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‫على الطريق‪En Route‬‬


Reconsidering the Typographic and Linguistic Vernaculars of Modern Lebanon

Chantal Jahchan

For my Teta & Jiddo, without whom my home country would not be home



ORIGINS I dislike the word “roots,” and I dislike the imageries it elicits even more. Roots burrow deep in the soil, they twist and squirm in the mud, they thrive in the darkness, [they] hold the trees above them captive and nourish them by way of blackmail: “You break free, you die!” Trees must resign themselves to this blackmail; trees need their roots; humans don’t. We humans breathe the light and yearn for the skies, and when we sink into the ground, we do so only to rot out and die. The sap of our native soil does not reach out hands by way of our feet. Out feet have only one function; they help us walk and move about. The only things that matter to us humans are roads. It is the road that beckons to us and seduces us. […] The road gives us promises, carries us aloft, pushes us forth, and then abandons us. And so we die in the same manner in which we were born, forlorn on the side of a road that we had not chosen.

Excerpt from Origins by Amin Maalouf, translated by Catherine Temerson.

002 Introduction



Road Signs 018 037 LARA BOUSLEIMAN

Banks & Pharmacies 052 069 WAEL MORCOS

Restaurants & Food Vendors 080 099 LARA CAPTAN

Vehicles 110 125 NATALIE NACCACHE

Miscellaneous 130

153 Credits


“ I couldn’t read the road signs in my so-called home country, let alone pronounce the names of dishes whose taste I could recall so vividly.”

Picture Beirut, Lebanon. What do you see? Do you see restaurants, nightclubs, family gatherings, endless beaches, rolling mountains, majestic cedars? Or do you see roadside merchants, refugees, traffic jams, cargo trucks, signs of war? Every summer since my family first immigrated to the United States in 2000, we would visit our grandparents and extended family back home in Lebanon. Despite the ever-deteriorating situation in the Middle East, our vacations were always perfect. Between the delicious Lebanese food and the dangerously over-populated family reunions, there wasn’t a wasted moment. Every night we would sit on my grandparents’ balcony, breathing in the cool mountain air that seemed to detoxify the clouded minds we arrived with. My senses heightened, I would try to memorize how it felt to be so geographically and emotionally elevated — it was home in every sense of the word. I remember one summer far more vividly than the rest, however. On July 12, 2006, the seemingly distant conflicts brewing in the Middle East snuck up, tapped my childhood on the shoulder, and knocked it unconscious. The day after my family arrived in Lebanon, war broke out and Lebanon’s only airport in Beirut was forced to close. The ports were blockaded and roads and bridges

were destroyed. We evacuated on a Canadian ship, became refugees on the tiny island of Cyprus, and eventually made it safely back to the United States. What I know now is that the war that shattered my childhood summers has a name; the 34-day military conflict is called the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, known in Lebanon as the July War. The month-long struggle, which mostly consisted of Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel in response, left Lebanese civil infrastructure severely damaged and displaced approximately one million Lebanese people. The country was unstable and my family was shaken; we could not justify risking our lives for a summer vacation. So we wouldn’t return to Lebanon for another five years after the war. My two sisters and I, five years wiser, became critical of so many things we had overlooked in the past. I believe that one is more likely to believe a place has changed rather than admit that they have. For the first time we noticed cars maneuvering their way around each other like sharks, completely disregarding the traffic rules we assumed were universal. We found ourselves increasingly on edge whenever we left the solace of our grandparents’ home in the

Beirut, August 2006. Buildings lay destroyed from Israeli air strikes during the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in the southern suburb of Haret Hreik.


mountains to descend to the urban coastline. It wasn’t so much that the drivers on the road seemed shockingly reckless, but rather that their behavior was considered the norm; it was expected. We found our personal space and our privacy consistently violated, even by people who shared our blood. Distant cousins of my mother’s pinched and kissed our cheeks (always 3 times, thanks to Lebanese tradition), strangers stood millimeters behind us in line at the grocery store, security guards searched our bags as we entered shopping malls, and armed military personnel examined the trunk of our car at checkpoints on designated roads. Again, the most shocking part was that this was all normal, routine. Although I was older when I returned to Lebanon after being away for five years, I had regressed. I couldn’t even read the road signs in my so-called home country, let alone pronounce the names of dishes whose taste I could recall so vividly. It is no coincidence that this was the year we felt, for the first time in our lives, a tinge of relief as we boarded the plane for our returning flight. The moment we finally touched down in New York, five years after the evacuation in 2006, was the moment I realized that I had two homes, both of which I did not fully understand and did not fully belong to. We still “go home” every year, usually in the summer, to spend a few weeks at my Teta and Jiddo’s house in

Mtein, one of the prettiest and oldest villages in Mount Lebanon. This year, like many other expatriates, we visited during the holidays, between Christmas and New Year’s. What made this visit different for me was the fact that I had spent the past year or two diving into books and lectures and interviews about the Arabic typographic landscape, which had conveniently been launched onto the graphic design radar right around that time. I was even lucky enough to hear Lara Captan’s talk, “Arabic Type Design – Beirut: The Story,” at the Typographics conference in New York in June 2017, which made me realize that I was not, in fact, the only designer fascinated by Arabic typography and its history. Not even close. Captan’s talk focused on the necessity of observing the history of the script in order to generate fundamentals for designing modern typefaces: What’s important about the Arabic script is that the word was chosen as the primary art form in the lines of Arabic. What the whole contribution [of art] from prehistory to Michelangelo to Mondrian is for [the West], the word is for us… The energy put into the word led to a tremendous amount of diversity in the shaping [of the script]

The view from the top of the tower at the shrine of Our Lady of Mantara in MaghdouchĂŠ, Lebanon during the summer of 2016. It has become a major pilgrimage site, where people come to pray to the Virgin Mary.


Somewhere off the Mediterranean coast near Jounieh, Lebanon during the summer of 2015. A friendly fisherman let my sisters and me take a spin on his boat.


)ur trip to The Grotto of Cana in Southern Lebanon during the summer of 2016. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee. The Lebanese believe this is that site.


Lazy B Beach Club in Jiyeh, Lebanon during the summer of 2016.




“ No collection of photos could possibly capture Lebanon’s multitudes, its contradictions, its cosmopolitan beauty.”

and a lot of attention to detail. And unfortunately, when type came, all of this energy went down the drain... [When the movable type] machine finally moved the East, it arrived in Istanbul in the 18th century where the first and last breakthrough in movable type happened thanks to Ohanis Muhendisoglu… But there was a problem: his script form was really a one-to-one copy of a calligraphic style. So we didn’t see a step towards modernity, or what it looked like to move one step away from the calligraphic tradition. It went downhill from there. Then we arrived to the digital world, where you have shapes that exist in no moment in Arabic script history… And this phenomenon happens because we lack foundations, like principles. We have a huge collection of an amazing tradition that has not been observed in order to extract principles, from which we can make modern typefaces. Just last June, in an article titled “Arabic Type Design is About to Experience an Awakening” for AIGA Eye on Design, writer Margaret Rhodes explained the urgent

need for contemporary experimentation in Arabic type design, consulting Captan herself: There are tens of thousands of unique fonts for Latin languages—an estimated 100,000, at most. That number dwindles to around 100 for Arabic, despite its being the fifth-most spoken language in the world. Of the ones that are available, many were made by Western designers with Western tools, resulting in a lack of nuance… The invention of movable type… was groundbreaking for Latin languages, which use discrete letters. But Arabic can’t be expressed in boxes; it’s a connected script. Moreover, its letterforms follow different shapes depending on the letters coming before or afterwards. Nevertheless, these printing techniques lead to the creation of “simplified Arabic” typefaces, which designers like Lara Captan say fail to capture any kind of local voice. Even American designer and writer Michael Rock, founding partner and creative director at 2 x 4, has recently become invested in the matter. He wrote an essay titled “Indecipherability,” originally published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine in 2016 as

My sisters and me with our grandmother, Dalal, circa 2000 in Rabieh, just a couple of months before immigrating to America.

A sign at the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport that always stumps us. We're Lebanese but have American passports. Nevertheless, we proceed to the right. CHANTAL JAHCHAN 009

Life by the pool at the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut, the center of the high society and a very glamorous destination during the 60’s.

