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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Stories of Words [3]

Handwritten words

As a word can be a story in itself, a short story can be only a few words long, too. In fact they can be written in just six words.

American novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

He is said to have called it his best work.

I wrote one once (cheating with a slight abbreviation), after the first real experience of loss in youth: "Romeo wasn't supposed to live on."

Later on, futility can take over the poignancy and naivety of youth to a degree, and when I tried one for an English language competition at University, I did a take on Hemingway's story, which the judges seemed to like: "Donor required: one heart, no owners."

This small exercise shows that a word is like a note of music, which when read on its own, or in placed in context - modern or traditional - will conjure up the necessary melody - even if only a bar of six notes.

If music is songs without words, then it just as true that stories are words without the music.

The Art of Words

From the musical to the visual arts, words still tell their story in writing, too, especially with the ancient word art known as calligraphy.

Every region of the world follows this type of art form, and it is usually imbued with a religious or spiritual dimension, that gives the word written a magical - or ethereal - quality.

For example, in Christian calligraphy, the parchment was considered to be the conscience, the ink humility itself, the devotion to the work lifting the calligrapher to a desire for heaven. Within such written words, the stories told speak not only of origins, but of purpose, too. The religious calligrapher is not just an artist with elegant hand-writing, but one trying to imbue all words written with the Word.

In Arabic, calligraphy means "line" (and adopted into Turkish, "hat"). In both the early and later years of the form, Turks developed the Arabic script extensively to a high aesthetic level and made it a branch of fine arts, especially during the Ottoman period.

The tughra of Suleiman the MagnificentDuring the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), who was an influential patron of the arts, the Turks developed their own highly elaborate form of calligraphy, called Diwani, known for its complex and intricate beauty.

A prime example of this writing, a sultan's signature (known as a tuğhra, see top left pic) literally hides all the owner's titles in its design, telling the stories to the trained eye of all the conquests won. These signatures on surviving political documents written in gold leaf (thin bits of pure gold) and gouache are considered a work of art today.

Few scribes were able to master the art form, and those who did spent their lives perfecting it. So much recognition did the masterpieces of Turkish calligraphers receive at the height of their talents, that there emerged the saying: "The Koran was inspired in Mecca, began to be spoken in Egypt and was written in Istanbul."

A calligram designThe figurative side was taken a step further from the 17th century onwards, with the actual word drawn to represent an image, known as calligrams and became popular with many leading Turkish calligraphers.

Maybe it is no coincidence then, that Islam was introduced to paper proper when the Turkic culture first came into contact with Islam. When the Karluks joined forces with the Arabs to defeat the Chinese at the Battle of Talas in 751, the secret of paper-making was taken from Chinese prisoners of war.

Works on Leaf

Calligraphy on a processed leafAnother major contribution of the Turkish art to the Islamic art is calligraphy works on dry processed leaves.

The poplar and chestnut leaves were the mostly preferred, collected during a special period of the year and subjected to a year long conservation treatment. The calligraphy composition was applied on the dressed leaves by using linseed oil soot made exclusively by the artist for that work. The single-leaf composition was most commonly used and preferred for its plain but powerful expressive aspect.

This again tell us another story: The leaf symbolises the unity of the universe in Islamic mysticism. Similar to the existence of the macro characteristics of the universe in every human, it's believed the leaf itself bears part of the soul and cycle of the tree and the nature as well.

Calligraphy on leaves unifies with the universe. The remarkable and symbolic similarity of the leaf to the heart has been a major factor in respect of this branch of calligraphy. It's a direct relationship between this philosophical concept and the artist's own beliefs that reflect in this art form as they breathe visual life into the painted word.

In one sense, these are words being signed across the heart of life itself.

Even though the Latin alphabet was adopted in Turkey in the early 20th century, the art of calligraphy has survived, with the leaf form particular to Turkish culture brought to life by Turkish-Armenian Nick Merdenyan. Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush are counted as admirers of his work, but he is probably more so admired for wishing to keep a Turkish tradition alive.

Like every "word-artist", Merdenyan has his own story, too, which he preserves in his leaves - emphasising once more, whether orally or visually, digging into the world of words is a treasure trove of discoveries, about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Prologue | Part one | Part two | End of part three

Read more: About words | Love | Turkish Culture >>

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