Arabic is a versatile, flexible script that is used to write many languages. Traditionally, there were two approaches to writing the Arabic script: scribal writing, for books and documents (now largely supplanted by computer type), and calligraphy, for exploring the graphic and artistic aspects of the written word. Both scribal writing and calligraphy share the important characteristic of being written from right to left. A great proportion of the pen’s movements are therefore push strokes.
The chosen instrument for writing Arabic script is the seasoned reed pen. The nib is cut to an angular chisel-edge and slit mid-way to facilitate the flow of ink. In right-to-left strokes, the pen is moved against the grain, often noisily. In this motion the pen is difficult to control, recalcitrant to an extraordinary degree.
Making a beautiful line requires a smooth, polished surface. Originally, scribal writing was on papyrus, making a smooth line impossible. Originally, too, calligraphy was done on vellum and parchment, which suited the heavy early scripts.
When paper was first used in the Islamic world, two problems had to be solved in order to accommodate the peculiarities of the Arabic script. First, the paper had to be smooth so the pen and ink could flow “like breath,” as it is said. Also, the paper had to be made less absorbent so the ink would not penetrate the surface and spread in the paper’s fibers. Both of these goals were achieved by the application of sizes and coatings and by burnishing the paper to a high gloss once it was dry. That is the “prime directive” of the paper preparer.
Over a period of 10 centuries or more, these processes were improved by empirical means until, by the 19th century, the Ottoman Turkish approach became the sine qua non of paper preparation.
Various qualities of paper were produced in the Islamic world. Many of the major cities had paper mills which produced good paper. By the 19th century, European-made papers had largely supplanted locally made stock, but these papers, too, had to be prepared for writing.
The type of raw paper is of less consequence that the dyeing, coatings, and burnishing, but the raw paper should have some basic qualities. It should not be thick and knobbly, nor should it have prominent lay lines or watermarks. Wove paper is best. It should be even, smooth, and thin—40 to 60 pound weight. Most important, it should have good water strength. Papers that fall apart during dying or coating are useless; those that become transparent when wet, as some Asian papers do, are ugly.
My own preference is 60 lb. Mohawk satin, a commercial buffered paper, but like other calligraphers, I also like to experiment with other possibilities. I like to match calligraphy paper to the papers I use for marbling (ebru in Turkish), which I use for borders. That way, there are no surprises when I am gluing up and laminating the final work.
Serviceable paper could be made from ordinary grocery bags, but it would not have longevity. In fact, helping to preserve the paper is a secondary effect of preparing it for calligraphy. Well-prepared papers—even those nearly 1,000 years old—are still supple and flexible. They do not crack when folded and generally do not fox.
Now let us look at some typical formulae and processes.
The first stage of paper preparation is to dye it a suitable color. Traditionally, white paper was occasionally used but generally disliked as being too stark. A soft tone is easier on the eyes and appears more elegant. In some high-quality manuscripts, each signature was dyed a different color.
The preferred colors are tones of tan, but pinks, tan-pinks, greens (pistachio color), pale blues, pale purples, and violets are also used. Deep colors were used for some manuscripts that were written in gold ink. A number of natural substances were used to dye paper (and rarely for parchment and vellum): indigo, logwood, saffron, safflower, annatto seeds, onion skin, walnut skin, buckthorn berries, henna, and all kinds of tea.
In earlier times, pigments such as white lead, red lead, and arsenic (both red and yellow) were mixed with vegetable dyes for body and toning. The resulting mixture could be modified with liquid starch or alum—a white crystalline double sulfate of aluminum.
In short, anything that imparts a beautiful, even, durable color has been used to dye calligraphy paper, either by soaking it or drawing it though a bath or applying the dye with a sponge or pad.
The technical term for the coating is ahar, a Persian/Ottoman word. Originally, the formulae for ahar were quite complex, as were the ink recipes, but over time they were simplified through trial and error. If the ahar performed well without a certain ingredient, that ingredient was left out.
The ahar coatings can consist of one to three stages. The most basic is the alum-starch process. In his great vade mecum to the calligraphic arts Gulzar-I Savab, written about 1650 in Ottoman Turkish, Nefeszade Ibrahim Efendi gives a full account of the classic recipes, which began to develop in the ninth century. This is the basic wheat starch recipe he gives for manuscripts:
“It is necessary to first grind up some white alum. This is put into boiling water and boiled firmly. This liquid is put into a shallow pan or trough and, while it is still hot, raw paper is drawn through it and dried in the shade. Then pure water [rainwater] is boiled, and then starch that has been dissolved and filtered is poured into it. It is boiled until its odor has ceased. Then this hot liquid is put into the shallow trough and the alumed paper is drawn through it and dried in the shade. Finally it is thoroughly burnished. It must be aged [usually for one to three years] before use.”