“The Ever-Evolving Typographic Life of the Arabic Language,” recognizing the effort young Middle-Eastern type designers are making to rewrite the rules of typographic Arabic outside the constraints of Latin-based systems. Rock writes: Simplified Arabic was wildly successful, and is still used throughout the world, but in pruning and standardizing the alphabet, most of the elegant gestures of hand-brushed script were necessarily filtered out...Only within the last few years have new digital tools, combined with a youthful creative energy, offered the possibility of a full typographic Arabic that coalesces the dizzying eclecticism of the traditional writing systems, deep historical continuity, and contemporary font production. This movement can be linked to a dedicated cadre of young, highly skilled, Middle-Eastern designers, many of them autodidacts versed in cutting edge developments of Roman-based digital font authoring, applying that knowledge, and those tools, to their native typographies.

any project that seeks to find collegiality and common ground is welcome… Perhaps, just perhaps, these young designers can find one way to cross whatever chasm is dividing us. I landed in Beirut wide-eyed, ready to soak up all the typographic allure that the country had to offer. On the drive from the airport to my grandparents’ house the night we arrived, I couldn’t take my eyes off the roadside signage and storefronts, lit up with words in English, French, and Arabic. Add to it the fact that I am fluent in English, nearly fluent in French, and verbally competent but illiterate on paper in Arabic, and I’m sure you can understand why I often stare out the car window in silent awe. When I first set out with my camera my goal was to take photos that would challenge a Western audience to reconsider their notions of what is “aesthetically pleasing” or “modern.” This idea was sparked by a comment my sister Natasha made as I was snapping photos from the car. “Are you going to make Lebanon look bad?”

In our current dystopian rupture of extreme anti-cosmopolitanism, where every form of other—from whatever perspective other is rendered—is subject to suspicion and vilification,

I considered this question in the coming weeks as I continued to document my surroundings in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Because my grandparents live in such


“ I was no longer interested in challenging the West to see—or not see—Lebanon in a certain way. I noticed that the “problem” of identity actually lies within the country itself.”

a remote area—a village in the mountains—we take the same main road to get pretty much anywhere. It’s hard to explain with words how overwhelming and strangely intriguing the roadside storefronts and signs can be, especially for someone who studied graphic design in the United States, someone trained to appreciate function, mathematical grids, cleanliness, objectivity, “modernity,” typographic ubiquity. Even though it seemed that my entire design education was based on the Swiss International style, I found beauty and paradoxical order in the rejection, whether intentional or not, of this style in my native country.

was taken in trying to make sense of the meaning of certain phrases. It was also challenging to decide whether to translate the meaning or the phonetics of a word, especially with proper nouns. But at this point I knew the photos would need to be contextualized much further than with a simple translation.

Lebanon is a complex country with a rich history. It is so complex that no collection of photos could possibly capture its multitudes, its contradictions, its cosmopolitan beauty. Nevertheless, I tried. I returned from my 18-day trip with over a thousand photos, all taken en route from inside my grandfather’s car. The subjects were all typographic, from the calligraphy painted on the backs of cargo trucks to the shiny metallic type on the luxury storefronts—some in English, some in French, some in Arabic, but most in some charming combination of the three.

So I reached out to four different Lebanese professionals who I felt might have valuable insights on the state of “modern” Lebanon, whether through historical, typographic, or photographic perspectives. I spoke to my mother, Lara Bousleiman, about the ancient and recent history of Lebanon, including the Civil War, which she grew up in, and its linguistic and political consequences. I spoke to Lara Captan, a type designer and teacher, about the graphic heritage of Arabic writing and the complicated balance between preservation and modernity. I spoke to Wael Morcos, a type and graphic designer, about collaborative bilingual type design and what the future of the Arabic typographic landscape might look like. Finally, I spoke to British-Lebanese photographer Natalie Naccache about using the camera as a tool to challenge preconceived notions about the Middle East in modern day society.

Planning for a Western audience, I had my mother translate the Arabic and French text in the photos. I use the word translate loosely here, as much liberty

After conducting these interviews, I realized that the scope of my project was shifting. I was no longer interested in challenging the West to see—or not




“ This project seeks to explore what modernity might mean for Lebanon, specifically through a typographic and linguistic lens.”

see—Lebanon in a certain way. I noticed that the “problem” of identity actually lies within the country itself, within the way that the Lebanese view themselves, especially post-Civil War, and the way that they perceive what “modern” means for their country. In 1992, Eye Magazine published an article, “Agenda: Modernism tried to break with the past; traditionalists embrace it,” in which British designer and teacher Phil Baines tackled the question of what it means to be “contemporary” in type design: In thinking about what being contemporary means, I believe the only way forward is to avoid dogma, because all isms become anachronisms. A look at both Modernism and traditionalism, and at what the two words could mean, would suggest that tradition and modernity are very close. What is generally regarded as traditional bookbased design is dominated from an English speaking point of view by Beatrice Warde, Stanley Morison and Jan Tschichold. Its characteristics are class (serif) faces and centered type… More recently, the term has been used in conjunction with the word “values”, particularly when criticizing current typography… Such claims are ignorant and holier-than-thou, representing a

complacent view that every typeface needed has already been designed, and that the past is better than the present. Its link with the book means that “traditional” is a pejorative term when used by general designers, but an aspirational one when used by its practitioners. Which gets us nowhere and has little to do with its original meaning, as quoted by Tschichold in the recently published The Form of the Book: “Tradition derives from the Latin trado, I hand over. Tradition means handing over, delivering up, legacy, education, guidance. Convention derives from convention, to come together, and means agreement.” Based on this, I see tradition as a living thing, an ongoing understanding of practicalities and conventions which each age must interpret as necessary, according to its own needs, learn and benefit from, and then pass on. It is not a static set of rules to be slavishly obeyed. The word “modern” is fraught with similar difficulties because of its association with Modernism—itself an imprecise term embracing anything and everything from the Bauhaus to 8vo—which for the sake of the argument we could describe as characterized by a belief in the power of the present. It attempted to replace an infatuation with

Bab Idriss Flower Shop postcard from Beirut, 1960s. The smell of Beirut used to be associated with Jasmine because of all the flower markets.


From a National Geographic story published in 1958: “Part Christian, part Muslim, Beirut combines East and West, ancient and modern. Contrasts stand out vividly in street scenes such as this on the Rue Georges Picot… A sign over the blouse shop shows the cedar, Lebanon’s national symbol. The market-bound shepherd in Near Eastern headdress and Western jacket icily ignores the latest European fashions.”

the past with contemporary expression based on principles of functionality. In fact, its rational and functional aims were undermined by its own insistence on looking “modern” and a silly formalism, of which the exclusive use of the sans serif was but a part… Modernism rejected the past in its attempt to build a brave new world, but the revolution led to an introspection with little room for visual maneuver.

A lot of these questions, in some form or another, were brought up by the interviewees, who noted that everyone has a different idea of what “modern” means and what it looks like for the Arab world. Through these conversations, this project quickly became less about answering “how does the West see us?” and more about asking “how do we see ourselves?” What might the different “modernities” of Lebanon look like? Where do they come from? Where might they go?

There is no need for our design rigorously to adopt either traditionalism or Modernism, or to reject them out of hand. I recently found the following definition of being modern in a book on Le Corbusier: “To be modern is not a fashion but a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.”

This project seeks to explore what modernity might mean for Lebanon, specifically through a typographic and linguistic lens. By presenting photos of vernacular typography alongside interviews with various Lebanese professionals, this book challenges readers—Middle Eastern and Western alike—to reconsider their notions of visual modernity in the region and beyond.





Baalbek Jounieh Beirut







Sidon Jezzine

Nabatiye Tyre


20 km ISRAEL 20 mi






‫إشارات الطرقات‬ Road Signs




‫جبيل‬ ‫طرابلس‬ ‫جونية‬ ‫عجلتون‬


‫البترون‬ ‫طرابلس‬ ‫مخرج‬ ‫جبيل‬ ‫تاكسي‬ ‫بوسطة‬







‫انتبه مطبات‬


‫انتبه مدرسة‬


‫انتبه مطبات‬ ٠٤


‫ممر مشاة‬







‫انتبه منعطف خطر‬ ‫خفف سيرك‬ ‫قف‬ ‫خفف سيرك‬













‫انطلياس‬ ‫النقاش‬


‫مستشفى العين المتقدم‬ ‫مستشفى العين واألذن‬ ‫الدولي‬






‫ممنوع رمي النفايات‬ ‫ النقاش‬- ‫بلدية انطلياس‬




‫وادي نهر الكلب‬ ‫التاريخي‬


‫تمهل‬ ‫حاجز للجيش‬


‫شار ع‬ ‫األخوين رحباني‬








‫ممنوع الوقوف‬ ‫بلدية انطلياس و‬ ‫النقاش‬


‫موقف خاص‬ ‫صيدلية شاكر‬


‫موقف خاص‬


‫من فضلك عدم الوقوف‬ ً ‫شكرا‬


‫صيدلية‬ ‫موقف لحظة‬


‫امالك خاصة‬








ON WAR, , E G A U G N LA & , Y R T S E C N A Y T I N R E D O M

LARA BOUSLEIMAN is an architect and plans examiner based in Long Island, New York. After years of dabbling in other forms of design and media, she believes that architecture remains one of the highest forms of public service. Bousleiman views creating spaces for people as a serious responsibility—she says that spaces and places are either celebrated or cursed, for decades to come. Bousleiman holds a B.Arch from AcadÊmie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (1992). Since moving to Long Island in 2000, she has worked in architecture, software and GUI design, graphic and web design, product marketing, and computer-aided design (CAD) systems.


