Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 24th July 2015

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Iraqi calligrapher draws a message of peace

A verse preaching love and peace is one of several Quranic and Biblical verses used by calligrapher Bihnam al-Agzeer in his exhibition aimed at “reconciling Muslims and Christians”.

Bihnam al-Agzeer's calligraphy

Bihnam al-Agzeer’s works of calligraphy

London - “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful, No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself and Honour thy father and thy mother.”

The verse preaching love and peace is one of several Quranic and Biblical verses used by calligrapher Bihnam al-Agzeer in his exhibition aimed at “reconciling Muslims and Christians” in his war-torn home country, Iraq.

A deacon in the Syrian Catholic Church, Agzeer regards himself as a man with a mission to express the beauty of Quranic and Biblical verses linguistically and artistically. His exhibition at the Arthur Probsthain bookshop and gallery in London featured 30 framed and unframed works and has an almost equal number of beautifully decorated verses from the Quran and the Bible.

“I am a Christian and I lived most of my life in Mosul with my Muslim friends. That is why I want my work to promote peace, justice and coexistence and create a dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities during this difficult time,” Agzeer said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

“I have been working with Islamic and Biblical verses for a long time and my art has always been very popular with both the Muslim and Christian communities.”

Agzeer was forced to flee his homeland in 2003, with his wife and daughter, as sectarian violence targeted the Christian community in Mosul in northern Iraq.

“Mosul was a city of coexistence,” he said. “But now, it is a city of non-existence, where Christians have been (systematically) persecuted, uprooted and ethnically cleansed.”

Stressing that he has no time for resentment and hatred, he added: “I want my work to promote peace, justice and coexistence and create a dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities.”

As an artist and a man of peace who has made London his home, he prefers not to discuss politics but can’t help disguise his bitterness about the Iraqi Army. Referring to Iraqi Army Day, marked on January 6th, Agzeer said: “When I was headmaster [of the Syrian Catholic School] there was a major art exhibition for students on Army Day and every calligrapher would exhibit some of his work alongside his students’ creations… Alas, if we had an army, (truly) we would never have lost Mosul.”

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was seized by the Islamic State (ISIS), more than a year ago, along with large areas in northern and western Iraq, in a swift offensive that left the group’s opponents shocked. ISIS’s expansion triggered a mass exodus of Christians from the area after they were issued an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a fine or face death.

Agzeer bemoaned the bombing of 49 mosques and shrines in Mosul, attacks that destroyed great works of calligraphy and prompted many calligraphers and artists to flee.

He said his art “aims at ensuring the continuation of the tradition of calligraphy and giving people inspiration and hope after such traditions have been undermined”.

He said he dreams of a time when it will be possible for artists and calligraphers to have exhibitions in Baghdad, Kurdistan and Mosul without having to worry about bombs, the security situation and ISIS. In the meantime, he will keep on perfecting his art and working until that day comes. “What else can I do?” he asked not expecting an answer.

The Iraqi artist has participated and exhibited with master calligraphers in Mosul, Baghdad and Britain and his work has been incorporated in murals, posters, book covers, calendars, brochures, postcards, greeting and business cards.

Some of his works, for which he won awards, became museum pieces and were exhibited in Iraq’s Museum of Art, which was damaged and ransacked by ISIS. “Only God knows what happened to those pieces,” he said.

Yousif Naser, founder and director of the ARK Space, a platform for exhibition of talents in London’s neighbourhood of Ealing, remarked that Agzeer’s work provided an excellent introduction to varied calligraphy styles, which he had used in a workshop he organised recently.

“He gives equal prominence to verses from the Quran and the Bible, which reflect a profound wisdom and guidance for mankind during these troubled times,” Naser said. “Agzeer is an inspiration to Muslims and Christians to co-operate in artistic endeavours and to help bring an end to the conflicts which have divided them in recent times.”

Agzeer is one of the few calligraphers who have mastered the six major scripts of Arabic calligraphy. He studied under the mentorship of renowned calligrapher Yousif Thanoun and rubbed shoulders with master calligraphers Hashim Mohammed al-Baghdadi in Baghdad and Hamid al-Amidi in Istanbul.

Commenting on Agzeer’s exhibition, Lindsay Fulcher, editor of Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology, said, “‘Make art, not war’ is the message flowing through Bihnam al-Agzeer’s beautiful calligraphy – if only the warlords could read the writing on the wall.”