Books On Books Collection – Farah K. Behbehani

The Conference of the Birds (2009)

The Conference of the Birds (2009)
Farah K. Behbehani and Farid ud-Din Attar.
Casebound cloth over boards, stamped in gold foil. H340. 166 pages (56 of them foldouts). Acquired from Saba Books, 5 June 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

The Conference of the Birds is a twelfth-century Sufi allegorical poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. A gathering of the world’s birds, each representing a different aspect of human nature, debate who should be king of all the birds. Led by the Hoopoe, they agree to seek the advice of the mythological being – the Simorgh. After an arduous and winnowing journey, thirty of them arrive at the home of the Simorgh to find a surprising answer.

Farah Behbehani has selected thirteen of Attar’s stories and interpreted them within a journey-like creation of her own in the calligraphic style called Jali Diwani. As with many enlightening journeys, the destination is the journey itself — learning to read Jali Diwani calligraphy and, thereby, celebrate the beauty of the tale and its telling.

A passage from the story starts each chapter, and an image of the bird whose story it is is rendered in Jali Diwali. A tasseled bookmark provides the key to following the stroke-by-stroke illustration of how to read a representative line from the Arabic version of the story (a literal English translation is provided).

This book’s features (56 foldouts, embossing, gold foil, die-cut pages and that unusual bookmark) place it outside the mainstream output of its traditional commercial publisher Thames & Hudson and is as close to being an artist’s book from such a source as could be imagined. It is certainly available only through rare book dealers and occasionally by auction.

Behbehani’s Conference of the Birds fits in the Books On Books Collection alongside Golnar Adili’s Baabaa Aab Daad (2020), Islam Aly’s 28 Letters (2013), Masoumeh Mohtadi’s Blindness (2020) and Rana Abou Rjeily’s Cultural Connectives. Disregard any implication that these works represent a single aesthetic. The artists hail from different countries and draw on different traditions. Yet each work reaches across the cultural divide between the Near East and the West. Reaching across does not mean eliminating the differences. Consider Behbehani’s work in relation to Brian Goggins ‘ Language of the Birds (2006-2008), a site-specific sculptural light installation for a public plaza in San Francisco; Anselm Kiefer’s Für Fulcanelli – die Sprache der Vögel (2013), a massive sculpture of leaden bird wings and books; and the delicate but weighty cages in Bird Language (2003) by Xu Bing.

If anything draws all of these works together, it is the chord that language and image strike across time and cultures.

Further Reading and Viewing

Golnar Adili“. 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Islam Aly“. 13 January 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Anselm Kiefer“. 16 January 2015. Books On Books Collection.

Masoumeh Mohtadi“. 5 February 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Rana Abou Rjeily“. 21 December 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Xu Bing“. 28 February 2016. Bookmarking Book Art.

Arts AlUla. November 2022. “Interview with Farah K. Behbehani | فنون العلا | سفر | لقاء مع فرح بهبهاني“. Accessed 23 November 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Rana Abou Rjeily

Cultural Connectives تواصل الثقافات  (2011)

Cultural Connectives = تواصل الثقافات / Cultural connectives = Tawaṣṣul al-thaqāfāt (2011)
Rana Abou Rjeily
Dustjacket/poster, casebound, decorative doublures, sewn, endbands. H235 x W195 mm. 112 pages. Acquired from Medimops, 23 November 2022.

Rana Abou Rjeily’s is not the only attempt to adapt Arabic to the printing press as Cecil Hourani and Mourad Boutros note in their preface, but their praise for the book is all the more notable for Boutros’ being the creator with Arlette Boutros of Basic Arabic, a widely accepted typeface alongside Nasri Khattar’s Unified Arabic. Still more notable, however, are the ways in which Rjeily’s design and writing weave together multiple aims. One aim, of course, is to introduce Mirsaal, the typeface designed by the author to adapt the calligraphic styles of the Arabic alphabet to the printing press and still be used for the Latin alphabet. Another is to teach the Arabic alphabet to non-native speakers. And still another is to bridge Arabic and Western cultures. The aims are interwoven not only because Rjeily uses the first as the means to the others but because she invests all three into the design of the book.

The dustjacket offers the most mechanical example of this investment. It unfolds into a poster displayof the book’s epigraph from Gibran Khalil Gibran (set in Mirsaal, of course): “We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words”.

Mechanically more subtle than the dustjacket is Rjeily’s use of partial and full bleeds in the pages below — always in support of the meaning on the page. Using both vertical and horizontal bleeds, this double-page spread illustrates the Latin alphabet’s more vertical orientation compared to Arabic’s more horizontal orientation.

Rjeily keeps the material, haptic aspect of both Arabic and Latin close to hand with parallel pages like the following that highlight their alphabets’ differences but also assert the possibility of harmony through design. The same simple green and black color scheme, the same image of nib and mark, and the same angling of text on the page give a unified presentation of the difference in direction and angle of cuts for Arabic and Western nibs. Another physical aspect that Rjeily highlights is the ductus (the order and direction) of a pen strokes making up a letterform, which is arguably more important for Arabic because the flow of writing demands more pen movement.

Other bold, oversized spreads drive home some of the false cognate forms such as 0 and the number 5 written in Arabic-Indic numerals, or the letter V and the number 7 in Arabic-Indic numerals. Others, in an almost children’s book style, present the unique characteristic of an Arabic letterform’s changing shape depending on its initial, medial or final position in a word — or its appearance in isolation. While teaching these differences and features of Arabic is a fundamental aim, always the differences are laying the groundwork or demonstrating what Mirsaal must deal with to bridge a calligraphic system to a typographic system of writing.

