An interview with Nihad Dukhan

 Nihad Dukhan, Pen

Nihad Dukhan, a Palestinian who grew up in Gaza, holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, and is an Associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is a master of classical Arabic calligraphy, and received his Ijazah in the Thuluth and Naskh styles in 2009 from Istanbul’s Hasan Celebi.
    Arabic calligraphy has an unchallenged eminence as the world's finest and most evolved for any language that writes with letters. Because of Arabic's unique place in world calligraphy, real innovation here is a matter of interest to all persons concerned with art and design. All images of Nihad Dukhan's work presented here are copyrighted © 2007 Nihad Dukhan. Any unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

YR: What I find particularly wondrous about your work is the way it departs from tradition. I have seen more than a few attempts to create really modern Arabic calligraphy, and these have been Photoshop psychedelia, typography, or retreads of western modern art styles. None of these are intrinsically bad ideas, but I haven't seen them done in a way that isn't superficial. As far as I know, you are the first to really abstract the Arabic alphabet into forms that are, well, sculptural. You have made a fundamental transformation in the calligraphy itself, producing a mood that reminds me of Calder, Brancusi or Noguchi. Are there any antecedents to your style? What influenced you?"

Dukhan: I am humbled by your comparison of my artwork to works of modern masters such as Calder, Barancusi and Noguchi. I found out that I share the engineering training part with Calder!
    I agree with you regarding the sculptural look of my designs.
    What guides, or influences, me in pursuing my designs are a few things:
    I am usually affected by the meaning of the word(s) and the workings of the Arabic language, especially in the Quran and in poetry.
    I follow the energy that naturally moves in the Arabic letter shape, but independently of the rules and measurements of traditional Arabic calligraphic styles. I am, however, influenced by traditional Arabic calligraphy because the flow of this energy is present there. In addition, I am extensively trained in the traditional styles of Arabic calligraphy. I am a master of two styles: Thuluth and Naskh. I completed 11 years of study with Grand Master Calligrapher Hasan Celebi of Istanbul. I am also pursuing an Ijazah (mastery degree) with Master Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya of Arlington, VA.
    At some point in the design process, I refine each design in a manner that leads to an organic (sculptural) shape at the end.
    I am continuously in pursuit of simplicity and its immediate impact and delight. This is a general personal philosophy that I try to apply in my life. Remember, highly-polished things look simple because they are so polished.
    Over the years, I have acquired a general sense of design and a mood that is usually at work during the design process and in my final designs.
    There is no direct antecedent to my style that I can think of. I conceived of my style over a period of time starting around 1989. I think it was a result of many factors that were internalized over years.

YR: Let’s look at some of your designs. There’s a tradition of calligrams (figurative calligraphy) going back to the seventeenth century, but these use the Arabic words more to fill in the outline of a stylized picture, rather than playing on the shapes of individual letters or words.

19th century Pakistani calligram

Dukhan: In general, I do not like calligrams. They are extremely contrived and shallow. In essence, they constitute breaking the neck of letters to force them to fit in a pre-conceived shape. They are a waste of time. If one is interested in a shape of a lion, for example, one should simply draw a lion.
    Rarely, there is a natural and fresh way of arriving at a calligram without breaking the neck of letters. It takes some of the meaning to project an idea or a feeling of an object, without drawing the whole object. It is using some of letters of the word. This way is very efficient, powerful and can leave a lasting impact. In a way, it is similar to successful graphic design. I want to point out, that when I came up with some of these designs I did not use my brain at all, or used it a little to finish them off.

YR: If I interpret your designs aright, the “Pen” imitates the shape of a pen (qalam) with its long ascending lam (L).

Nihad Dukhan, Pen

Your “Angel” (malak) forms a wing with the final kaf (K)



Nihad Dukhan, Angel

Your “Mother” has a fetal mim (M) curled around the middle of the alif (silent letter) in umm (mother).

Nihad Dukhan, Mother

In “Thanks,” (shukran) it looks as though the three dots of the initial shin (Sh) are being dropped into the hand-like three prongs of that letter.

Nihad Dukhan, Thanks

With “Earth” (al-ard) you are more in the tradition of callligram by making the word fill the global outline, but your use of blue for the word and green for the accents wittily makes the point that the surface of the earth is mostly water.

Nihad Dukhan, Earth

In "Lips" (shafah) you make the initial shin (sh) curve happily like a smiling mouth.


Nihad Dukhan, Lips

Am I missing anything in my interpretation of these designs?

Dukhan: Your interpretation of my designs is very good. If I may, I would like to add a few words.
    In pen, you also have a sharp writing tip. Also, the two vertical dots represent air bubbles in the reservoir of fountain pens.

Nihad Dukhan, Pen

In Lips, the rest of the letters are used to abstract the rest of the face.



Nihad Dukhan, Lips


This is for words that represent objects or physical things that we have seen.The game changes when I am working with abstract meanings such as Hope, Freedom, Peace, etc.

Nihad Dukhan, Hope
 Nihad Dukhan, Peace


Nihad Dukhan, Waw
(the letter "W" which is also the word "and".

Nihad Dukhan, Freedom


Nihad Dukhan, Yaffa


Nihad Dukhan, Sufi


Nihad Dukhan, Soul

Dukhan: In these cases, there is abstraction that can’t be easily explained, as no one knows what these things look like, but one can experience them. In some of these, I felt that I was guided by the letters, and not the other way around. There was little or no brain work that I can think of. This process may be similar to writing poetry (not that I am a poet). You can let it flow, or you can run after the rhyme and the fancy words, while the creative impulse passes by.


This is part one of a multi-part interview with Nihad Dukhan.


Nihad Dukhan maintains a website at Several of his designs are available, for between $15 and 25$, on notecards, 11 x 17 prints, coffee mugs and T-shirts. His originals are acrylic on canvas and range in cost from a few hundred to few thousand dollars.


Return to the Invisible Gallery