A few additional recipes cited by Nefeszade: “Paper prepared as above is then coated with fish glue [isinglass, or sturgeon gelatin] and then burnished. It is then, after aging, kalemgir [it holds the pen, which will not slip on it].”
The same, but gum arabic is added to the fish glue. Some mix the fish glue, starch, gum, and ahar and apply it in one application. Nefeszade continues:
“Tragacanth gum is dissolved in rose water and alum and left to soak for two days. It is put into an earthenware pot and firmly boiled. An amount of starch equal to the tragacanth is added and boiled again. If white paper is prepared with this and then dried and then drawn through hot rain water, the result will be first class and kalemgir.”
Rather than drawing the paper through a trough, ahar can be applied with a pad called a cikin (pronounced chikin), a wad of cotton cloth wrapped in a soft cotton rag and tied. The cikin can be disassembled for washing.
Nefeszade says that oak ashes can be mixed with water and boiled and the cikin immersed in the mixture and left for two days. Paper that has previously been treated with ahar can be wiped with the wet cikin, and the result will be very kalemgir paper.
These and many similar recipes and processes were used primarily for manuscript pages, which require burnishing when dry and then aging. This allows the ahar to alter the various proteins in the paper, making them harder and almost waterproof.
The following, again from Nefeszade, is the basis for the modern egg ahar method, as it was used in the 17th century:
“Take the whites from fresh duck eggs and put them in a bowl. If duck eggs are not available, use chicken eggs. Put into the egg whites some milk from unripe figs. This mixture is stirred with sprigs from the fig tree. (If the sprigs have a lot of milk, this amount is enough and one need not take more from the unripe figs.) The egg whites will begin to curdle. After the curdling process is finished [that is, returned to liquid state], the fluid is strained through cloth. Two or three times this amount of cold fish glue is added to the egg mixture. When it is of the right consistency, the paper is drawn through the liquid and dried in the shade. (It is always a condition of manufacturing that the papers be dried in the shade in a non-windy spot.) Then, in order to get rid of the oiliness of the egg whites, the paper is drawn through very hot water, so the shiny aspect is removed. Once again, it is dried in the shade. The paper is then burnished and will be found to be extremely kalemgir and glossy. The paper can again be drawn through a bath of very hot and thin starch water. It will turn out really well.”
For this ahar, Nefeszade recommended using abadi paper, which was made in India from silk rag.
These are the bare facts of ahar preparation. There are many variations, but the goal is always the same: to make a writing surface fit for a reed pen that must be mostly pushed, not pulled, and to prevent absorption of the ink, thereby allowing corrections to be made. Different forms of ahar were prepared for different scripts, but with the simplification of the recipes, there is basically one kind now in wide use.
In 1994, I learned to make good ahar paper from Sabahattin Basaran Usta in Istanbul. This is the process he taught me, which I follow to this day.
First, the paper is dyed, using strong black tea and buckthorn berries or some other natural pigment. The dye can be applied with a cellulose sponge, or the paper can be soaked in dye or pulled through a hot dye bath. The dyed paper is sponged off to remove any pools of liquid or areas of excess dye.
After the paper is dried, it is coated on one or both sides with a mixture of hot, thin starch water, fish glue, and alum. Starch paste that has been aged for three or more years can be substituted for fresh starch. The quantities are a matter of intuition—I don’t measure. This liquid is applied with a cikin or a sponge, taking care not to leave thick or uneven areas. Again, the paper is dried on a rack.
Next—and this operation is best accomplished in a single day—I make and apply the egg ahar. It is a condition of success that the eggs be very fresh, a day old or less. If you can find duck eggs, dilute them half and half with water. For chicken eggs, white ones work best, who knows why.
Separate the whites and put them in a large glass or plastic bowl. (You can add the yolks, or some of them, to your breakfast omelet.) Take a lump of natural alum as big as an egg or a bit bigger. I don’t know where to find alum like this in America, but it is available in its natural crystal state all over the Middle East; I get mine in Turkey. (Natural alum has impurities that are thought to be beneficial. It is said to make paper unpalatable to worms and bugs.)
Move and shuffle the alum around through the egg whites with a wooden fork, or, for quicker results, put the alum in your hand and move it around, letting the egg whites ooze through your fingers as you squeeze the alum. You will soon get the hang of it. You’ll notice little guppy-like filaments of opacity forming in the liquid. Soon they will become clumpy and thick so the whole mixture will be like loose cottage cheese. Don’t stop! Keep the alum in motion: it will reduce in size, the curdled egg whites will begin to liquefy and thin out, and a froth will form. Keep going until the mixture returns to a sort of greenish, soapy-looking liquid with few lumps. Strain it through a cloth and put it aside. This operation usually takes about 25 to 40 minutes.