“ We all know that civil wars aren’t accurate depictions of how the people of a country feel—they’re usually egged on, you know?”

Growing up in Lebanon, what was your relationship with the Arabic language? Well, originally, growing up in the civil war,1 Arabic was not as popular a language as French. Because I grew up in the Christian sector, which was predominantly French-speaking, English was not as popular as French. Whereas my mother, who grew up in the majority-Muslim south, where the American schools and the missionaries were—she grew up much more comfortable with the Arabic language. Actually, both of her parents were teachers of Arabic poetry and stuff like that. She was also an Arabic teacher. So I’m a special case in the way that I was Christian but I valued the Arabic language. It’s not rare, but it’s more rare than the other way around. Let’s rewind for a second, since I know this is going to come up a lot. Can you brief me on the civil war? The war broke out in 1975. There were Palestinian refugees who were kicked out of Israel that were living in refugee camps in Lebanon. With time, they started gaining armament and decided to “take over” Lebanon with an alliance to the Muslims of Lebanon against the Christians of Lebanon. Just to refresh, Lebanon is a democracy, a non-sectarian kind of republic. When the French left in 1920, they left rules stating that the

president had to be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister had to be Sunni Muslim, and the head of the parliament had to be Shiite Muslim. That’s common knowledge. So the Christians fought against the Palestinians, and the Muslims fought with the Palestinians against the Christians. But we all know that civil wars aren’t accurate depictions of how the people of a country feel—they’re usually egged on, you know? Other nations sell arms and feed these types of wars, in this case—in our opinion—to destabilize Lebanon. And that war went on for about 20 years. So they call it a “civil” war because it was among the Lebanese, but it wasn’t just a “civil” war because the Muslims backed the Palestinians and the Israelis backed the extreme Christians. And then there was Hezbollah, who fought for Lebanon and was backed by Iran. It was a big mess, to say the least. So back to language and the war... Right. During the civil war, until the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, truly Arabic was not a ‘great’ language in the Christian sector. Arabic was perceived as Muslim; the Arab University was mostly Muslims and the American University was mixed.

The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in an estimated 150,000 fatalities. About 900,000 people, representing one-fifth of the pre-war population, were displaced from their homes and a quarter of a million people emigrated permanently. 1

During the Lebanese Civil War, the Green Line demarcation zone separated the predominantly Muslim West Beirut from the predominantly Christian East Beirut. Its name comes from the foliage that grew in the uninhabited space.


But after the war ended, we started seeing the nicer stores, the nicer restaurants, the nicer places writing Arabic words in the Latin form. While I was growing up, a seafood restaurant might be called “Le Bleu,” French for “the blue” of the water. But in the period after the civil war, people would have started calling it “Al Azrak,” which is ‫‘( األزرق‬al’azraq’) in Arabic. Nowadays people make Arabic words more lyrical by spelling them in Latin. Why do you think that happened following the war? Because people were trying to heal, I think, and to prove that they didn’t hate each other. The

demarcation lines that separated East Beirut from West Beirut fell. They were no more; a unified Beirut was coming about. Like in all history, prejudice needs time, racism needs time... It's not really not there anymore, but there’s a serious effort to blend. Curiosity, I guess. And now, all of sudden, it’s not ‘disgusting’ to listen to Arabic music anymore. It’s usually even mixed with a Western vibe or the opposite—Western music with an Arabic vibe. Now it’s cool to smoke a hookah, which is so Arab. Now even the Latin letters on stores are mimicking Arabic calligraphy. All of a sudden, Arabic words were okay and were actually, like, more snobbish.



“ In Arabic, it’s as if you’re a different person when you’re reading versus when you’re speaking—it’s so formal.”

Do you think Arabic is the true national language of Lebanon today? Or, I mean, was it ever? It’s very difficult because of the nature of the Arabic language. We know that there was a conquest, you know, like at a certain time in history the Arabs conquered so many countries. Lebanon was one of them. So, while the Arabic language is universal to all of the Arabic-speaking nations, each nation has a different accent or colloquial or sometimes even different words completely.

published papers and my friend Maria and I would enjoy reading it because it was the Latin letter speaking Lebanese. We would write notes to each other like that. You mean with numbers? I’m not sure about the numbers with Saïd Akl, to be honest. But I remember for the first time it was so relaxing to read a newspaper in our language. Because we don’t speak the Fus7a (“Al Fus-ha” or ‫)الفصحة‬. Right. So you were reading colloquial?

For example, I could read an Iraqi newspaper but I could never understand an Iraqi giving me directions. We all listen to the news in that Arabic but never speak it. In Arabic, it’s as if you are a different person when you are reading versus when you are speaking—it’s so formal. I’m much more comfortable speaking Lebanese. And the Lebanese language itself, when we speak it, has so many interjections in English and French terms. So you can’t really translate the spoken Lebanese into something written? You can’t translate the colloquial into written form? Saïd Akl tried to do that. I don’t really remember what years, but I remember as a teenager finding his

We were reading colloquial! We were reading like what we spoke. So the story would be told the way someone would actually tell you the story. We didn’t have to look for the definition of a word—we knew the definition, you know? It wasn’t fancy, not like Old English or anything. He was able to achieve that by not using written Arabic? Yes, and now we’re seeing it again in Facebook and texting. That’s probably why you asked me about the numbers. Because there are no Latin letters for certain Arabic sounds, we substitute a number that looks like the Arabic letter that we’re used to, to make that sound.2

The Arabic Chat Alphabet (or ‘Arabizi’ ‫ )عربيزي‬is an alternative to standard written Arabic that spells out Arabic words phonetically using the Latin alphabet and the numbers 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. For instance ‫تحيك عربي؟‬, or “do you speak Arabic?” becomes “ta7ki 3arabi?” 2

Front page of Saïd Akl’s tabloid newspaper, Lebnaan, written in his proposed Latin-based alphabet. Issue 686 was published on September 29, 1989.

He was known, quite paradoxically, both for his Arabic prose and his advocacy of a Latin-based Lebanese alphabet. His Phoenician-centered nationalism and rejection of the Arabness of Lebanon sparked controversy.

Saïd Akl (1912–2014) was a Lebanese poet, writer, playwright and language reformer.


Diacritical marks are typically only included in religious texts (like the Quran, left), language workbooks, or children’s books (like the bilingual one, above).

It’s funny because now, decades later, the internet and Facebook and texting brought us back to that same thing. So when you’re texting in English with your Lebanese friends in the US or in Lebanon, you find yourself interjecting it with Lebanese words.

books and papers, you would immediately read it “imminent.” But if it’s not familiar to you, you’re going to say, “Is it imminent? Is it amonant? What are those short vowels?”

Right. So there are clearly limitations to written Arabic…Why can’t you capture the colloquial in written Arabic? Is it because of the alphabet or type or the language?

That’s why Arabic is difficult. The short vowels are supposed to be accents on the words, but they don’t put those accents all the time because you’re supposed to be literate and a connoisseur when you’re reading the newspaper.

You mean writing colloquial Arabic in the Arabic letter? You could—it’s very difficult because an Arabic word does not show you the short vowel.3 So it’s as if, in order to write “imminent,” you write “M-N-N-T.” So if you know this word from learning Arabic and reading

For instance, I was very good in Arabic because of my mother and her parents. They took pride in their Arabic poetry, in their writing—you don’t find that much. So when I read an Arabic newspaper, I read it eloquently. But that’s not a given. Most of my friends from the French

In Arabic, short vowels are not represented by letters in the alphabet, but rather by small marks written above or below the letter they follow. These diacritical marks are called ‫‘( َح َركات‬harakāt’), literally meaning “motions.” 3


“ There were so many great poets and thinkers and philosophers throughout history who wrote in Arabic. What are we supposed to do, annihilate that?”

schools read miserably. They sound as if they are not Arabs. They have to figure out the accents. That’s why it’s difficult to write colloquial in the actual written Arabic letter. It’s very difficult. Can you give me an example? So, “little” in written Arabic is ‫‘( قليل‬qalil’), but in Lebanese it’s pronounced “alil.” So how can the “qa” become “a”? It’s a different letter. If I write “alil” in written Arabic, it could be ‫‘( الليل‬al layl’), which is the night. Something like that. It’s very delicate. That’s why Saïd Akl went on to use the Latin letter and that created a problem—well two things. First, it was very good for people who wanted to learn Lebanese. Let’s say I’m French, I want to learn Lebanese—I don’t have to learn a new letter. I can read, I can find a definition. It’s so easy to write books, to type it, print, search, learn. And that’s something that Lebanon always loves. The Lebanese love being cosmopolitan, in the moment, knowing what’s going on—

Hybrid. Hybrid, accepted, integrated. They want to integrate, they want to be part of Europe. And this was a thing, maybe in the 70s or earlier Saïd Akl… But at the same time, when you use Latin letters, you diminish the merit of the beauty of the actual Arabic language. Right. You’re abandoning it. You’re abandoning all the poetry, all the history. The written Arabic language has a huge history of great literature, like Ali ibn Abi Talib. There were so many great poets and thinkers and philosophers in the Arabic language. And so, what are we supposed to do, annihilate that? So that was one bad thing about Akl going to the Latin letter. There were definitely a lot of people who identified with him. But if there were enough people identifying with him, it would have survived.



