Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Calligraphies of the Desert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 3rd October, 2020

The desert has long exercised an almost mystical draw over Europeans, with its vastness, its beauty and its cruelty. As that great travel writer, Wilfred Thessiger, who wandered the Empty Quarter of southern Arabia, recorded, “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad, and he will have within him that yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature.” How I know that yearning, ever since my first glance of the Sahara as a student, later fed with Arabian sands, the Gobi, the landscapes of Mauritania, Namibia and more. Like the novelist Paul Bowles at times I have sensed the danger in its attraction; at others, greeted it like a friend, alongside Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869):

So in its silence and its desolation

The desert spoke to me far better than the crowd

Most striking of all for me has been the variety. Each desert is different in form and colour. And it is that vibrant difference which the celebrated Iraqi calligrapher, Hassan Massoudy, explores so impressively in his exciting new volume of work, Calligraphies of the Desert (Saqi, £10). Each double-page spread has a quote or two, ancient and modern, (not just European but often Arab or Persian — even Chinese) while facing is Massoudy’s calligraphic representation. Just as an anthology of texts this book is a pleasure to dip in and out of, but savouring the artistry and tones of the calligraphy at the same time gives them so much added value. One can meditate on them for hours and, yes, be tempted back into the desert in one’s mind if not yet in person. Massoudy’s French wife, Isabelle, contributed a short but lyrical introduction that serves as a fitting doorway to what is beyond. This book may be small in size but it immense in vision, as limitless as the desert itself.

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