When Zubair Simab fled Afghanistan at 17 during the Russian invasion of 1979, the young Afghan fighter who shepherded him across the mountains to safety gave him a pen as a parting gift. It was a simple plastic pen purchased from a village store. But the pen and all it symbolized has remained a touchstone for Simab through the years.
The pen is a revered object among Muslims, who associate it with learning and the Qur’an — and with Islamic calligraphy, the art of turning Arabic texts into decorative designs. Simab says that when he was growing up in Kabul, calligraphy was everywhere — in places of worship, in museums, in his home — and intermingled with every aspect of life. He began studying calligraphy as a boy and still works to perfect his art. “Calligraphy is not one of those things that you can do today and then put down and come back to it in two or three months,” the artist says. “It takes continual practice, continual dedication.”
Calligraphy’s central role in the Islamic world came about in part as a result of prohibitions against idolatry and, to some extent, against depictions of all living beings. “Traditionally, in the beginning in Islam,” Simab says, “if you created a portrait … of an animal, for instance, some people said that you gave that form life. And you are not The Creator, right? So the entire focus became how to beautify those Arabic words from the Qur’an. And calligraphy became the highest form of Islamic art.”
Many of Simab’s techniques, including the use of hand-carved bamboo pens, have been handed down by master calligraphers dating back to the seventh century. He bases his designs on verses of Farsi poetry, lines from the Qur’an and on traditional Arabic proverbs. The beauty of the letterforms can often spark curiosity about their meaning: “When people see my calligraphy,” he says, “they ask me, ‘What is it you’re saying?'” This can be the beginning of what Simab calls “the grass-roots work” of building understanding among cultures.
Simab is thankful for being able to bring to the culture of his new home in the Bay Area something from the land of his childhood, a place that was heartbreakingly difficult to leave. “Leaving Kabul forever, leaving my friends and family, and particularly my dad, was very emotional,” recalls Simab. Over time, his whole family emigrated safely to America.
Simab’s work has been widely exhibited around the Bay Area, including at the De Anza College Euphrat Museum of Art and at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara. He’s currently working on a commission from the Creative Work Fund, a collaboration with mosaic artist Pippa Murray. Together they’re planning a calligraphic mosaic for the front entrance for the Islamic Center of Manteca. The project’s theme is harmony; it should be finished in the fall of 2014.
“There are many things… that are going away in this world with the way that we are globalizing,” says Simab, who is dedicated not only to connecting people and cultures through his art but also to passing on this ancient art form for future generations. “We need to appreciate these things and keep them alive. It will bring a colorful meaning to the life of all mankind.”
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and
Flora Hewlett Foundation. Support is also provided by the members of KQED.