IDENTITY CRISES: ORIENTAL ROOTS IN A WESTERN PACKAGE

08 November 2006
Nadine Chahine
Nadine Chahine

Piaget, a name familiar to all psychology students, defined 7 levels of crises that a person goes through in his entire life.

One of these crises is identity crisis. What is of interest to us is what one might call Collective Identity Crisis, a problem that encompasses a whole nation; in this case, Lebanon. The problem exists for 2 main reasons:

1- Lebanon is in the center of a pull-the-rope game between the East and the West where one wouldn't know where the East stops and the West begins.
2- Lebanon is an Arab country that is highly affiliated with France and the United States. So, a part of the population is more attached to France than to its Arab origins, and the new generation is closer to the Hollywood version of the United States than to its immediate context.

Amidst the resulting confusion, a new hybrid population grows: an international (mostly Western) identity that still maintains some Oriental residue. This population wakes up every morning to go to work, dressed in Western attire, comes back home at night to spend time with family and friends. In this busy life of ours, the notion of Arabic Identity is lost. What is the new Arab Identity? Our way of life is changing so rapidly that we rarely have the time to stop and wonder: where are we going and why?

The invasion and dominance of Western television and commercials define for us how to be cool, the way we should dress, how we should act. The result is a sense of disattachment to our past and heritage. Being Arab is now outdated and unfashionable. Even advertisers realize this, and several brands refuse to place advertisements in Arabic.

This brings us to the issue of the Arabic language. Without doubt, it is the first to be neglected. Many see that Arabic language is incapable portraying modern technology or way of living; Again, it is put aside in favor of the English or French languages. Children at school learn English or French faster than they do Arabic because of the complexities of its writing system.

On social occasions, speaking English or French is a sign of culture and social class. The only reference to Arabic is in the latest surge of 'exotic' Arabic restaurants. In a country where imported goods are preferred to local ones, these restaurants are imported from a classical past that is very detached from the present.

This same logic is applied to calligraphy. It is treated as an exotic art form that is imported from a distant past, but is not fit to portray everyday life. There it is discarded in favor of the English and French languages. The impracticalities of calligraphic writing in magazines, newspapers, shop signs, advertising etc. has resulted in 2 consequences:

1- A shift to foreign languages that are much more practical and efficient to design and produce.
2- A shift to the modern Arabic fonts that try to imitate calligraphy but fail to do so.

If we, as Lebanese and Arabs, want to maintain an identity special to us, then we should address this dangerous problem in the best way possible. The only way to encourage the population to go back to using the Arabic language is to try to solve the consequences mentioned above:

1- Linguistics should try to simplify and update our language instead of leaving it to waste away.
2- The quality of the available fonts should be improved so that both clients and designers are encouraged to use them. A new set of Arabic fonts should be designed to address the needs of our culture.If such is the case, then how should these fonts be designed and what will they say?




About this article
Article is reprinted with permission.

Nadine Chahine
Nadine Chahine, born in Beirut in 1978, is a graphic designer who studied at the American University of Beirut. There, under the guidance of Prof. Leila Musfy and Mr. Samir Sayegh, she carried out her research on the problems of Arabic typefaces and the challenges facing the emergence of Arabic Typography. Since her graduation in July 2000, she has won the Dean's Award for Creative Achievement, and has been a controversial speaker at the First International Conference for Calligraphers hosted in Beirut. She has also been frequently invited to lecture at the Lebanese American University on the topic of Arabic Typography. She is currently studying at Reading University, UK, for an MA in Typeface Design.