Helmi Habbab - Master of Calligraphers

In the fall of 1977, while waiting for admission at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, I enrolled at the College of Fine Arts in Damascus University. I knew that my tenure was only temporary, and that I would leave as soon as the paperwork was completed and my visa issued. Yet, the four months I spent there, from September till December of that year, make up for one of the most spirited periods in my life.

The building where the College of Fine Arts was housed was far removed from the main campus of the Damascus University. In fact, it was located at one of the peripheral roundabouts, in a more or less residential area. The photo above was taken from the Fine Arts building itself, and this is exactly how I like to remember Damascus, not the subsequent mutation and eventual aberration. Although I was neither talented as an artist, nor serious as a student, I did get up to my elbows in work. I took Drawing, Sculpture, Advertisement and Calligraphy in my first and only semester there, and somehow managed passing grades in all of my projects and even excelled in one or two.

It was a time when Fine Arts students were reputed to be the Bohemians of the Damascene academic realm. For all I know, it may still be the case today, assuming there remains any semblance of academia amid the mayhem and destruction. University students had not yet succumbed to the systematic eradication of individuality, which ultimately defaced younger generations into mere bricks in the wall. The cafeteria on the roof of the building was city-renowned for its avant-garde atmosphere. We were the envy of Medical, Engineering, Law and every school out there. Green with jealousy, the brainy nerds consoled themselves with the conviction that nothing good would come out of us, libidinous art students. We were indeed good for nothing bums, but who needed purpose, when we had all the fun.

I lived at my aunt's in Azbakieh, at the end of Baghdad Street, (about a mile off to the right, in the photo above). I remember waking up early in the morning and walking to college, clumsily carrying my supplies and tools with a lit cigarette dangling between my lips. I also remember being among the last to leave in the evening when Saber, the doorman, had to lock the place down. The Fine Arts building was the center of my universe, and I spent every waking moment there, either in class or on that unforgettable roof.

Although those were endearing times, I haven't thought about them in years. I lost contact with everyone, and I have no idea what had become of my friends. I remember Majed, Mona, Haifa and Maha as my closest buddies. I remember Salma, the gorgeous petite, and the way she played with her ponytail, as I sweet-talked her in vain. I remember the doorman whom we called Ammo Saber; some of the teachers, pretentious and sincere; but I mostly remember Master Helmi Habbab.

Helmi Habbab (1909- 2000) was honored with the title of “Master of Syrian Calligraphers, شيخ الخطاطين السوريين” in 1997, upon reaching his 88th birthday. I believe that Mr. Habbab is the best modern Arabic Calligrapher, a claim a few critics would be able or willing to challenge. I was disheartened when I found so little information about him online, which was mostly in Arabic. This, of course, is not a shortcoming of his, but rather of an unavailing Ministry of Culture, a knavish government, and a corrupt media machine that’s only good at fomenting, feeding and fostering a cult of personality.

For scholars and historians, interested in the Art of Calligraphy, Helmi Habbab is a household name. An astute observer can find the artist’s great work in many parts of Damascus, among which is the sublime calligraphy at the Othman Mosque and the uncounted official placards and signs on public buildings and institutes. I was first introduced to his work years before I had the honor of meeting him in person. In the early 1960’s, Syrian Television started its daily programming at 5:30 PM with the National Anthem, followed by fifteen minutes of Quran reciting. The heavenly voice belonged to Sheikh Abdul Baset Abdul Samad of Egypt. The calligraphy on every cascading tile was always signed in Arabic, at the bottom left corner with a dot-less Helmi.

The sexagenarian man with the white hair and goatee entered the small auditorium and it instantly rippled with a Mexican wave of silence. He was known for his sternness and zero tolerance for the follies of smart-ass students. But, he was also known for having a soft spot. He loved them, young and pretty coeds, and took advantage of the fact that he was hard of hearing. He would lean very close to listen to them when they talked (he taught me that trick). Thirty seconds after walking in, and having secured our absolute and undivided attention, he started with a story.

I was an apprentice in 1933 when I was commissioned to calligraph the giant sign on the main facade of the Khoumassieh Company building. I used a special wooden pen with a long thin handle and a 40 cm (16”) round tip. While propped on a scaffold, I looked down and saw a group of French dignitaries standing in silence and observing. Although I didn’t appreciate people looking over my shoulder as I worked, I wasn’t exactly sitting at a desk in the privacy of my study. Eventually, I climbed down and was immediately surrounded by the Frenchmen and their Syrian interpreter. “Mais monsieur, vous êtes un artiste!” exclaimed the fat one, as he vigorously shook my hand. The interpreter faithfully translated the short statement, uttering the word “artiste” in French for lack of a synonym in Arabic.
“You and your mother are the artists, you dirty French Pig.” I yelled back and almost clubbed him with my giant pen. The interpreter and a whole bunch of people, who appeared out of nowhere, had to restrain me until the gendarme arrived. I did attack a French citizen, and this came with at least a jail sentence. It took awhile, and a lot of persuasion, from good-willers to convince the visitors how and why I was so offended and infuriated by being called an “artiste”. After all, for us Arabs in the 1930’s, and up until today, the only artists we know of are the showgirls working in nightclubs and cabarets. This is how most people would look at you, young boys and girls if you don’t make a name for yourselves. So if you’re not absolutely sure you love the Arts and are ready to make sacrifices, you don’t belong in the College of Fine Arts.

