Room Of My Own

Room Of My Own – Ahmed Moustafa | Interview by Ena Kendall | The Observer Magazine | mid-1980’s

Ahmed Moustafa, Arabic scholar and calligrapher, is a pioneer in a historic field, using the flowing shapes and sinuous lines of Arabic script to make abstract pictures that spring from the roots of Islam.

Many of his works of art are in fact quotations from the Koran, though the large calligraphic composition in his sitting room, showing four prancing horses, is derived from quotations from pre-Islamic poetry. This work originated in 1984 when he was asked by the government of Qatar to produce a design distilling the essence of the Arab horse for a tapestry to be installed in a conference centre in Doha. At about the same time, the weavers of Aubusson in France expressed an interest in his work, and since then much of his calligraphic art has been woven into magnificently coloured Aubusson tapestries.

A lecturer at the University of Alexandria for eight years, after graduating there with the highest distinction in Fine Arts ever obtained in Egypt, he came to Britain in the early Seventies for special advanced studies in printing. Today he lives with his Scots-born wife, Catherine, and their two children, Nisreen (wild rose), and Safeer (ambassador), in a Victorian house in London‘s Blackheath. He is a gentle, quietly-spoken man, the eldest of a family of six sons and one daughter, whose mother was determined they should all be educated. She died earlier this year and he regards her as the most powerful influence in his life.

‘She saw living with reality as the main source of happiness, and l cling to that attitude, too. Life for me was once so tough, then it became so kind: I was tested by both aspects of reality.‘

The sitting-room furniture comes from all over the Islamic world. The king-size desk in tropical wood at one time belonged to the Egyptian royal family, whose sway came to an end when King Farouk was deposed in 1952. The top of the desk can be slid across to disclose space beneath for large documents or unframed pictures. The desk, about 60 years old, is ornamented with geometrical patterns characteristic of the Mamelukes, Egypt’s old ruling caste, and the swivel chair and six-sided table belong to the same group. Ahmed bought the brass-topped table nearest the window in the Old Kent Road: an inscription underneath it – Jaipur School of Art – leads him to think it was once a graduate project.

The other brass-topped table, with photographs of the two children, is Egyptian, and on it are some of the reed pens used for Arab penmanship; they have to be made out of matured bamboo to exact specifications – the size of the largest nib is measured by the width of 24 working horses’ hairs.

‘Everything is according to due measure and proportion. In Arabic letter shapes you are looking at visual music.‘ he said. His doctoral thesis established a proper understanding of the theory of proportioned script advanced by a tenth-century scholar, Ibn Muqla. Ahmed’s researches convinced him that the letter shapes are derived from a single geometrical grid. The concept is a complicated one, but helps to explain the presence of the three-dimensional geometric objects on the desk. ‘These are aids to calligraphic still life – I like to have these shapes around.’

His research tends to contradict the view that Muslims were never allowed to draw humans. Although pictorial art is normally not allowed in mosques, and Ahmed believes that for Muslims abstract expression is art at its purest, he sees the question of whether Islamic artists refrained from drawing the human form for theological reasons as unresolved.

“Suddenly, seeing Western art at first hand, I realised its sources had nothing to do with me, my culture or my beliefs.”

The collapsible chair with the palette of wools draped over it comes from Damascus and was made to be folded up and transported on a camel’s back. The wooden armchair inlaid with mother-of-pearl is Andalusian, but of a type frequently found in North Africa, while the sofa is Portuguese, though covered with kilims and cushions from Egypt.

The pair of Afghani tribal chairs on either side of the fireplace were bought at an auction in aid of Afghan refugees; the miniature sailing ship on the right came from Greenwich. A half-size replica of the Rosetta Stone, the key to the understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, is on the mantelpiece, along with the head of Nefertari, Akhenaton’s sister; some German ammonite, 150 million years old, bought by Safeer for his father‘s birthday; a statue of an Egyptian scribe; and an Egyptian, seated baboon.

A head of a pharaoh, bought in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is above the mirror, while on the left is a screen print of one of Ahmed’s early works using Arabic script. On the carved Malaysian side table is a bronze of a French pierrot, bought by his wife in Alexandria. The wooden horse beneath the Victorian easel is a Mexican naive carving, though it was found in a tobacconist’s shop in Alexandria.

The Moustafas bought the North African tribal rug in a caravanserai in Fez. ‘What I adore about it is that it is littered with mistakes. You can also see the Graeco-Roman influence in the key pattern round the edge.‘ The cloth on the six-sided table is hand-sewn applique work by Egyptian ceremonial tent-makers, and in the window are some examples of Ahmed‘s Arabic lettering in stained glass.

He has represented Egypt in many international exhibitions and has also had several one-man shows in this country at such places as King‘s College, Cambridge, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. His current exhibition, ‘The Artistry of Arabic Script’, at London’s Royal College of Art, helps to make Islam more accessible and its dynamics less mysterious to non-Muslims. That is partly his aim.

Coming to England changed his life dramatically. ‘Suddenly, seeing Western art at first hand, I realised its sources had nothing to do with me, my culture or my beliefs. For some time I was a bit confused, and l was anxious to find out more about my own artistic heritage. Then I realised the universality of it all – the knowledge that we are all born to Adam and Eve – and the reality behind this is far stronger than the depths we create with our ignorance.’