Arabic Flagship

All About Calligraphy

Post Author: Anne Layton, Arabic Flagship Program student

Calligraphy is one of the most well-known aspects of Arabic culture and is a high art-form in the Arab world. Despite its significance in the world and throughout history, many people know little about calligraphy. In this post, I will go over the history and types of calligraphy.

            One of the main reasons for the development of calligraphy was religion. In Islam, idolatry is frowned upon, so religious portrayals using images of people was not an option. Thus, calligraphy became the main method of religious expression. Many different forms of this art developed throughout time and in various locations due to the scope of Islam. Many different regions created their own forms such as Morocco and the Ottomans. Additionally, calligraphy in its earliest forms dates all the way back to the Umayyed Caliphate in the 7th century. The different types include: Ta’liq, Naskh, Kufi, Deewani, Req’aa, Thuluth.

●     Ta’liq: This script was most likely developed by the Persians from an earlier Arabic script called Firamuz. It was used by Persian and Turkish calligraphers as a script for important occasions, and is still very popular among Persian, Turkish, and Indian Muslims.


●     Naskh: One of the earliest scripts, it gained popularity in the 10th century after the famous calligrapher Ibn Muqlah redesigned it. Later redesigns made it more elegant so that more Qurans have been written with this script than any other. It is also relatively easier to read and write, which lends to its popularity.

●     Kufi: This script was created in the 8th century and was the dominant script for priests. It is a very geometric script, which allows it to be adapted to many different surfaces. It also does not have strict rules for writing, so it gives the calligrapher greater freedom of expression.

●     Deewani: Deewani script is an Ottoman development derived from Ta’liq. It became a favorite for Ottoman calligraphers for ornamental purposes. 

●     Req’aa: This script evolved from Naskh and Thuluth. It is a more simplified script with more rounded and structured letters. It was also popular for the Ottomans, and is now one of the most popular throughout the Arab world


●     Thuluth: Thuluth first developed in the 7th century during the Umayyad caliphate, but did not fully develop for another 2 centuries. It is rarely used for the Quran, but it widely used for ornamental purposes and is the most important ornamental script. It is characterized by letters with barbed heads and is often elaborate and complex in appearance.


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The Bidoon in Kuwait

Post Author: Anne Layton, Arabic Flagship Program student

In 1961, Kuwait gained its independence from Britain and a third of its population became stateless. Prior to independence, Kuwait’s Nationality Law gave nationality to anyone who could prove that his/her family had lived in Kuwait before 1920 and up to the enactment of the law. The people who did not prove this before indepence no longer had a nationality. This group of people came to be known as the Bidoon (بدون‎) or without, and today make up around 10% of Kuwait’s population.

Initially, not having a nationality did not bring with it too many disadvantages and they were treated relatively well compared to the rest of the population. From the mid-1980s and on, however, they faced increasing restrictions. In 1986, the government declared them ‘illegal residents’ and began firing them from their jobs, removing their access to free education, housing, and healthcare. The government also tried to deport large numbers of the community. Another large issue occurred during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time, a majority of the army was composed of Bidoon, so Kuwaitis used them to take the blame for any military difficulties, and later, massive amounts of Bidoon were dismissed from the military.

Currently, the Bidoons’ situation has not improved greatly. The government thinks of them as foreigners attempting to take advantage of Kuwait’s welfare system despite the fact that a majority have always lived in Kuwait. This complicates any attempts to acquire identification papers or reference cards because they must get government approval, and in my instances, the government refuses because they claim to have intelligence to suggest the the people have other nationalities. Additionally, they still do not have access to public schools. If they want to send their children to school, it must be a private one which costs money. Often, families have to choose between sending a daughter or son, and usually the son is allowed to go to school. Another problem is with employment. They face greater discrimination, have lower salaries, and lower job security, which leads many to work selling fruit or other informal ways to earn money. However, they face the threat of constant arrest because they do not have commercial licenses.

