“I always tell people, you can ﬁnd my art in your wallet or in your pocket.” — Mohammed Al Mandi
Not everyone can claim to have their works of art owned by millions. The master Emirati calligrapher’s angular designs and personal touches can be found on every banknote in the UAE and Bahrain, on the 1000 and 200 Syrian Arab Republic bank notes, as well as the passports of the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
Derived from the Greek word kallos (beauty), calligraphy means “the art of beautiful handwriting.” Depending on the point of view, Arabic calligraphy can be a work of art, a spiritual medium of communication, or an expression of an ever-evolving identity. To Al Mandi, it is all three and more.
“I put a piece of my soul into each piece of work. Arabic calligraphy is beautifully complicated with a bit of spirituality, romance and lots of history.” — Al Mandi
Al Mandi teaches students from all walks of life. He is the official calligraphy instructor at The National Theater. Located across from Abu Dhabi TV, The National Theater is a part of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
"In Islam it says that anything you learn in life should be passed on, so for me teaching is very important ... I keep seeing great talents blooming in my class. It leaves me feeling alive, and it keep calligraphy alive through their ﬁngers.” — Al Mandi
Al Mandi believes that there is a recent, revived interest in caligraphy, and some of his students show some amazing talents that he hopes to nurture. “Many non-Arabs are perfecting this art. You don’t have to be an Arab or even read Arabic to be able to do beautiful calligraphy. It comes from within.”
When not teaching or designing calligraphy for the government, mosques (like the Grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque), private companies and commercial establishments, he creates special portraits using overlapping Arabic calligraphy that transforms and twists into floral designs, animals or full human portraits.
He is also an artist in his own right. He loves to sketch animals and birds, especially the “majestic falcon,” in his spare time.
“The one who doesn't know the falcon then might as well grill it," is one of Al Mandi’s favorite proverbs.
This Arab proverb suggests that those who don't know the value of something might see it as worthless.
Through his art, Al Mandi immortalized his own calligraphy teachers, “the great masters.” “I owe them so much, and so I drew them using Calligraphy as a way of honouring them.”
He trained in calligraphy in Egypt then in Turkey in the 1970s. He studied under the guidance of renowned masters Syed Ibrahim in Egypt and Hassan Chalabi in Turkey. Now renowned in his own right, Al Mandi received a personal letter from His Excellency French President Jacque Chirac. The letter was in recognition of the portrait he painted for the president using the words of the president’s name and the name of the Republic of France.
Though his studies and recognition are global, it is Al Mandi’s mark on UAE money for which he is best known. He left his first calligraphic mark on money in 1999 with a Dh50 silver coin that was released to mark the 30th anniversary of Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Then in 2005, he was approached on behalf of the Central Bank to design the Arabic script for the new Dh200 note.
In addition to the currency, Al Mandi has worked on other significant government projects. He designed the wall painting at Dubai New Hospital. He wrote many glorious Koranic verses on the mosques inside and outside of the UAE—for instance, he’s worked in India. Al Mandi designed the facade of the Ministry of Justice Court in Abu Dhabi.
In addition to his earlier currency experience, he designed several coins for the UAE on special occasions like the 30th Accession Day and Federation Day. The golden jubilee of the Arab League establishment, the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the UAE Central Bank, the silver jubilee of the establishment of Women's Association, and for numerous other important events.
“I am always working. I love it, because it is not really work for me. I get to do what I love...” — Al Mandi
“I decided on the Kufi Al Fatimi script for our money to stand out and be different from other Gulf currencies that mainly use Thuluth or Nasekh...”
Kufi, the style that Al Mandi chose, was used to write the first copies of the Holy Quran, and is the oldest form of calligraphy, dating to the early 7th century.
The Thuluth script appeared in the 9th century. It is also used in the Quran and is one of the more important ornamental scripts. It is often used in titles, headings and colophons - the imprints or emblems of publishers. Thuluth al Jely is a classical script and one of the most important and difficult to write and read.
Many modern Qurans are written in Naskh, a more cursive style dating to the late 8th century that is easier to read. While Ruq’ah, which means small sheet, has been revised over the centuries and simplified to become the most commonly used font in the Arab world.
Al Mandi explains how designing currency is a group effort, with over 20 people working on each note as a norm in this field. “I am just one of many who left their mark on the Dirham. Together we sit and decide how to make a currency stand out. How can it be recognized from among a pile of currency? It has to be unique but at the same time recognizable for anyone who lives here or has visited the UAE. A lot of work goes into making a currency. It should not be taken for granted,” he said.
“If you have never been to the UAE, you can look at the Dirham and get a sense of the place, an understanding of its culture and its people.” Even the colors of the notes are carefully studied to be different from other countries’ notes, as well as different from among the pile of dirhams. “You can see from a distance that that particular green is the 10 Dirhams ... it is a study of psychology and identity ... also the 10, 100, and 500 are more commonly in use than say the 200 and the 1000. That also plays a role in design.”
Al Mandi is always smiling and rarely loses his temper. He takes it easy, with this form of art cultivating a sense of inner peace and calmness. He recalls funny incidents at some of the exhibitions where he would often be sitting behind his desk, with some Emirati money on display next to his other art pieces.
“People usually think I am some money exchange agent. I can’t tell you how many times someone comes up to me and says, hey, can I change Dollars or Euros for some of those Dirhams?” laughs Al Mandi. “It never gets old.”
The late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed’s painting took over a year to finish back in 1991. Al Mandi picked the color green as the main theme, as His Highness “nurtured and planted seeds of giving and life, turning the UAE into one of the best nations in the world.”
Photographs and text — Rym Tina Ghazal