Typeface Designers 'Reinvent The Wheel' To Create Arabic Fonts

Arab calligraphy
Arab calligraphy
Lara El Gibaly

CAIRO — There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. There are four possible written forms for each letter, depending on whether it stands alone, or comes at the beginning, middle or end of a word. Then there are diacritic symbols, indicating the script's correct pronunciation, which hover gently above or below each letter's lines and curves.

What does this all spell out? A tough challenge for aspiring Arabic font designers.

"There is no content online for learning Arabic type design, so for designers who are self-taught like myself, it's very difficult to learn," says Mohammed Gaber, founder of Kief type foundry.

Gaber is the creator of the Cairo Font — the first free open-source Arabic, Urdu and Farsi typeface available in six thicknesses (or weights, in type-speak), developed to match the popular Latin typeface family, Titillum web. The font, with its wide-based letters and short vertical lines, is used in the poster for the Cairo Now! City Incomplete exhibition at Dubai Design Week.

With the boom in Arabic content online — only expected to increase in coming years — there's renewed interest in type design in the Middle East.

Type designers, the calligraphers of our digital age, face several struggles — dealing with the inherent difficulties of designing Arabic fonts, creating a market for and promoting their work, and striking a balance between the essentially ornamental nature of Arabic scripts and the utility and readability that modern type display requires.

"You want to be pretty but practical," says Gaber. "You want to break the rules but not break them too far."

Kief is one of a handful of type foundries that have sprung up in the region recently, and Gaber's aim is to build up a culture of type design in local markets. The number of available Latin fonts still vastly outnumbers the existing Arabic ones perhaps because most software is initially developed to support, and developed in regions which use, Latin scripts.

"I don't really like it when people say that Arabic is more difficult, because Latin isn't that easy either," he says. "But Arabic definitely takes more work." Gaber recently published three new open-source fonts and shared the source files so that other aspiring type designers can build on his work. This can cut the effort involved in font building from scratch by half.

When designing a font, Gaber refers to one or more of the classical Arabic calligraphy scripts as his "skeleton," taking the angular grids of the Kufi script, and combining it with the slopes of Thuluth and the simple curvature of Ruq'ah, to create something new.

"When working on the Cairo font I used Kufi as the perfect starting point," says Gaber. "Not depending on one of the classical fonts makes it look like a mess."

Design initiative Khotout West El Balad ("downtown lines'), jointly created last year by Ismaelia for Real Estate Development and the JWT Cairo ad agency, have reversed this process. Instead of working from the classical scripts, its designers took to the streets of downtown Cairo to document signs and storefronts to see what they could bring from the urban environment to their computer screens.

The result is six new fonts, also available for free download, on the Khotout West El Balad website.

One of these, a slim, high-reaching, rectangular font called Nefertari, takes its style from a travel company of the same name. Another, Maktab Rita ("Rita's Office") combines the fonts of an office building sign and the nearby Rita church. "We wanted the fonts to have a story behind them," says Ibrahim Islam, head of design and branding at JWT. "It's not just the visual aspect that's important."

After a four-month research and design process, in which Islam, Ghalia Elsrakbi and Haytham Nawar worked with design students from the German University in Cairo, the fonts were launched in January. They were a hit. The Madinet El Batt was used, for example, by well-known band Masar Egbari for their new music video, Cherophobia, and by students in jewelry maker Azza Fahmy's design school.

Although much of Khotout West El Balad's research found signs based in the common Arabic scripts, they were able to document and work from what Islam calls "free fonts' commonly found in hand-written signs, ones that don't follow the conventional calligraphic rules. Using these as the base for digital fonts gave designers the freedom to alter the proportions of letters and add more stylized design elements. But it was something akin to reinventing the wheel.

"The free fonts were like prototypes," explains Islam. "But because you only have a few of the letters, the ones that are on the sign, you have to make the rest to match."

The prototype for one Khotout West El Balad font, Safwat, doesn't rely on any pre-existing script but on a series of geometric shapes. The font has a 1970s modernist feel.

The project's second stage is convincing shop owners to use these new fonts in their renovations. Although they've had some success — Islam tells me that a Khotout West El Balad font was recently used in the refurbished storefront of an auction house in downtown's Kodak Passageway — the impact of the new fonts on the environment that inspired them has been slow.

"People are resistant, even when I say we'll do it for free. Some people don't want to change their fonts out of sentimentality, and some people don't see the value in the aesthetic," says Islam, who believes urban signage should be regulated in order to achieve a certain visual coherence.

"Back in the day, they had rules about proportions," he says. "Only 30 percent of the space of signs were allowed to display Latin writing — the other 70 percent had to be Arabic."

Khotout West El Balad is working on a 200-page book documenting its research, as well as on an upcoming round of workshops.

Noha Zayed is concerned about documentation. During years of travel in Egypt and around the region, she has hunted for hand-painted calligraphy, on signs, trucks and old advertisements. Her resulting photographs are set to be published mid-2017 in a book created in collaboration with Basma Hamdy, entitled Found Khatt.

"I'm trying to document this tradition before it disappears, replaced by digital alternatives," says Zayed, who explains that her book is a reflection on the tradition of Arabic calligraphy and lettering, and the social and cultural function they serve.

Often, murals with accompanying text painted on the side of homes depict a plane and the Kaaba, signifying that someone in this household has completed the Hajj. Truck drivers, who spend much of their time on the road, often have the names of their children painted on their vehicles, taking the thought of family with them during long absences, while bus drivers tend to opt for holy verses to invoke protection as they make their way along Egypt's dangerous highways.

"Historically, Arabic calligraphy has a sort of sanctity to it," said Zayed, who also helps curate the "Arabic typography" Instagram account, which posts examples from all over the region.

Traditionally, good handwriting was also a sign of education, and a skill that commanded respect. "Before the age of computers, no scholar who had bad handwriting had any credibility," says Gaber, who believes designers must balance between digital practicality and credible aesthetic.

"The possibilities for combinations are endless, and that's the beauty of Arabic script," says Islam, adding that new fonts take time to assimilate and become easily readable because people aren't used to them.

The market is still very much under development, says Gaber, who, along with other young type designers, continues to plow through the Arabic script's dots and curves, carving out new ways of communicating beauty and meaning.

"What we want to say is, you don't have to go to Linotype in Germany to have your own font," he says. "You can do that right here in the Middle East."

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New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]


A dove from Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida tough enough to lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam, Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

In September 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years.

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

Daisuke Kondo / Economic Observer


Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.


"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.


Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

➡️


"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."

— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.


Fumigation is used as a precautionary measure against the spread of dengue disease in New Delhi, India, where more than 1,000 cases have been reported — Photo: Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! -

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