Some time between Christmas and New Year, I saw my professor Helmi Habbab for the last time. He was sixty eight. I was two months short of my 18th birthday. But in the span of a few months, we have become good friends. I had told him about my intention to travel to the United States to study to become a City Planner, something he personally considered as a heroic undertaking on my part. He grew up and lived all of his life in Damascus. Traveling across the ocean tickled an unrealized dream that he buried deep in his heart. He encouraged me and gave me valuable advice. In return, I treated him with utmost respect and reverence. My buddies couldn’t understand how I, known as one of the most jocular kids in college, and Master Habbab, known as the strictest and most serious of professors, could have stricken such a formidable friendship. He thought the world of me and took me for a son. He was a father figure, who taught me that no matter how fatuous I was, I would always honor my teachers and mentors.

In April of 1978, and in response to a letter I sent him from America, Helmi Habbab calligraphed his reply on a sized paper. He used a bamboo pen and Chinese ink to scribe his words of encouragement and wisdom on what became my personal treasure. I don’t think I deserve most of the praise, but I’m honored nevertheless. I owe him a tome of gratitude that would take a lifetime to put down on paper or on a screen. My handwriting, like my calligraphy, are still mediocre, but despite the many ups and downs, I would’ve still made him proud of me. I fared well in America but always kept Syria, the one he taught me, in my heart. Rest in Peace Good Master. When our true history is written, your name will be calligraphed in letters of gold.


Gabriela said…
If a teacher is remembered in such a tender way, he must have been not only a great teacher but a better person also. I'm pretty sure he'd be honored to read your words dedicated to him.
PD: please, don't use America to refer to the US. America is the name of a whole continent with many countries in it, and the US is just one of those countries that are part of that continent.
Abufares said…
A famous Arabic proverb states that: "He who taught me a letter, makes me his slave."
It's meant to glorify the teacher and the degree of reverence that is considered his natural right.
I'm a person who respects my peers, glorify my mentors and deride the humanely inferior, and I take every opportunity to practice my preferences. I owe Master Helmi Habbab more than this post, but this is the best I can do posthumously in this day and age.
As for my reference to America, I totally understand your "annoyance" and I believe we've talked about it before. However, my use of the term was not done my mistake or carelessness. You see, for Professor Habbab, and for the vast majority of Arab readers of this blog, the term "the United States" in the particular instance where I used "America" would've been wrong. Your perspective as an "American" from Peru is absolutely valid and I can understand your frustration with my lax language. When I first dreamed of crossing the ocean and "going there", neither I, nor my parents and friends would've said that I was leaving to the USA. America! was the land I was "Westing" to. It transcended being a country and even a continent. America was the New World at the end of earth.
Gabriela said…
I appreciate your explanation and I understand what you say. Your language is no lax at all. I'd wish to master English language half as well as you do.
I was just expressing a point of view.
Unknown said…
Please forgive me for not commenting earlier, Abufares. I read your post as soon as I was aware that it was published and thought it was indeed one of your best but I neglected to comment. So here I am to tell you, bravo. Beautifully written and such a wonderful story. It is a blessing to have known a great person and inspiration such as this professor. Thank you for sharing with us.
Abufares said…
Sorry I didn't get back to your comment earlier. I'm very glad you feel free to express your point of view here on my blog. Please do, always :-)
Abufares said…
I was starting to get worried. I thought you must be traveling somewhere :-)but now that you're here, I'm very happy.
Thank you for appreciating my writing and for your continuous support. I can't bring a post to a closure until both Gabriela and you comment on it, really.
Helmi Habbab was inspirational. I know about your affection for Syria and I hope that one day you'll be able to see his, and other great works of art, in Damascus. I'd be delighted to be your guide. You may have to ride on a bike though, lolll. Just kidding, I do have a car, you know, and drive like "normal" people my age do :-P
Unknown said…
I would absolutely love to visit Syria. Damascus, Aleppo, and Tartous in particular...not necessarily in that order, and then everything in between. Seeing it on a bike would be FUN and what better guide could I ask for? Someday... Some way... :-)
Unknown said…
Such a treasure indeed. I have seen the University of Damascus sign many times before, and never took the time to think of who would have made it.

May he rest in peace.
Abufares said…
You know, I swear I saw a Reply option under your comment on my phone but now that I'm on my PC I don't have it anymore. Hmmm, I need to investigate it further.
I hope that soon, you'll be able to fulfill your wish of visiting Syria. I don't know how much longer we're going to be stuck in the Twilight Zone, but I'd rather be optimisitc and aspire for the best. From the look of you, you're small enough to fit on the back of my bike without causing the wheels to wobble :-) It'll be my pleasure, really!!!
Abufares said…
Well, I think you should be a little older to recognize the ubiquitous Helmi signature. There was a time when signs were painstakingly calligraphed rather than mass produced with CorelDraw then Photoshop. His were always the most prominent and prestigious in Damascus.
Glad to see you here my friend.

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