“ We—our ancestors—created the first alphabet. This is our history.”

Are there people that don’t want the Lebanese to hold onto French because of colonialism? 4 It doesn’t seem like anybody really resents French, even though they occupied us. We were occupied by the French but we were privileged. That occupation never hurt the Lebanese. The Lebanese had it easy, in a way that even their independence was given to them by the French. It also has a lot to do with religion. Lebanon is half Christian and half Muslim—I mean, it was mostly Christian and now it’s mostly Muslim—but because there was an affinity between the French and the Christian Lebanese, there was never that big of a struggle. They came to an understanding when it was time for the French to leave. In the meantime, Lebanon didn’t have oil. There was nothing for the French to hold on to. Maybe commerce or the gateway to the East—I’m not really versed in this. But what the French gained—and this is the romantic

side—is that now Lebanon is full of French books, movies, and universities. Most of the best schools are French schools. So now people eat imported French foods, read imported French books. At the end of the day that is helpful to France. And there’s a big difference in the way these educated groups conceptualize their ancestry, right? Typically, the majority French educated Christians believe that they are descendants of the Phoenicians 5 and should not be confused or conflated with their Arab neighbors. The majority English educated Muslims, even though they also consider themselves Phoenician descendants, adopt the Arab ethnicity more readily. The ancient Phoenicians discovered this beautiful color that came from the murex shell. It’s the color for royalty, called “pourpre” in French. I don’t know what it is in English, maybe like “royal purple.” They also say that the Phoenicians created blown glass. Some people even think that the Phoenicians reached the Americas

The French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1920–1946) was a League of Nations mandate that formalized France’s post-WWI control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon, which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century. France agreed to transfer power to the Lebanese government in 1943, but their troops did not leave until 1946. 4

Phoenicia (1500–300 B.C.) was an ancient civilization that originated in the Eastern Mediterranean and west of the Fertile Crescent. The major cities were Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Arwad; they represented a confederation of maritime traders rather than a single nation. 5

A French “sower� stamp from 1923 overprinted for use in Syria and Greater Lebanon during the French Mandate.


We are! We created the alphabet! The word phonetics comes from the word Phoenician. Our alphabet was different than hieroglyphics because those were images and not letters. We—our ancestors—created the first alphabet. This is our history. We had so many conquests come into Lebanon, since it was the gate to trading in the far East and the Mediterranean. It was a meeting point for Europe, Asia, Africa, and the sea. One of the conquests, the last one, was the Arabic one. And that’s why we speak Arabic. It’s not that we are Arabs—Arabs are from the Arabian Peninsula. We’re a different race, we’re from the Levant. “Le levant” in French means where the sun rises.

The Phoenicians were among the first societies to make extensive use of an alphabet. Through maritime trade, the Phoenicians disseminated the alphabet throughout the Mediterranean world to Anatolia, North Africa, and Europe. It is the probable ancestor of the Greek alphabet and therefore, all Western alphabets.

Phoenician text inscribed on stone, 1st millennium BCE.

aboard ships constructed from the cedars of Lebanon. They were merchants and sea voyagers, and we are very proud of this heritage. We think we are amazing.

But not everybody thinks that—that the Lebanese are Phoenician, right? Again, it goes back to religion. Just like the misconception in the US and the Western world that Arab equates Muslim, whereas, for example, we speak Arabic and we’re Christian. The connotation behind ‘Arab’ is that we love camels and live in the desert, but clearly we are far more complex than that. So you don’t really consider yourself Arab then? Well, the Persians aren’t Arabs. The Persians are Persian, the Indians are Indian, the Lebanese are Lebanese; Eastern European is different than European. Each one has their own culture. Our culture is so different than any other culture. And it has to do with the religions. For example, I don’t know if any Lebanese Muslims would call themselves Phoenician. I think they would call themselves Arabs because Muhammad was from the Arabian Peninsula. We all have different answers to the same major questions: Who are our ancestors? What is our legacy? How might that shape our future?

A map of Ancient Phoenicia focusing on the area making up modern-day Lebanon.



“ Don’t you see the potential? Sometimes you forget you’re in an ‘Arab’ country because of the environment that you’re surrounded by.”

When you first came to America, were you surprised at the amount of order there was—like the way the roads are, and all the rules and the laws? I mean, I know you traveled a lot when you were younger, but still—were you shocked? Were you pleased? I was definitely pleased. Was I shocked? Not really. Because, like you said, I was lucky. Back in the day, not everyone traveled. I was really lucky, you know? My parents took us with them when they traveled. We had seen Europe, we had seen the United States, all of that. And because of the war I spent time in Qatar while growing up. Beirut used to be the most advanced city—and Lebanon the most advanced country—in the entire Middle East, whereas everyone else—with the exception of Iraq and Iran—didn’t even have electricity yet. So Lebanon was very advanced up until the war started in 1975. People—my mother—used to wear not miniskirts but micro-skirts. And hot pants and thick black eyeliner. And we’re talking the sixties,6 you know? The Lebanese were so advanced. We had traffic lights, we had traffic police, we had a system. We paid taxes!

[Laughs] Wow. And then all of a sudden, the civil war broke out and the infrastructure and the government collapsed. So Lebanon became “a developing country.” And the other countries around us, with the help of all the oil money, started to become more “developed.” So we fled Lebanon during the war, while I was young. But we were in a country that was getting oil money, Qatar, so we got used to law and order. It was actually a monarchy, it still is. You couldn’t take pictures if you were, like, walking down the street. You would be arrested. There were so many rules and regulations. So when I came to the United States from Lebanon, which was lawless after the war, I wasn’t shocked because I was used to it. But I’ve definitely heard people say that they were shocked when they fled to, like, Canada because people didn’t cross the double yellow line as if it were a concrete barrier on the highway. That, to them, was shocking. Stopping at a stop sign, even if there was no police there—that was shocking to them, like, why would you obey? So yeah, it is really shocking for many Lebanese people.

The sixties in Lebanon are considered somewhat of a Golden Age. After World War II, Beirut became a huge tourist destination and was nicknamed “the Paris of the Middle East,” due to its French influences and lively cultural life. After the civil war, Beirut had to be rebuilt from the ground up and was never quite the same. 6

My grandparents (left) enjoying the typical Beirut nightlife before the Lebanese Civil War began in 1975.


Do you think it’s hard for your parents to see Lebanon how it is now, versus how it was before? Yeah, it is. It’s heartbreaking for them. You know, they’re embarrassed. And they always say, “We wish you could see Lebanon before.” When you meet people of my parents age, they always tell you—I met an older woman at Marshall’s and we started talking, and she goes, “Where are you from?” And when I said Beirut, she said “Oh my god!” She used to be a flight attendant with Pan Am and her favorite city was Beirut. Her husband was a pilot, and they would stay in Beirut for vacation, like for a weekend or something. And remember my friend Emily? When she was married and living in London, she and her husband would go party in Beirut on the weekend. All this was, like, in the 70s. Wow. So for my parents to see that we were the best... And now you experience this when you visit them, don’t

you see the potential? In Lebanon, sometimes you forget that you’re in an “Arab” country because of the environment you’re surrounded by. Like when we went to that pub last week in Mar Mikhaël—that whole street, that whole environment, is mimicking the way Lebanon was before the war. Yeah. I try not to be surprised when we go places like that, as if I expect all of Lebanon to be that “modern.” But it’s still always surprising. Yes. Different areas, different flavors. We call it “oriental,” from the French word “orientale.” The French don’t say “Arab,” they say “Orientale,” which is the orient—not the far east, the orient. We are the orient. So this kind of music, this kind of lettering—it’s lyrical to them, it’s very romantic. Lebanon pre-war was very modern, but it had its identity. It was the orient, it was sexy, it was exciting. Arabic was not a big deal in the 60s and 70s. There wasn’t this big conflict that we have now globally. There was no prejudice.

