Yasmine Ghata was born in France to a Turkish father and a Lebanese mother, the famous poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Yasmine Ghata studied Islamic Art. The Calligraphers’ Night – La nuit des calligraphes was her first novel. It was published in French in 2004, the Hesperus edition is from 2007. It’s currently sold out but used copies can be found very easily.
The Calligraphers’ Night tells a very poetic version of the story of Yasmine Ghata’s grandmother, the first female Turkish master calligrapher Rikkat Kunt. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of Rikkat. Rikkat Kunt was born in 1903 in Istanbul, where she also died in 1986. She was always drawn to calligraphy, the art that captures Allah’s breath, but at first she was married to a man she didn’t love. It wasn’t easy being a calligrapher for a woman but especially difficult at the time because calligraphy was on the way to extinction. Calligraphy and book illustrations were predominately Islamic art forms. But in 1928, attempting to modernize Turkey, Atatürk abolished the use of the Arabic alphabet in favour of a new Europeanized alphabet. The calligrapher’s work was threatened not only because it would lose meaning but also because Atatürk was not in favour of Islam.
Caught between a loveless marriage and those radical changes, Rikkat Kunt had to fight hard to pursue her calling. She finally got a divorce and worked as a calligraphy teacher at a university. Later, she met another man and another unhappy marriage followed. The son of that marriage would be the father of the author of this book.
This is such a beautiful book. The way it’s told is poetic. We really get a sense for this beautiful art and a better understanding for the religion. Everything has meaning in this art. Not only the finished product but the act of drawing the words or decorative borders of the books. The narrator explains, for example that the time the ink needs to dry, less than a minute in winter, several seconds in summer, corresponds to the presence of God.
Calligraphy is not only described as art but as magic. It is holy and without religion meaningless. Later however, Rikkat Kunt, too, began to modernize her calligraphy and strayed from the path of religion.
I mentioned before that Rikkat Kunt is the narrator, but I also need to mention that she begins her story after her death. The pages are populated with the ghosts of her predecessors. The ghosts of famous calligraphers are always presents and guide her. I think this symbolizes the tradition of this art. They all contribute to praise Allah and his prophet and one influences the next.
I loved this book so much. Not only is the writing beautiful and the story fascinating, but I feel like I learned so much about Turkish culture, language, history, and religion. The way this is presented is informative but never dry and fits into the story seamlessly. And I’ve always been fascinated by calligraphy. I also find Arabic so beautiful to look at that I wanted to learn it once.
Because being a calligrapher was so unusual for a women and because women at the time didn’t have a lot of freedom, the book is also about the role and position of women in Turkish culture.
I’ve been to Turkey but not to Istanbul. I always wanted to see it, now more so than ever.