is important for expats and immigrants to develop their individual linguistic and artistic renditions that are informed by their experiences across two places. Maakaroun's work as a type designer in the project 29 words with 29 letters embraces the multiplicity and complexity that comes from thinking in and working with two languages—English and Arabic. She hails from Beirut, Lebanon, and currently lives and works as a designer in London, UK.
29 words with 29 letters was conceived by Maakaroun and animated by her brand design studio, Right to Left; graphic and interaction designer, Miguel Desport; and Nottingham-based graphic and motion designer, Jonathan Nielsen. The project is "an experimental typographic index of the process of working with two languages and bridging two wildly different worlds." Maakaroun further explains, “For each letter of the Arabic alphabet, I chose one word from my daily life in London, mostly concepts, thoughts and ways of being that I often find myself explaining." The result is a series of words animated to communicate the intrinsic idea they convey. They appear familiar to both the English speaker and those who converse in Arabic.
Maakaroun, who has over two decades of experience in imparting tales and experiences though the mediums of typography, scenography, and art direction, and specialises in the realms of brand design and digital storytelling, cites her inspiration in the likes of Lebanese artist, critic and poet, Samir Sayegh; Iranian graphic designer and professor, Reza Abedini; American graphic designer, Paula Scher; Berlin-based Lebanese artists Rabih Mroué and Lina Majdalanie; contemporary media artist Walid Raad; and Domenic Lippa and Marina Willer from Pentagram, among others.
Maakaroun’s first name, Samar, beginning with the Arabic alphabet س (read: seen), also evinces her role as a designer in narrating stories. “My first name, a word that refers to talking and telling stories at night before television became the main source of nightly entertainment. It is pronounced like summer but with an A instead of the e," she describes.
For 29 words with 29 letters, Maakaroun was specifically inspired by Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book is widely acclaimed for the integration of code-switching strategies, in that the writer uses Spanish words with English to create powerful bilingual images that subvert the notions usually accepted in literature. This usage of Spanish in a bold and unabashed manner encouraged Maakaroun to build a type design project of her own where rules could be bent and played with, where the monochrome aesthetic—difficult for usage by type designers working with Arabic—could be reclaimed, and where words specific to particular cultures and religions could be expressed in a syncretic space. Just like Díaz’s work “includes and excludes readers,” while also intriguing the monolingual reader to dig deeper in order to understand better, Maakaroun’s experiments in typography, too, includes and excludes the audience witnessing her works. While, for some, words such as انشالله (read: insh’Allah) and زنخة (read: zenqah) may be difficult to register, owing to a lack of exposure to both Islam and Arabic cultures, for others, these terms are a part of daily vocabulary. Maakaroun’s animations make the Arab viewers feel seen. They also allow for these expressions and scripts to be normalised, to become common, to occupy space in a world saturated with countless serif and sans serif fonts in English.
Maakaroun shares that her graphics and animated works are not always semantically or literally accurate. If checked against a standard dictionary, they may not qualify as legitimate words in either of the languages. However, the intent of Maakaroun's project is not to convey a correct and veracious version of formalised languages and dialects, but it is instead an attempt at translating her multicultural experiences, through works of art and design. “If you cannot play with language, what can you really play with?” she exclaims!
While words such as عربي (read: Arabi) and غربي (read: gharabi), animated by Maakaroun, translate to Arabian and foreigner respectively, and hint towards the designer’s experiences as a local and foreigner in the UK, ولو (read: wallau) is a word that has no equivalent in english. The British designer describes it hence, “A sound, that could mean nothing and everything depending on the tone of voice, and body language. This is a word that could be infused with any meaning.”
Maakaroun’s animations offer a glimpse into the possibilities of experimenting with both language and art styles. It presents a prototype for creative endeavours that stray away from soused visuals, that betray carefully crafted rules for type, for design and for type design.
Click on the banner video to view the full interview with Samar Maakaroun.