The Bohemian is a popular pub for locals in Mar MikhaĂŤl, a district known for its night life.

Restaurant bar in downtown Beirut.



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‫مصرف عَوده‬














WAEL MORCOS is an independent Arabic type designer and typographer based in New York. He uses language to investigate the formal qualities of words and their complex meanings. He is also interested in the moments where communication fails and uses its shortcomings to mine new ways to reach out and to tell stories. Morcos holds a BA in Graphic Design from Notre Dame University (Lebanon) and an MFA in Graphic Design from RISD (2013). After receiving his BA, he joined the branding and design department of SAATCHI Beirut. In 2013, he moved to New York where he worked with 2x4, Commercial Type and Base Design.


“ When things get lost in translation, sometimes it’s telling of a bigger conflict.”

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, like where you born, where you grew up? I grew up in Lebanon, and that’s where I lived for the most part of my life. I grew up in a little town in the northern suburbs of Beirut called Zekrit. I went to a French school, so Arabic and French were the first languages I learned, before English was introduced. I went to Notre Dame University in Lebanon for an undergrad in graphic design. After graduating, I worked in the branding department of SAATCHI in Beirut for a few years. I was also involved in the first two Typographic Matchmaking Projects in Amsterdam around that time. After that, I came to the United States for my masters in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design. I now live and work in New York. At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue type design? Well, my undergrad program was structured in a way that we could choose an emphasis at the end of the last year—whether it was typography, moving image, illustration, or another minor—and one of my emphases was typography. And that interest in typography

kept growing, and I kept on working on myself and collaborating with other type designers. I also spent time doing my own little projects that grew into type design projects and collaborations with foundries. Would you consider yourself self-taught? I took a type design course at RISD but that was only one course. The thing is, I stayed very close to a lot of personal friends who went through actual type design programs, especially Khajag Apelian, Yara Khoury, and Kristyan Sarkis. So I’m definitely influenced by what I learned from them, their approaches, and their teachings. And I’ve worked with them on several projects. You wrote that you are “interested in the moments where communication fails” and that you “use its shortcomings to mine new ways to reach out and to tell stories.” Can you give me an example of what you mean by that? So that was part of the context of my thesis at RISD where I was interested in the idea of communication as, in itself, an act of copying in the most general sense. And by that I mean that when you communicate with somebody, there’s some sort of mental idea that’s being transferred and recreated in someone else’s mind, so it’s some sort of copy.

In Any Form or by Any Means is a book by Morcos that appropriates copyright notices and re-presents them as a series of 76 authored concrete poems.

Bozoni is a system of three stacking typefaces based on the original Bodoni typeface. In this project, Morcos explores what happens when a vector shape (with curves and obliques) is rasterized into an orthogonal pixel grid.


29LT Azer was designed by Wael Morcos, Pascal Zoghbi, Jan Fromm, and Swiss Typefaces. The Arabic is a Naskh/Kufi hybrid and retains a balance between calligraphic angular cuts and unadorned construction. The Latin is a humanist sans serif with crisp cuts based on the broad nip pen calligraphic structure and contemporary outlines.


Arabic Lettering Workshops posters by KhaJag Apelian, Kristyan Sarkis, Wael Morcos, Yara Khoury and Lara Balaa.


But I was also looking at other methods of reproduction and dissemination and looking at the tools that allow this communication and copying to happen, from the copying machine to the printing machine to the camera to TVs and screens, and how messages can go from one medium to another and be translated and copied.

I was also looking at ways that these tools failed—like when a photocopy is not high fidelity, or when a phone screen is lo-res, or when things get lost in translation with automated programs like Google Translate—and I was interested in these methodologies of reproduction that alter messages as they go.

Part of my thesis involved looking at moments where these tools or frameworks are less than ideal and fail to reproduce the message as is—in terms of its formal qualities but also sometimes by stripping it out of its context and representing it somewhere else.

But I’m also interested, in that sense, in cross-cultural communication. When things get lost in translation, or misrepresented, or when the system breaks, or when things don’t translate with all their nuances, sometimes it’s telling of a bigger conflict or misunderstanding.


“ The question of what the modern Arabic identity looks like is unsure, and that’s what makes it exciting to try to figure out.”

Do you feel that Arabic is disappearing among the younger Lebanese generations—not necessarily the spoken Arabic, but the written word and the history? I don’t know, honestly. I would need a global survey of what’s going on. I mean, it’s a globalized trend around the world. I feel that, as the internet reaches more and more people, there’s more exposure to English. However when I do visit Lebanon, I see a lot of Arabic everywhere and—especially among family members—it is the language that we use to communicate. But, I mean, I’m complicit in it as well. I’ve only been in the US for six years and I use English 99% of the time while I’m here. Can you tell me a little bit about the Typographic Matchmaking project? How was the experience of working with Dutch type designers on creating bilingual typefaces? I was involved in the first and second Typographic Matchmaking projects. These are cultural projects initiated by the Khatt Foundation as a way to create a space where experimentation can happen.

My involvement in the first project started in the phase after the designers had already made the typefaces, where they were creating an exhibition to showcase the work and launch the book. So I was working more on the exhibition and graphic design side of things. I helped conceptualize, design, and put up the exhibition along with other designers in Amsterdam. That was part of a seven week project. In the second project, which was Typographic Matchmaking in the City, I was matched with Artur Schmal from Holland. What was interesting about the process was that, unlike the first project, both typefaces were designed from scratch simultaneously. So the creative process was very organic, and one script would influence the other as it was forming. I think the whole experience was very interesting in itself. Being a type designer from Lebanon and having to operate and perform in a crew of international designers gives one a lot of perspective on the responsibility that they have in terms of representing the script, doing a good job, being a collaborator on the team, and making new friends. Overall it was a great experience.

Kufam is a bilingual typeface designed by Morcos and Artur Schmal as part of the Typographic Matchmaking II project. The Arabic is inspired by early Kufi inscriptions (7th century) and the Latin is inspired by Dutch urban lettering of the 1920’s.

Graphik Arabic, designed by Morcos and Khajag Apelian, combines the simplified strokes of a grotesque with the structure and proportion of a fluid script. The Arabic aims to be a meaningful departure from calligraphic detailing and presents a utilitarian workhorse with a plain style.


These logos were implemented into Arabic by Maria Gasan for various luxury brands doing business in Qatar.

Many Arab countries call for the compulsory use of the Arabic script of a mark on certain products and in certain industries. For example, marks on signboards in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE must appear in Arabic.


“ Latin typography has been long detached from its calligraphic roots and has become its own thing. On the other hand, and mostly because technology couldn’t catch up with the complexity of the Arabic script, Arabic typography has remained connected to its calligraphic origins.”

On the other hand, as opposed to designing these Latin and Arabic typefaces organically and simultaneously, you worked on the Graphik Arabic project where the Latin face had already been established. What was it like building an Arabic version of an existing typeface that was so far from calligraphy and all of that? It was challenging and it was interesting and that’s why it was a very exciting project. I feel that Latin typography has been long detached from its calligraphic roots and has become its own thing. On the other hand—mostly because the technology couldn’t catch up with the complexity of the Arabic script—Arabic typography has remained connected to its calligraphic origins. Graphik Arabic was an opportunity to see how we could take the essence of these shapes and reinterpret them in typographic terms rather than calligraphic terms. And we tried to figure out what that reinterpretation might mean and what the boundaries would be, because at the end of the day it’s always about black and white shapes. So that was challenging but also exciting because of all these things that we were trying to figure out as we went. Graphik Arabic was co-designed with Khajag Apelian, a type designer from Lebanon, and the process of going through all the discussions, and all the arguments, and all the back and forths together was really exciting and formative for both of us.

I read that after you and Khajag designed Graphik Arabic, Christian Schwartz went back and made modifications to Graphik. What changed and why? The modifications were mostly technical rather than changes to the actual design. What happened was that, in some weights, the Latin capital letters were a little bit too thick for the Arabic. For example, Arabic doesn’t have capital letters and if you’re comparing Arabic to a regular Latin text, it’s going to be different than comparing it to an all-caps Latin text. The texture is a little bit different, the amount of blackness on the line is different. And so, because the Arabic face was primarily designed to work well with organic Latin—meaning Latin with uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and punctuation—the capitals that existed in the original Graphik had to be readjusted slightly. The numbers were also slightly adjusted to be more visually balanced. There’s this big push and pull between preservation and modernity in Arabic type design. Do you see that battle playing out elsewhere in Lebanon? Absolutely. I don’t know if I have the simple answer to that—the idea of what modernity is for the Middle East and for the Arabic culture. It’s a bigger political, economic, and historical question as to what defines modernity for the Arab people.




