Sheikh Nassib Makarem

Art and Perception

Sheikh Nassib Makarem is considered to be one of the most illustrious Arabic calligraphers in the twentieth century. In fact, he is acclaimed by most calligraphers as the first among them. His home town was destroyed during the Lebanese war (1975-1990) and his house, which he had transformed into a museum for his art pieces, was also demolished but, fortunately, most of his works were saved.

Nassib Makarem was born in Aylat, disrict of Aley, on September 14, 1889. His great grandfather, Hammoud, had emigrated from Ras el-Matn, district of Baabda, to Aylat in the first half of the nineteenth century after a political dispute with the local governor.

Nassib Makarem was educated in Suk el-Gharb High School. Like his father he took carpentry as his vocation. With the early death of his father, however, the young Nassib was compelled to change his profession to a more money-making one for he had to support his mother and seven brothers and sisters. He had already discoverd the knack for calligraphy within him. His gifted mother gave him his first lessons. He then trained himself, taking the work of famous calligraphers as models for his training. He took an office in Beirut where he excelled as a calligrapher and was able to make enough money to buy a piece of land in his home town on which he had an exquisite house built for him. He then married Wassila Faray and became the father of two sons, Sa'id and Sami.

In addition to his work as a calligrapher, Nassib Makarem taught Arabic calligraphy in a number of schools in Beirut and elsewhere, such as the International College, the Lycée Française de Beyrouth and as-Sirat College in Aley.

Apart from the various artistic tableaus which depict Nassib Makarem's beautiful calligraphy, his miniature art pieces, which include his writings and drawings on tiny gold, silver and marble pieces of the shape and size of a grain of rice, wheat and the like, unveil Nassib Makarem's extreme mastery of his talent, his highly balanced artistic faculty, and his firm belief in man's potential for conceiving what is majestic regardless of size, shape or form. For him, all it takes is conviction, determination and harmony between the will and effectiveness, mind and nerve, soul and body. Apart from sheer talent, genuineness and perseverence, the real source of his excellence was his true love for beauty. With such conviction, Nassib Makarem designed his art pieces.

In 1939 the New York World Fair exhibited some of Makarem's masterpieces. Among them was La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, written on a marble grain of rice. When one of the French army generals saw this masterpiece in Beirut, he asked the artist, "How were you able, Mr.Makarem, to put such an anthem, which the whole world was too small to contain, on a tiny grain of rice?" Another one of his masterpieces was the map of the U.S.A carved in a silver grain of rice in which the main rivers and names of the major cities were shown. One's wonder does not stop here! The artist even filled the carving with gold. The value of this piece was estimated at that time at one hundered and fifty thousand U.S dollars. A third was a map of Lebanon carved, likewise, in a silver grain of rice and filled with gold. Rivers and names of cities were also shown. A fourth was the Baalbek ruins drawn on one side of a marble grain of rice and on the other the Baalbek monuments as they stood during the Roman Empire.

Many such masterpieces were also designed by Nassib Makarem. Among them was a tiny piece of marble of the shape and size of an egg on which he wrote in 1911 the Ottoman Constitution both in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish with two poems praising the Constitution and the Ottoman army. He also drew the map of the Ottoman Empire and calligraphed the Ottoman Tughra. Another masterpiece, this time on a grain of wheat, was dedicated to the American Red Cross. He wrote on it a passage of one hundred and one words, thanking the Organisation for its help to the Lebanese during the First World War. When King Faysal I was crowned King of Syria, Makarem presented him with a ruby ring top (7.5 by 7.5mm) in which he carved the King's lineage back to Prophet Muhammed. One of his incredible masterpieces was a marble piece of rice devoted to Egypt on which he wrote a poem of thirty verses (287 words.) Apart form the above mentioned silver grains of rice in which he carved the map of Lebanon, he carved the Lebanese national anthem on a gold stone of ring (7 by 5.5mm.) In 1919, on a natural grain of rice, he wrote a poem of seven verses praising the American University of Beirut (then the Syrian Protestant College) and gave it as a present to the University museum. Commemorating the Industrial Revolution, he wrote on a marble grain of rice a number of sayings by Henry Ford and drew the first three Ford cars. These signify a few of Nassib Makarem's miniature pieces.

As for the art of calligraphy, Nassib Makarem was able to excel in all the different calligraphy styles. This is a fact that was rarely achieved by calligraphers, each of whom usually mastered only a few styles.

Nassib Makarem was not only a master of calligraphy, but he contributed much to this art. The letters he wrote were noted for their grandeur and elegance. His tableaus do not only show perfection in style, but they also reveal an art which is an expansion of the artist's own feelings and sentiments. Previous calligraphers were seen not to let their art works be affected by their own sentiments. This was considered to be detrimental to perfection. For Nassib Makarem, calligraphy- apart from expressing perfection- should first and foremost be subjective. By combining colour, motion and elegance the tableaus of Nassib Makarem became more of a painting than a mere piece of calligraphy.

The subject matter of this book is Nassib Makarem, the man and his art. The book starts with three prefaces (pp. 1-3), the first by M.P Walid Jumblatt, the promoter of the book; the second, by Sami Makarem, the author and the artist's son; and the third, by Umran al-Qaysi, the publisher. All three are followed by a tribute by Kamal el-Baba, a famous Lebanese calligrapher and a friend of the artist (p.4) Next is a critical study by the author of the history of Arabic calligraphy and its influence on Islamic arts (pp. 5-57.) A biography of Nassib Makarem occupies pages 58-71. The contribution of the artist to Arabic printing appears on pages 74-75. Nassib Makarem's art of miniature is dealt with on pages 78-90. A critical study of Nassib Makarem's art of calligraphy occupies pages 91-98. The following three pages (99-102) contain a list of the prizes, decorations and titles granted to the artist. Pages 102-111 contain a study of Makarem's theory of art. All footnotes are mentioned on pages 112-147, and pages 148-152 contain a bibliography.

It is worth mentioning that on every page of the book a reproduction of one of the art pieces of Makarem is exhibited.

Sami Makarem
Professor of Arabic
American University of Beirut

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