Let the bowl sit for about two hours, then pour off the liquid under the froth into another bowl. Save the froth: more clarified ahar will settle out of it as the day proceeds. The liquid will be either amber-green in color and clear, or cloudy like old dish water. Both are good. The eggs will automatically have the right amount of alum when using this method, as the process is self-regulating.
You can use anywhere from six to 36 eggs at once. But keep in mind that egg ahar won’t keep in the refrigerator: it’s best to make only as much as you can use in a day. As a rule of thumb, one egg will generally make enough ahar to coat one largish paper three times.
The next stage requires speed and complete attention. Lay the paper on a flat surface—I use a large piece of 3/8 inch Plexiglas. Wet a cikin with water, dip it into the ahar, and apply it quickly to the paper, wiping in one direction, leaving no strokes or pools. This is really important: thick globs crystallize and ruin the artwork. Put the papers on a rack to dry as they are coated.
When the paper is just dry, apply a second coat to each sheet, wiping crosswise at a 90 degree angle to the first application. Then, after drying, repeat the process for a third coat, again wiping crosswise of the previous coat. This is enough coating.
Note that if the papers dry too thoroughly between coats, they may curl up too much. For that reason, it’s best to do ahar in the most humid season of the year. When the papers dry after their final coating, they will still curl, but they can be straightened by pulling them over a sharp edge, like the edge of a table, with one hand pulling while the other hand holds the paper taut.
Finally, let the entire stack dry overnight before burnishing, but bear in mind that the ahar will crackle if the papers are not burnished within a week.
To burnish, you will need a bar of soft soap such as Ivory or the Turkish Haci Sakir. You will also need a piece of real wool felt and an agate burnisher with a straight, flat polishing edge with rounded corners, 2 to 3 inches wide. Finally, you will need a wooden board about 20 inches high and 24 inches wide. Bass wood is said to be the best, but any reasonably hard wood with a tight grain, like maple, is good. These items are usually made by specialist, but I made my own. The true burnishing board, called a pesterk, has a concave surface to hold the paper in place while burnishing. This shape also makes burnishing less tiring on the arms, hands, and shoulders. Burnishing is hard work.
To proceed, wipe the dry soap bar with the felt and then rub the whole ahar-ed surface of the paper with the felt. This step puts a very small amount of the soap on the paper to lubricate it so that the burnisher will rub smoothly over it, compressing the paper but not scratching or tearing it.
Now stroke the entire surface of the paper with the burnisher, going in one direction, putting as much strength and weight behind the stoke as you can muster without getting tired. Turn the paper 90 degrees on the board and stroke it again. It will begin to get glossy. Turn it once more and burnish it again. It should be quite glossy by now, but if the paper is coarse or thick or you are not putting enough force into the burnishing, you might need to turn the paper and burnish it a fourth, fifth, or even sixth time.
Endurance is important—the whole process lasts several hours. A moderately large paper can take 15 minutes of burnishing, five minutes for each round, so husband your strength.
Now that the paper is finished, you might think you can use it right away, but no: stack it and store it and forget it. Make more later, and leave each batch to age for at least one year. The older it gets, the better it is. After five years, it is really good. Occasionally we find a bit of vintage paper, which is a dream to write on.
When your paper is sufficiently aged, take a piece of wool felt or flannel and put some powdered chalk on it. Rub the paper with the chalky fabric to remove any remnants of soap or oil from your hands. This ensures that the ink will take properly.
If all went well, you will have a paper that is perfect for writing on with a reed pen and soot-based ink. The paper will be smooth as glass and glossy, yet it will hold the pen perfectly. The ink will flow on this paper without being absorbed; it will sit, bound to the surface. Blots and minor mistakes can be removed with a damp cotton bud or scraped off with a small knife. In addition, the paper will be strong when you are gluing up separate sections of a work, and the ink will not run even when the paper is damp. The paper will take both gold and water-based pigments, and it will not fray or delaminate.
But most important, properly prepared calligraphy paper produces the right “feel” between hand, pen, ink, and paper. When the pen is moved—even in long, seamless strokes—it will impart a trace of its movement that expresses the concept of the “breath-like flow of the pen,” the philosopher’s stone of the Islamic calligrapher. At their best, all the recondite materials and techniques of the calligrapher contribute to this phenomenon, yet are hidden from sight in the finished artwork.