A lot of ideological breaking points are usually linked to technological advancements. When we teach history, there’s prehistory and history and usually the invention of the writing system is that breaking point. The thing is, a lot of the technological advancements that define us today are primarily Western inventions. These breaking points—modernity, pre-modernity, tradition—are loaded terms that can be insensitive to the nuances of a locality of the Middle East. And I think the whole region, as a result, suffers this larger identity crisis of what it means to be a modern Arab today. What languages do we speak? How do we express ourselves? What does our writing system look like? How has our script adapted to all those digital interfaces? This is definitely felt in the design industry at large, and more specifically in the type industry. I agree. There’s also the religious baggage that comes with the Arabic script. Historically, Arabic as a script was developed and passed down and preserved due to its value as sacred script in Islam. It’s hard to disconnect the script from the religious contexts that formed it. People feel differently about religion and how they interpret it especially when it comes to considering what is modern and what is not. These concepts of what is modern and what is tradition are malleable and vague, and fluctuate depending on who you’re talking to.

There are many global corporate brands that need to express themselves in Arabic as they enter new Middle Eastern markets. And there’s always a conflict between trying to be respectful to the local traditions and looking international—and these are like polar opposites, in a way. People have different ideas about what that means in terms of the script. What is modern Arabic, what is corporate and international, what is local, what is traditional, what is sensitive to the culture and what does that mean? These conventions have been discussed at length and canonized in Western design journals. But for Arabic, unfortunately, it can come down to the subjective feelings of the creative director heading the project and what their relationship is to the script. To the untrained eye, the desire to look modern could mean disregarding the richness the script holds as dated for the sake of a simplified modular structure because that is what’s understood as the international modern style. It’s an aesthetic that’s stripped down to the geometric, modular, repetitive, disconnected letters. It’s the accepted concept of international modernity, a concept that we inherited from the Swiss design style. The questions of what the modern Arab identity looks like and what the future of the Arabic letterform might be are unsure, and that’s what makes it exciting to try to figure out.



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‫ ملحمة‬،‫كيام‬









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‫جنات الحايك‬ ّ ‫ُم َع‬ ‫فرن سناك الحايك‬ ً ‫أهال ً و سهال‬





‫أبتاون بيروت‬




‫سندوتش ونصف‬





, S N I G I R O ON , Y T I N R E D MO & HOPE

LARA CAPTAN is an independent Arabic type designer and typographer based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She seeks to discover the history and mechanics of the Arabic script with one constant aim: the wish to create Arabic typefaces that spring from the graphic heritage of Arabic writing yet transform the past in search for modernity. Captan holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut (2006), a Masters degree in Advanced Typography from the Escola de Disseny i Art (Barcelona, 2011), and a Certificate in Type Design from the Cooper Union (New York, 2012). In 2016, Captan co-founded the Arabic Type Design – Beirut program with Kristyan Sarkis.


“ If you don't know your past, then you don't know your present and you don't know your future.”

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, like where you were born, where you grew up? I was born in Beirut and then my parents actually lived in Saudi Arabia so I spent fifteen years there. Then we moved back to Beirut with my mom and sister—my dad actually still works in Saudi Arabia so he comes and goes to Beirut. And we used to go every summer, like you do, to see my grandparents. We had a chalet at the beach, and we used to sleep all together in one chalet and spend time by the sea which was really amazing growing up. So I spent ages 15 to 18 in Lebanon, and then I studied graphic design at the American University of Beirut and that’s where I fell in love with type. Our teachers used to always say, “there are many problems with Arabic type, so you have to learn as a designer to be able to deal with it,” but they would never explain the problems in depth. We would address how to create harmony or contrast between two languages on one page—because of course in Lebanon you use Latin and Arabic all the time, whether its French or English mixed with Arabic. So in terms of book design it always creates these questions of how do you create hierarchy, what do you give hierarchy to, and then how do you create beautiful and functional layouts? Do the languages need to look alike?

That is a trend that’s happening globally; because of globalization everything is somehow needing to look like Latin. The computer is built for Latin, websites are built for Latin, user interfaces are built for Latin, and so sort of everything falls under this design system that is made for Latin. We had all these questions in university, and I decided to address why we have problems in Arabic type, which means I went back in time to the historical evolution of the Arabic script. This started as my thesis, but became my life project because it was much bigger than I thought it would be. I made the decision of wanting to be a type designer, of wanting to find solutions, but first I needed to understand what went on in history. Because if you don’t know your past, then you don’t know your present and you don’t know your future, as a human being, or as a designer. So I dug into all these things, and I stayed in Lebanon for a while. I started working, teaching at AUB, freelancing and digging into type in parallel. I’m self-taught when it comes to Arabic type. Most of the Arabic type designers are self-taught because there are no programs that teach it—besides the Arabic Type Design - Beirut program that Kristyan Sarkis and I created in 2016 as a reaction to that—or because they teach a very small chunk, which is not enough.

Captan with a student during the second week of the ATDB program in 2016. The first week was focused on gathering crucial information about the script, while the second was spent sketching and experimenting with letterforms.


So I went to Barcelona for a masters. I figured Spain would be a good place because they have a heritage in Arabic. The masters wasn’t at the level I would have liked it to be, but my year in Barcelona was amazing and it lead me to Thomas Milo and Miriam Somers of DecoType. They’ve created a layout engine, which is an engineering system that, on the computer will reinterpret typed text and go through a specific mechanism to give you the form. That’s ACE, right? Yes, they created the Advanced Composition Engine, or ACE. I saw what ACE could do, and it had been an idea of mine to work on type design in that method. It uses a part system, or a stroke system—or, elemental system is a better word—and I was like, oh my god, they made my dream come true! I don’t need to learn programming, I don’t need to go through all the inventing and understanding the full system, and so that's why I

moved to the Netherlands on a passionate whim almost five years ago. I’m currently working on my first two typeface families with them. The first, Falak, is for the ACE engine and the second, Kanat, is a letterpress typeface that will go back into the digital world. So I’m setting these things up after 12 years of research and experiments and trying to understand things like, how does this work? How can we make it better? It’s sort of like how the Renaissance painters were looking at the human body and wondering, how exactly does this thing work? Nobody knew anything about medicine or anatomy or anything and then Michelangelo was illegally dissecting bodies just to understand where the muscles were, which was a major breakthrough in art. So somehow I feel connected to these people because DecoType and I did the same with writing: we disconnected it or dissected it to rebuild it.

Kanat is an Arabic wood typeface developed to be housed at the [typo]Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam. It was a personal challenge on how to create an Arabic typeface for movable type technology. Kanat is based on the Early Arabic scripts and is fully detached to adapt itself to letterpress technology.

Falak is a reaction to the current state of Arabic type design. It is a typeface family that raises questions: How can the form of type be contemporary yet rooted in the aesthetic characteristics of the Arabic script? How can a typeface be mechanized from within the intrinsic structural behavior of Arabic letter blocks?



“ The artistic effort put into the image in the West is equal to the artistic effort put into the word in the East.”

I read that your ultimate goal is “to create Arabic typefaces that spring from the graphic heritage of Arabic writing yet transform the past in search for modernity.” How do you find the balance between preservation and making something new? In fact, that’s still a question I have. It's hard to explain what I mean by modernity—it’s something I try and then see what it looks like. Arabic has an amazing past. The effort put into the design of the word in Arabic was the whole artistic effort of an enormous civilization over centuries. The artistic effort put into the image in the West is equal to the artistic effort put into the word in the East.1 So that’s how big the load is on our shoulders, or mine. [Laughs] Or any type designer, I think, who’s dealing with Arabic. They should have that load. And so there's this incredible reference point that we didn’t observe and understand in terms of how Latin was observed and understood. What are the optical corrections? Where is contrast placed? How do we go from a thick stroke to a thin stroke? How does that relate to the pen movement? All these theories, we don’t have them. We also have a huge amount of diversity in the script. For example, depending on whether you're in Iran or Pakistan, they prefer certain letters to look a certain way in terms of letter-shaping. And preferences for certain script styles also vary depending on whether you're in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.

