At Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest daily, moveable type doesn't cut it for major historical events such as Arab springs and presidential elections. That's when they call in the calligrapher.
CAIRO — On certain momentous days, only three men know the top headline of the country's flagship state newspaper Al-Ahram before it is sent to the printers. Even the layout designers remain in the dark — all they see is a black box that covers the calligraphy of Mohamed Al Maghraby, whose job is literally to write the first draft of history.
Every Egyptian newspaper reader is familiar with his work — a bold, crisp and simplified version of the Riqaa script (which most resembles handwriting), rendered in large, fire engine red.
Maghraby has only written 17 front-page titles in his 22-year career at Al-Ahram. One day last month he wrote two. For President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s June 8 inauguration, he wrote “A Red-Letter Day for a Great People’s History.” The headline was particularly difficult, especially the words “history” and “great.”
The subhead, which is not in Maghraby’s handwriting, read: “For the first time, the signing of a document transferring power in Egypt,” celebrating interim President Adly Mansour’s peaceful handover of power to Sisi. The background was colored the same as the transition of power document they signed.
On Wednesday, June 4, Maghraby also penned Al Ahram’s straightforward headline, “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s President.”
Maghraby composed the headline himself, wrote it at home at 6 a.m. and carried it to the Al-Ahram headquarters on Galaa Street. When he showed his work to editor-in-chief Mohamed Abdel Hady, the editor immediately exclaimed: “Great job — Allah yenawar "aleik!” Often Abdel Hady composes the headlines, which Maghraby renders into calligraphy. The editor took out a 50-pound note ($7) and scribbled on it to mark the occasion. The calligrapher keeps it in his wallet.
Maghraby has been working with Al-Ahram since 1982. He has mostly drawn section headings and the text for translated Western political cartoons. But the day of Mubarak’s ouster was the first time Maghraby composed a headline.
“I went down to watch the celebrations near the presidential palace in a galabeya, sandals, and without my glasses,” the calligrapher recalls. “The editor called me and asked, ‘Do you want to make history?’”
It was 9 p.m. Maghraby went home, took one of his reed pens, dipped it in ink, and wrote, “The People have Overthrown the Regime.” Then he posed for a commemorative snapshot in his galabeya next to his colleagues, holding up his pen next to the proof of the headline.
Calligraphy vs. moveable type
Until the 1970s, most newspaper headlines were written with a calligrapher’s reed rather than moveable type. Today most calligraphy, in the media and advertising, is rendered digitally. “Computers are about order, limits, and stiffness,” says Maghraby.
On the night of Feb. 11, 2011, layout designers had already sent the printer a version of the front page with Al-Ahram’s house type, but it was somehow unsatisfying. The cover using the computer type still remains in Al-Ahram’s digital archive and is as stiff as Maghraby claims.
“Calligraphy highlights the event,” says Maghraby. “It’s flexible and has life.”
His headlines are bringing Arabic calligraphy to a mass audience, beyond the traditional outlet of religious calligraphy. In fact, the Feb. 12, 2011 headline has become a reference in the public school curriculum for sixth graders.
Maghraby first became interested in calligraphy when he was young, growing up in a village in the Dakahlia Governorate. His mother, whom he describes as “a cultured rural woman,” got him interested in both poetry and the art of calligraphy.
His position as a newspaper calligrapher is highly unusual. Al-Akhbar is the only other Egyptian publication with an in-house calligrapher, and he is not very active due to his advanced age. Other major pan-Arab outlets don’t employ calligraphers.
Maghraby had to teach himself how to adapt the styles of traditional calligraphy for a headline’s width and height. A calligrapher in his position needs to be flexible and to keep up with the speed at which a newsroom operates.
“I can write these headlines in five minutes,” he says. “It’s journalism after all.”
At Al-Ahram, Maghraby often retreats to an office on another floor from the newsroom, to make sure the headline remains a secret. The calligrapher is reticent to comment on the reversals and twists he has helped announce in the last three years but is happy to discuss the details of his craft. He uses a reed pen, dips it in black ink that has been watered down slightly, and works on a piece of cardstock that is then scanned, turned red via a photo editor and delivered to the layout designers.
“An academic calligrapher will take a month to do this, and if you change it, the work’s strength is lost,” he says, pointing to proofs of his work. “I can use any pen, really. You have to be able to use the strength of your hand, not depend on the pen.”
The reed squeaks the same way a marker pen does, leaving strong lines between the pencil guides he’s drawn to make sure the headline fits in the space he’s been assigned.
Sometimes the headlines are edited. After writing “Mohamed Morsi is the First Civilian President of Egypt,” the editors had him replace “Egypt” with “the Republic,” for greater historical precision.
A year later, there was another occasion when Maghraby’s script was needed to highlight important events. From July 2-4, 2013, he wrote three headlines in a row: “The Final Warning,” “Today: Dismissal or Resignation,” and “The President Deposed by Revolutionary Legitimacy.”