The final section presents the Mirsaal typeface in its various fonts (sizes and weights) in the manner of a traditional type specimen, using the very appropriate words of John Henry Mason (1875-1951) in Arabic and English:

Type is like music in having its own beauty, and in being beautiful as an accompaniment and interpretation ; and typography can be used to express a state of the soul, like the other arts and crafts. But like them it is too often used mechanically, and so the full expressiveness of this medium is unrealized. If it is used according to a rule or recipe, it becomes dull and loses vividness. Type appears at first to be a rigid medium; but like other rigid media, it is plastic to the living spirit of a craftsman. — J.H. Mason

Cultural Connectives is the useful reference work Rjeily intends. In achieving its several aims, it also provides both an accomplished example of the book arts and a means of insight into other works in the Books On Books Collection, such as Golnar Adili’s Baabaa Aab Daad (2020), Islam Aly’s 28 Letters (2013), Farah K. Behbehani’s The Conference of the Birds (2009) and Masoumeh Mohtadi’s Blindness (2020).

Further Reading

Golnar Adili“. 24 November 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Islam Aly“. 13 January 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Farah K. Behbehani“. 10 December 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Masoumeh Mohtadi“. 5 February 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Boutros Mourad. 2017. Arabic for Designers : An Inspirational Guide to Arabic Culture and Creativity. London: Thames & Hudson.

Khoury Nammour, Yara 2014. خوري نمور يارا. . Nasri Khattar : A Modernist Typotect. Amsterdam: Khatt Books.

Books On Books Collection – Golnar Adili

Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water) (2020)

Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water) (2020)
Golnar Adili
Wood, felt, board and cloth, 5 x 7 x 1.5 inches (closed). Edition of 25. Acquired from the artist, 1 July 2022
Photos: Books On Books Collection unless indicated otherwise. Displayed with artist’s permission.

Helpfully for a Western audience, the box cover of this homage to the traditional Persian sentence for first-year readers links the right-to-left-reading words with their roman alphabet transcription and English translation. Beyond that, understanding just these few characters and appreciating the artistry involved require some research.

Close-up of box cover.

The character called ‘alef and making an aa sound is آ. From the transcription, we know that the sound should appear four times — twice in “Baabaa” and once in each of “Aab” and “Daad”. The character called be and eliciting a b sound is ب . The transcription indicates it should appear three times — twice in “Baabaa” and once at the end of “Aab”. The character named daal and making a d sound is د . The transcription calls for it to appear twice — at the beginning and end of “Daad”.

As in Arabic, from which Persian adopts most of its characters, some characters’ appearance changes depending on their position in a word or syllable. If a word begins with ‘alef (آ) and is the aa vowel (as opposed to the “o” or “é” vowel), the character for it has a “roof” — as in the word “Aab” — but if the sound falls in the middle of a word — as in “Daad” — the “roof” comes off: (ا). Also as in Arabic script, Persian letters can be linked with one another, altering their appearance. In “Baabaa”, ‘alef (ا) links up with be (ب); so not only does its “roof” disappear, but it squeezes the width of ب  and shifts its diacritic (the dot underneath): با. To Western eyes, the linked characters look like one character. In some typefaces, we have the similar phenomenon of ligatures, in which, for example, the letter f and the letter i will join into the single character fi.

Spine of the box.

Even if Gutenberg’s type mimicked scribal lettering, roman type was not cursive script, which explains in part the hard work by Francesco Griffo da Bologna and Aldus Manutius to come up with italic. With characters changing shape with position and linkage, with diacritics and a slantable baseline to allow stacking of letter combinations, the innovation of setting movable type for Arabic and Persian or any calligraphically represented language would be and has been even harder — if not impossible as designers Rana Abou Rjeily and Bahman Eslami explain (see references below).

All of this preamble helps in appreciating the linguistic and cultural bridging that Adili’s artwork performs. The miniaturized shape of traditional alphabet blocks meets pixellated and sculpted Persian in Adili’s modular wooden cubes and recessed felt base. Her invented typography mostly skirts the calligraphic concerns by leaping into the third dimension. Language becomes tactile and three-dimensional not only in this work but in almost all of the work emanating from her studio.


Larger set of letter modules. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The Jasmine Scented Ones is a particularly good example. This series of works uses the pixellated shapes from Father Gave Water to screenprint Persian characters and words this time taken from a Hafez poem and exploits the play of light through superimposed sheets of Japanese Rayon Lens paper and across 3D resin prints to embody the tension in the poem’s wordplay with the verbs to sit and to settle. For touch that would see and sight that would touch, Adili offers highly expressive works.

Many thanks to Golnar Adili and friend from Books On Books — or Ketab bar Ketab (کتاب برکتاب) as they translate it — for assistance with the crash course in Persian characters. Any errors rest with Books On Books.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Rana Abou Rjeily“. 21 December 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Burney, Sarah. n.d. “One Piece by Golnar Adili, Baabaa Aab Daad (Father Gave Water)“. Kajal. Accessed 6 June 2022.

Center for Book Arts. 14 January – 26 March 2022. “Father Gave Water/Baabaa Aab Daad: An Homage to Childhood, Persian, and Process“. Exhibition. New York: Center for Books Arts Gallery. Accessed 1 March 2022.

Eslami, Bahman. 25 September 2013. “Harir—Reducing Noise in Arabic Script“. I Love Typography. Accessed 21 November 2022.

Rjeily, Rana Abou. 2011. Cultural Connectives = تواصل الثقافات / Cultural connectives = Tawaṣṣul al-thaqāfāt. New York London: Mark Batty Publisher.