To reach modernity, I have to understand the rules and then make theories—I make theories of contrast, and so forth—and then from there, I abstract. I basically need to move one step away from calligraphy. And then after having done that step, I can move one step away from that step away. Then I can slowly get into more abstraction and get further away from the writing system but knowing that in its skeleton, or in its essence, I’m following something. I’m not inventing something out of nowhere. I can hold myself accountable for my choices, and I think many Arabic type designers today cannot do that because they are just designing based on what is there. Yes, and I think maybe there’s a misconception when people first read that, like they think it’s anti-modern or anti-West, but really you’re just saying that it has to come from the roots. It can look like whatever but it just has to be traceable back to something. Exactly, yes. I often have to explain that I’m not a purist, I’m not a traditionalist—I’m actually the opposite! I’m currently working on a detached letterpress typeface. So no, I’m not attached to the rules. But I do think you have to know them to throw them away, and in a much more controlled manner. So yes, it is true that people often misunderstand this standpoint, but that’s okay.

Aniconism is a proscription in Islam against the creation of images of sentient beings, especially images of God and Muhammad. This has led to Islamic art being dominated by calligraphy and geometric patterns. 1


Portrait of St. Matthew followed by the translator's prayer and introduction to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336.

Arabic calligraphy at Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan (built 1634–1635).



“ I’m confident that there will be a sort of rebirth—or continuation—of the long, beautiful tradition of Arabic.”

It seems like Arabic typography has really leapt onto the global design radar in the past couple of years. I’m starting to see it everywhere. I mean, you were invited to speak at Typographics! When I bought the “blind bird” ticket, I didn’t know who’d be there. Then when they announced that a Lebanese woman would be one of the speakers, I was like, “Oh my god, is this real?” It was surreal. So why do you think people are taking notice all of a sudden?

with Arabic are actually not made in the Arab world; they’re made in New York, London, Paris—in the famous studios. So that could also be a reason, but there might be more that I don’t know about because I really think it reaches the sociological and sociopolitical spheres that I’m not an expert in. Good question.

That’s a good question. I think it has to do with global politics. Post 9/11, suddenly you have this hatred towards Islam, and of course we can’t deny that Arabic is strongly connected to Islam—wherever Islam went, Arabic went as a script. So there’s this interest that came out; if you hate a certain people then you also need to understand them. And now suddenly there’s a huge amount of Arab refugees—like for example, here in the Netherlands about 60,000 refugees—and the people here ask themselves, “Who are these people?” The cultural and artistic sectors are often the first to jump at that occasion to understand what’s going on in these cultures beyond media.

I did lose hope at some point, until speaking to my mom’s cousin who lives in the US and she said, “Well now they’ve introduced Arabic classes in my kid’s school.” So there is a growing interest in the language. And I grew up outside of Lebanon so I, too, cannot write that well. I force myself to write—that’s also one of the reasons I’m interested in the writing. It’s kind of out of a complex. [Laughs] An identity issue.

So that’s one explanation. Another one could be that Dubai and the Arabian Peninsula have quite a lot of wealth and they request work from design studios all over the world. So many of the projects that have to do

Do you feel, in Lebanon specifically, that the Arabic language—both verbal and written—is being lost?

But yes, in Lebanon the Arabic language may be getting a bit more lost than in other places. Like, in Syria that's not the case. They learn everything in Arabic. They study and do math in Arabic, they know philosophers of the Arab and Persian world. We mostly don’t. But in Lebanon, that comes from a particular history: we were colonized by the French and they had a policy that stopped schools from teaching Arabic full-time. And we see the results of this generations later.

Two examples of what Captan would like Arabic type to move away from. The Arabic word “eye” is shown in “simplified Arabic” on top and “Latinized Arabic” on bottom.

Work from ATDB student Hares Bassil. This typeface, called Mahrous, was inspired by decoration on trucks in Lebanon. It has the feel of the Ruq’ah script seen on truck art, but the contrast makes it look more modern.




It’s really surprising. But, then again, we also have a weak government that doesn’t contribute to any sort of educational reform. We don’t have any reforms in terms of the language, so Arabic is very set in stone. I mean, come on guys, languages are organic. They need to be thought about, dictionaries need to be revised, etc. So we don’t do that work, unfortunately, because we are in challenging financial and security contexts I suppose. So what can we do? We can just hang on there and say, okay I’m just going to do my little thing in my bubble! [Laughs] I actually think that the Western design world that’s starting to take notice of Arabic might make the younger generations in Lebanon more interested in the Arabic language. Yes, I think they are interested for sure. There was a new wave after the Arab Spring of finding our own local identities in the design field. You can see that in Egypt, in Lebanon. You can see that in music and all sorts of art and cultural fields. I think it’s nice, but we need to teach the language properly.

Where do you think Arabic will be in the next 10 years or so in terms of type design? I mean, you started the Arabic Type Design program in Beirut (ATDB). Where would you like to see it go? I would like to see it going in many directions. I’d like to have more people in the field, more people doing critical thinking—not only designing, but thinking about what is being designed and why. And I'd like to see more people thinking about the history of type and writing and looking at it from that perspective and not the art historical perspective, which is the most common. So just more. I think we’re getting there. I’m confident that there will be a sort of rebirth—or continuation—of the long, beautiful tradition of Arabic. So I’m pretty hopeful. Especially with the program that we created, I think we will see things happen in that sort of timespan, like 10 or 20 years. And I think people are responsive, from the students we’ve had—they’ve been looking for what we’re offering. So how do we create a bridge between our history and our present day and our future?









‫دلوعة االن‬ ‫شيل عيونك عني‬ ‫ست الحلوين‬ ‫الهي أحميها‬ ‫الله‬ ‫الله يبارك‬ ‫انظر بعينك‬ ‫و ارحم بقلبك‬ ‫عروسة‬







‫يخزي العين‬ ‫خليك رايق‬


‫رضاك يا أمي‬


‫معدة للنقل العام‬ ‫أنا الزنكير‬









‫يا رضى الله و رضى‬ ‫الوالدين‬


‫يا رب احميها و‬ ‫احمي من فيها‬


‫كل الحلوين‬ ‫لعيونك عبيد‬ ‫الشمس بتشرق و تغيب‬ ‫والليل يجمع كل حبيب‬




‫الله يبارك‬ ‫سألوني أنت مين‬ ‫ عيوني هالعيون‬/ ‫محروسة‬ ً ‫واثق الخطوة يمشي ملكا‬






‫كل ما أريد لعيد الميالد‬

2 EMPTY 7565 TOTAL 15100 NET 7535

٧٥٦٥ ‫فارغة‬ ١٥١٠٠ ‫االجمالي‬ ٧٥٣٥ ‫الصافي‬


‫تذوق الشعور‬


‫مشاوي األعزب دبدوب‬ ‫استراحة الغداء‬







‫الله يبارك‬ ‫ابو الياس فارسها و مار‬ ‫الياس حارسها‬ ‫الجيش‬






NATALIE NACCACHE is a Lebanese-British documentary photographer based in Dubai and Beirut. Having grown up to Lebanese parents in London, her work challenges preconceived ideas of the Middle East in modern day society. She holds a BA in Photojournalism from London College of Communication and a Diploma of Art Foundation from Camberwell College of Art. Her photographs have been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and The Sunday Times Magazine and have been exhibited internationally, most recently at the Nobel Peace Center.


“ I’m not a PR person for Lebanon—I’m there to document modern-day society. It’s not a propaganda tool.”

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, like where you were born, where you grew up? I grew up in London to Lebanese parents. We'd visit Beirut every summer, which we really looked forward to. We went every single summer and if it wasn’t in the summer it was in the winter. When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? Growing up, my mom never liked posing for pictures, ever. She always said, “Take it without me looking,” or “Catch the moment.” My mom used to send my grandmother photos so she would know what we were up to. But after my grandmother passed away, my mom thought, “What’s the point?” From then on I was the one taking pictures so that we’d remember our lives. But I was always drawing, I was always painting. I was quite artistic, but I had never looked at photography as a medium. And then when I went to university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to do something creative and meaningful. I did an art foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts in London. When it came time to pick our majors—our degrees—I saw a photojournalism course and I just

couldn’t believe the course description. I thought it was amazing that you could tell stories with pictures. So I got accepted, I started, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with telling stories through pictures and showing the world a different side of the Middle East. Right, you wrote that your work “challenges preconceived ideas of the Middle East in modern day society.” How and why do you seek to do that? Because I was always surrounded by people—especially in university—who grew up with a notion that Lebanon is a war-torn country where nothing good ever happens. There was so much ignorance and intolerance towards the Middle East; no one understood the people. I believe that once you understand the society—my work covers modern-day society—it leads to more tolerance. And tolerance leads to more peace. So through my work I try to show the commonalities between the West and the Middle East. I show what society looks like on that side of the world and I cover stories that I think will surprise my audience. I want them to be like, “I never knew this existed,” or “I didn't know this happened in the Middle East,” or “I didn’t know they had that in the Middle East.”

In a project called “Our Limbo,” Naccache focuses on the psychological effects of losing one’s homeland and adapting to a new country. She shares the stories of a group of young Syrian women who came to study in Beirut before the civil war and were never able to return home.


