“We need people to realise that there is a problem. Even teachers of Arabic are not aware that there aren’t enough Arabic fonts. The only segment of society that lives with this problem day-to-day are designers,” says Bahia Shehab, Egyptian-Lebanese artist and Professor of Design at the American University of Cairo.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Arab world - at the time under the Ottoman Empire - was left behind...[until] the 19th century, so the region was already 300 years behind Europe with this technology.

Her new TypeLab project, incubated within the university as part of its centennial revamp this year, aims to document and discuss Arabic typography to create a platform for innovation and education. “90% of what we design has to have typography, because it has to communicate. So imagine you’re a designer and you want to create but your hands are tied. It’s like baking a cake and you don’t have flour. It’s really that bad.”

The idea to digitally archive hundreds of years of typeface and calligraphy from the Arab world is something Shehab has been working on for almost seven years now. “In 2013, I realised that type designers do not have a platform for them to study the history of the letters. To be able to create new script, you have to understand the history of the script,” she says, explaining that since then, she’s been documenting Arabic fonts and typography in a project called ‘The Encyclopedia of Arabic Letters’, receiving a grant in 2016 to further expand it. “I realised how big the project is and it’s not enough that I only have an encyclopedia; there also needs to be a dialogue to help tackle the persistent problem that Arabic has.” 

[As computers entered the mainstream,] the aesthetics of the scripts were not a priority. The priority was to create fonts that were simply legible, so that manufacturers could create products for use in the Arab world. Arabic fonts were developed so we could buy more.

Shehab describes her own realisation of the issue as a young designer, freshly graduated from the American University of Beirut: “I started looking around and wondering why we only had a few fonts in Arabic. For the thousands upon thousands of fonts in Latin Script, we only have a few hundred in Arabic. And out of those, only 10-15 are useable.” Since then, typography has been central to both Shehab’s academic and artistic careers. Not only did she establish the Graphic Design Programme at the AUC’s Department of Arts in 2011, introducing modules specific to typography in the years since, but she was also the first Arab female to win the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture for her striking use of Arabic calligraphy in street art with a project entitled No, A Thousand Times No, in 2017.

Shehab's seven-meter tall installation, No, A Thousand Times No.

Though designers might be the only people to truly lament the underdevelopment of Arabic fonts in comparison to other languages, the core of the issue is not just an artistic one, but the result of historical geopolitics and economics. “To understand why Arabic typography is so behind, you have to look at the history of printing and publishing. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Arab world - at the time under the Ottoman Empire - was left behind,” says Shehab, alluding to the tradition of handwritten calligraphy which was held in high regard and used as symbol of status and power during that period. It was nearly 200 years after the invention of the printing press that the Middle East got a handful of their own, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the latter having had small publishing houses introduced by Christian missionaries who used the technology to print Bibles and other religious materials - in Latin script. 

The aim of the TypeLab is to create a platform for connecting historians, academics, designers...We want to create a space for dialogue. I think there’s a lot of beautiful islands of minds who are concerned with the same thing, and we need a space for them to meet and cook up solutions for the future

It was another 100 years or so before the printing press hit Egypt - largely considered the literary capital of the Middle East. “It was the 19th century so the region was already 300 years behind Europe with this technology. And just as we started adapting and creating a larger amount of more legible and more aesthetically pleasing fonts, we had another technological revolution - digitisation,” explains Shehab, adding that Arabic fonts are particularly time-consuming to produce because of the several variants any one letter can have; an Arabic typeset has more than double the character count of a Latin one. “So the Arabic language had to suddenly exist in the digital sphere. And not enough Arab designers were consulted as computers entered the mainstream. Even when they were - the aesthetics of the scripts were not a priority. The priority was to create fonts that were simply legible, so that manufacturers could create products for use in the Arab world. Arabic fonts were developed so we could buy more.”

 Luckily, things are changing. With a young, digitally literate population, the Middle East is seeing pockets of innovation in the world of design. “In the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen an emergence of young designers who have either started their own type foundries, or have gone to work for the biggest companies in the field,” says Shehab, referencing the careers of Arab designers like Kristyan Sarkis, Tarek Atrissi, Pascal Zoghbi and Nadine Chahine. “They’re winning awards, they’re getting major clients and really creating this big shift in Arabic typeface market.”

It’s this very shift that makes now the perfect time for the TypeLab, which is not only documenting the long history of written Arabic, from historic calligraphy, all the way to its contemporary, digital iterations, but creating a meeting point for those who can shape its future. As Shehab and her peers very well know, the resources for studying Arabic script, surveying its evolution and, finally, developing new Arabic types are scarce, and scattered around the world. “The aim of the TypeLab is to create a platform for connecting historians, academics, designers and anyone who’s interested in the Arabic script, whether it’s in its digital form or its artistic form. We want to create a space for dialogue. I think there’s a lot of beautiful islands of minds who are concerned with the same thing, and we need a space for them to meet and cook up solutions for the future,” says Shehab.

And just as we started adapting and creating a larger amount of more legible and more aesthetically pleasing fonts, we had another technological revolution - digitisation. So the Arabic language had to suddenly exist in the digital sphere.

Using social media as the first step to raise awareness of the TypeLab and its mission, Shehab and her peers are in the process of planning intimate conferences - salons of sorts - to bring together like-minded artists, academics and technologists, though the Coronavirus pandemic has shifted them from in-person events to online meet-ups. “Finally, we want to create fellowships and residency programmes at the TypeLab, when we’re back on campus. We have a library dedicated to typography and calligraphy, and we'd love to host researchers and type designers to take advantage of the resources, connect with academics and get feedback on how to develop their work - and the industry.”