Letter from an American in Istanbul

Naseer Yahya


As a university freshman and recent convert about 20 years ago, I was invited to our local mosque for a barbeque. After entering, I was given a short tour of the building and remember being struck by the calligraphy above the dome of the prayer hall. The blue band of flowing writing left me speechless. It was a rare beauty without vanity in the words of Ronald Duncan. As an artist myself, my first thought was of disbelief that people were able to do such things – and a firm conviction that I would not be able to do so myself.

Over the years, several friends who were aware of my interest in the arts - encouraged me by bringing books on major figures in its history, and sometimes spending hours translating the meanings of calligraphic panels for me. One friend in particular returned from Damascus with the classic `mashq` of Mehmed Shevki – a guide that allowed me to study the proper proportions of the letters and their composition in a systematic fashion. After completing a large mural, a Turkish friend remarked to me that my writing was good and beautiful, but if I went to Istanbul I would be able to become a real professional.

In the historic districts of Istanbul, one can see the pinnacle of certain scripts of calligraphy not just as a panel in a book or even framed on walls – but also discreetly in vaulted passageways, in open courtyards encompassed by their companion: architecture. The changing lights of the day and the movement of clouds over the gold allow you to see the art in its most natural state: a jewel of the garden.

In the cafes of the Asian side in Uskudar, classical motifs are found on the ceilings and the walls – walking the backstreets, fountains bear inscriptions that transform the city into an open air museum for whoever cares to take notice. This environment has been one of the magnets for artists from both within Turkey and outside different to meet, collaborate, exchange criticism and encouragement – as well as ideas and techniques for advancing the art into the future.

All art forms that are considered classical – whether in music or art or any other discipline, demand that the student learn how to see again, hear again, and move with renewed certainty and purpose. The long road is ultimately transformative if we do not let ourselves be tempted by pursuing the path of least resistance. Sometimes, it may be that by traveling we can clear a space of focus, away from distractions – and allow ourselves to cultivate that skill that remains solidly within us wherever it may be.