Do you think your work would be different if you had grown up in Lebanon?

Lebanese kid.” And then when I go to Beirut I’m the outsider. I don’t really fit completely anywhere.

I think so, maybe because I would have been so used to my surroundings if I grew up in Lebanon. So I wouldn’t be able to see—I’m not sure actually. Maybe I wouldn’t be a photojournalist if I lived in Lebanon. I’m not sure.

So maybe I’m looking for home, I don’t know. But for me, home is a person; it’s about the people. Home is where my family is, home is where my husband is.

I noticed that “home” is a recurring theme in your work. Why is home important to you? What does it mean to you?

Most of your captions and interviews are done in English. Is your audience mostly Western?

Home? What do you mean?

Yes, I publish in Western media. I don’t publish in the Arab world, mainly because there’s no market for it and they don’t like to pay for pictures. [Laughs]

Well I felt that, especially with the refugee projects, the stories were usually about finding home and belonging and things like that—

When I was taking photos—and I wanted to ask you if you’ve had these types of comments—my sister asked me, “Are you going to make Lebanon look bad?”

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that, actually. I never noticed that my work has stuff relating to home. But thinking about it now, maybe it’s because I’m still looking for home. Growing up in London I didn’t always fit in because I was “the

Yes, that’s everyone’s question! It’s not about looking bad, though. It’s about the reality. Like, I’m not a PR person for Lebanon—I’m there to document modernday society. It’s not a propaganda tool.

An abandoned school where Syrian families are taking refuge, in West Bekaa, Lebanon. From Naccache's “Syrians in Limbo� series.












‫شرف • تضحية • وفاء‬


‫فوج المدفعية الثاني‬


‫الجمهورية اللبنانية‬ ‫وزارة‬ ‫االتصاالت السلكية والالسلكية‬ 3






‫قطع الغيار األصلية‬







‫ميالد مجيد و عام‬ ‫سعيد‬ ‫الكتائب اللبنانية‬ ‫النقاش‬-‫قسم انطلياس‬ ‫عماد الجمهورية‬ ‫بلدية مزرعة يشوع‬

3 PARTY FAVORS ‫كوتيون‬ PLASTIC (9 PIECES) 3,000 LL .‫ل‬.‫ ل‬٣٠٠٠ )‫ قطع‬٩( ‫بالستيك‬ CARDBOARD (8 PIECES) 1,000 LL .‫ل‬.‫ ل‬١٠٠٠ )‫ قطع‬٨( ‫كرتون‬ 4 THE ARMY SECURES THE UNITY OF THE COUNTRY

‫الجيش ضمانة لوحدة‬ ‫الوطن‬





‫لو رويال‬





‫الكتائب اللبنانية‬


‫قهوة القاصوف‬


‫االستقالل راجع‬







‫ميالد مجيد و عام‬ ‫سعيد‬ ‫الكتائب اللبنانية‬ ‫النقاش‬-‫قسم انطلياس‬

2 PARTY FAVORS ‫كوتيون‬ PLASTIC (9 PIECES) 3,000 LL .‫ل‬.‫ ل‬٣٠٠٠ )‫ قطع‬٩( ‫بالستيك‬ CARDBOARD (8 PIECES) 1,000 LL .‫ل‬.‫ ل‬١٠٠٠ )‫ قطع‬٨( ‫كرتون‬ 3 THE ARMY SECURES THE UNITY OF THE COUNTRY 4 THE REPUBLIC’S GENERAL MUNICIPALITY OF MAZRAAT YACHOUH

‫الجيش ضمانة لوحدة‬ ‫الوطن‬ ‫عماد الجمهورية‬ ‫بلدية مزرعة يشوع‬












It's only in the silence that God can be heard



‫فقط في السكون‬ ‫يُس َمع الله‬




BIBLIOGRAPHY Baines, Phil. “Agenda: Modernism tried to break with the past; traditionalists embrace it.” Eye Magazine, 1992. Bousleiman, Lara. Personal interview. 10 January 2018. Captan, Lara. “Arabic Type Design – Beirut.” Typographics, 17 June 2017, The Cooper Union, New York, NY. Conference talk. Captan, Lara. Personal interview. 21 January 2018. Morcos, Wael. Personal interview. 23 January 2018. Naccache, Natalie. Personal interview. 30 January 2018. Rhodes, Margaret. “Arabic Type Design is About to Experience an Awakening.” AIGA Eye on Design, June 2017. Rock, Michael. “Indecipherability.” 2 x 4, March 2016.

FURTHER READING Bosshard, Hans Rudolf., et al. Max Bill Jan Tschichold: Der Typografiestreit Der Moderne. Niggli, 2012. Finizola, Fátima, and Coutinho, Solange, and P. Cavalcanti, Virgínia. “From the streets to the screen: street signs as a source of inspiration for digital typefaces.” 2010. ---. “Vernacular design: a discussion on its concept.” 2012. Lupton, Ellen. “High and low (a strange case of us and them?).” Eye Magazine, 1992. Maasri, Zeina. Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. 2008. Print. Salameh, Franck. Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: the Case for Lebanon. Lexington Books, 2010. Stone Karl, Don & Zoghbi, Pascal. Arabic Graffiti. 2013. Print.



Marco Di Lauro, 2006.


Life Magazine, 1971.



Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, 1958.


A. Abbas, 1982.


Wikipedia Commons.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Annie Kubler, 2001.


Wikipedia Commons.


Francois Guillot – AFP/Getty Images.


George Francis Hill, 1910.


Wael Morcos.


Wael Morcos, 2013.


Wael Morcos.


KhaJag Apelian,, 2017.


Wael Morcos, 2013.


Wael Morcos, 2010.


Wael Morcos, 2017.


Maria Gasan, 2011.


Claudia Willmitzer.


Arabic Type Design – Beirut (ATDB), 2016.


Lara Captan, 2018.


The British Library.


Wikipedia Commons.


Hares Bassil, AIGA Eye on Design, 2017.


Lara Captan, AIGA Eye on Design, 2017.


Natalie Naccache.


Natalie Naccache, 2014.


Natalie Naccache, Syrians in Limbo. Image use is for educational purposes only. Unless otherwise noted, all images were reproduced without permission. Images omitted from list are my own.


TYPOGRAPHY Greta Arabic was designed by Kristyan Sarkis and released by Typotheque in 2015 (after Peter BiÄžak's Greta in 2012). Greta Arabic explores new territories for the Naskh cursive letterform and subjects it to extreme conditions of widths and weights, without resorting to modular forms. GT America was designed by NoĂŤl Leu with additional work by Seb McLauchlan and released by Grilli Type in 2016. The design draws inspiration from both Swiss and American grotesques. Leitura News was designed by Dino dos Santos and released by DSType in 2007. Leitura News was specially designed for editorial purposes. Sporting Grotesque was designed by Lucas Le Bihan and released by Velvetyne Type Foundry in 2017. Grotesques generally have a heavy calligraphic influence, including terminals that feel pen-finished, pinching around bowls, and tight apertures. 29LT Zeyn was designed by Pascal Zoghbi and Swiss Typefaces and released by 29Letters in 2014. Every letter was designed to ensure the extreme thick and thin pen strokes of calligraphy are preserved. This contrast was coupled with strong cuts and edges to give the bilingual typeface a contemporary feel.

PRODUCTION Printed at Marvel, St. Louis, MO. Bound by Wrap-Ups, Fenton, MO. 80# gloss and 80# matte white text, 100# cover.

DESIGN Chantal Jahchan Washington University in St. Louis Communication Design, BFA 2018


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS For my Teta & Jiddo, without whom my home country would not be home. Counting down the days until we visit you in Lebanon again. To my mother, thank you for all the sacrifices you've made throughout the years, starting with our move to America. Thank you for always cheering me on and building me up as I chase my dreams. And finally, thank you for being an unbelievably patient translator. This book would not have been possible without the unwavering support of my family and friends, especially Kristy and Natasha. Thank you, Noah, for your tireless encouragement and feedback, and for always knowing how to make me laugh. Thank you to my classmates and professors within the Communication Design program at Washington University, especially Rebecca Leffell Koren and my capstone advisor, Penina Acayo Laker. My time here at Washington University would not have been possible without the generosity of my scholarship donor, Mr. Dexter Fedor. Thank you for sponsoring my education, an opportunity for which I will forever be indebted to you. And finally, thank you to my interview subjects, Lara Bousleiman, Lara Captan, Wael Morcos, and Natalie Naccache, for generously sharing your time and expertise.



En Route  
En Route  

This book explores what ‘modernity’ might mean for Lebanon, specifically through a typographic and linguistic lens. By presenting photos of...