An Afternoon with Mohamed Zakariya: The Story of the Poem

Sometime ago I asked my teacher, Elinor Aishah Holland, about the most important thing she has learned from her teacher, she replied that her teacher told her calligraphy is about love.  When I finally had the great opportunity to meet her teacher in person, I understood what she had meant. In the short time I have spent interviewing master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya , I have developed a greater love and appreciation for this art that I have been studying for the past two years.

Zakariya hoca in his studio correcting a student's work

Zakariya hoca in his studio correcting a student's work

Master calligrapher and artist Mohamed Zakariya is one of the most recognized calligraphers of our time. He is the man who introduced Arabic script calligraphy to the western world, an American pioneer and ambassador. Zakariya hoca (Turkish for teacher) began studying calligraphy in the 1960s and has earned licenses in several scripts. He has exhibited worldwide and has earned many accolades for his work. Perhaps, he is most widely known for his design of the Eid greetings U.S postage stamp. His talents extend to disciplines such as metalwork, machinery and woodwork. He is also an extraordinary artist in many traditional arts, including Ebru (paper marbling) and Tezhip (art of illumination), among others. You can find more information about hoca’s work on his website: (an excellent resource for calligraphy-related information).

Last fall, I had the privilege to sit with Zakariya hoca to talk about calligraphy and his experiences. But he shared with me more than just calligraphy. We talked about languages, poetry, past and current masters of this art, literature and of course calligraphy! For the next few months I will be sharing with you snippets of our conversation.

Title: This and That (2017); Script: Thuluth; Media: Ink, gouache, gold on ahar paper, ebru paper borders. Signed and dated by: Mohamed Zakariya

Title: This and That (2017); Script: Thuluth; Media: Ink, gouache, gold on ahar paper, ebru paper borders. Signed and dated by: Mohamed Zakariya

One of things we talked about was the beauty of languages and it’s usages, in this case an Arabic joke poem. Zakariya hoca is fluent in Classical Arabic, Ottoman and Modern Turkish and Romanian (a language that he called a poetic language).

Hoca said that he once came across a poem in an 18th century Turkish book on the biography of calligraphers. It was written by Syrian calligrapher, Huseyn Ibn Muhammad, who lived about 300 years ago. It is an end rhyme poem, which means that it rhymes at the end. This Syrian calligrapher’s poem ended with the articleا  ذ (da). I took a picture of hoca’s written version of the poem on his desk.

The poem translates as follows:

My Lord, Pardon me. I live among a people that I seek no refuge with except You. This one is a hypocrite to that one, and that one defames this one. This one insults that one, and that one reviles this one.

Clearly, this individual was fed up with his life and these lines express that cynicism and frustration. Hoca said what he loved about these four lines was that it was a statement about how they lived and what life was like to them.  It captured the beauty of the language through the repetition of the article,  ذ (da).  

Language is a mode of communication and expression. And calligraphers have the great privilege to partake in this by creating a visual approach to language. In the past, scholars widely used sarcasm in literature to entertain people who were studying with them, a tradition that is lost in our time. He said, as a calligrapher, you write Divine and prophetic words, which has both a visual and spiritual impact on people.

“The real test of language happens when you write it,” hoca said. “Writing means standardization, something you can understand.”