Following the Arab Spring, the Bidoon took to the streets of Kuwait to protest their treatment. The government made their protests illegal, but promised some concessions. Little has actually been done to implement these concessions, though. As the world becomes more aware of the plight of the Bidoon, Kuwait faces greater censure for their treatment of this minority group. It remains to be seen if the pressure will finally cause Kuwait to reconsider the status of their citizenship.


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Tagine: A Moroccan Staple

Post Author: Peregrine, Arabic Flagship Program student

Tagine is one of the most popular dishes in Morocco and a staple food. Served with couscous and any variety of meat and vegetable that you want, there is something for everyone to enjoy! Tagine can also refer to a type of pot, it has two parts: a bowl base and a conical lid. Where tagine originated is up for debate but many believe that the Phoenicians brought it in the 12th century when they visited Northern Africa. Tagine is usually paired with couscous, which is widely eaten throughout the world, but tagine and couscous has been shaped by Jewish and Andalusian influence, making it unique.

Tagine is traditionally made with a meat such as lamb, beef, or chicken, as well as vegetables like onion, potato, and tomatoes. Even fruits and nuts like apricots, raisins, and almonds are added. It has a stew like consistency, especially if you mix in couscous.


The pot tagine is cooked in is designed to run condensation back down to the bottom of the pot, and also to keep the ingredients from heating too fast; it acts like a slow cooker. They are made from pottery and glazed, some by hand but nowadays they even have electric tagines.

Moroccans and Algerians make the more traditional type of tagine described above. What Tunisians call tagine is more like a quiche or frittata. Some of the ingredients are similar, like tomatoes and olives, but some of the spices are different. The spices are arguably the most important part of either type of tagine. Some that can be used are ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron, paprika and chili. Tunisian tagine will have coriander as well. The addition of so many spices is typical of an Arab or Jewish dish, both cultures value flavor. 

Some tagine pots are an art form, and purely decorative. They may be shaped and painted in beautiful ways and fetch high prices, especially with tourists.

Tagine is both delicious and a big part of Moroccan culture and has been around for many years and will hopefully continue to brighten many more kitchens.

All photos used provided by Creative Commons. Click the image to view original source. 

The Bearded Bakers: A Trip to Try Knafeh

Post Author: Jacqueline, Arabic Flagship Program student


The Bearded Bakers of New York brought their unique knafeh to Washington D.C. at the beginning of November. Knafeh, a traditional Palestinian dessert, can be described almost as a Middle Eastern creme brulee WITH cheese! Their 20 foot repurposed shipping container houses not only a commercial bakery, but is home to an exotic and lively experience foreign to many Americans. The “baking and shaking” knafeh bakers transformed a parking lot near Union Market into a block party. Hours of singing and dancing to modern and traditional Arabic music transports the visitors to what feels like a closely knit Palestinian community in the Middle East.


Our stomachs brought us to the mobile bakery on a FREEZING Thursday night. To our delight, the knafeh was delicious! Layers of crispy phyllo dough sandwiched sweet cheesy goodness with a custard-like texture. The Bearded Bakers topped their signature version with a rose topping, a new taste to us that truly made the experience unique. While we expected to try the treat and maybe spend about an hour “experiencing” the magical atmosphere the bakers create, we were drawn into the community almost immediately and spent hours meeting new people!

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While the new flavors of this experience were a huge draw, the community we met was by far the best part of our outing! Like a holiday block party, people gathered together dancing, especially dabke. At first we felt like outsiders looking in, wary of intruding on what seemed like a powerful cultural moment. But it wasn’t long before we felt the warmth and power of the community, two women quickly pulled us into the dabke circle, taught us the basics and made sure we were having fun for the rest of the night! The warmth and acceptance of this community (that surprisingly was mostly unacquainted), welcomed us even though our only commonality was our taste for the sweet tasty knafeh! 

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