BEIRUT: The world never has to look far to find evidence of U.S. citizens’ negative relationship with Islam.
When a Florida pastor oversees the trial, conviction and incineration of Islam’s holy book, it’s splashed across front pages, or when American soldiers serving in Afghanistan burn the Quran, news stations lead with the story. But pervasive as such headlines are, not all Americans’ interaction with the Quran is focused on its destruction.
Everitte Barbee is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s also a calligraphy artist. About a year and a half ago, the 24-year-old commenced work on a unique project: The Quran for Solidarity is, as far as Barbee is aware, the first Quran to be completely handwritten by a non-Muslim. He also believes it may be the first edition of the book entirely written in figurative calligraphy.
“I don’t know of any other non-Muslims to write the entire Quran by hand,” Barbee, who currently lives in Beirut, told The Daily Star. “I [also] don’t know of another Quran written completely in pictures, in actual figurative designs ... Normally it’s just linear text.”
Barbee, who studied international business and Arabic at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, learned his art from master calligrapher Adnan Farid while living in Damascus in the fall of 2009.
The Quran for Solidarity project emerged almost by accident as Barbee sought to improve his skills as a calligrapher. The artist began writing Surahs from the Quran because he didn’t have many reliable sources of Arabic in dual translation and needed text with which to practice his art.
“I wrote one or two Surahs, just short ones here and there – all just geometric designs,” he explains. “But then after I’d done five or six, I thought, you know, why don’t I try to write the whole Quran.”
The extent of such an undertaking quickly became apparent. Barbee realized that handwriting the Quran “would take a few years.” So, in order to sustain his endeavor, the artist decided to find sponsors who would pay a small amount per word and receive the original calligraphic production of the sponsored Surah in return.
At the same time, Barbee was aware of and concerned by the growth of Islamophobia and religious and racial intolerance toward Islam and Arabs in the United States.
“I was reading the news constantly, and they have all this, you know, this constant negative flack about Park 51. And then even in my hometown of Nashville they were trying to build a mosque in Mufreesboro ... but even that whole thing was held up because basically the city said they didn’t want a Muslim building in their town,” he says.
Park 51 is a community center incorporating a mosque and Islamic center. Its location in lower Manhattan, mere blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center towers, drew extensive controversy as many objected to the establishment of a mosque so close to the site where some 3,000 people were killed by Islamist militants on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Islamic Center of Mufreesboro received approval to proceed with construction of a new mosque two years ago, but opponents to the project, some of whom said its objective was to infiltrate the local community with Shariah law, launched a lawsuit that succeeded in delaying its opening. Just this week, the ICM received a 30-day temporary occupancy permit for its new site.
However, local opposition to the mosque continues.
“I mean the fact that you can just say churches are allowed here but mosques are not is just absurd,” says Barbee.
“I hate the way Americans look at the Middle East right now, especially mainstream Americans,” he adds.
Barbee’s hope is that his Quran will encourage his compatriots to rethink their position on Islam: “Hopefully, maybe they’ll see that if another American [who isn’t a Muslim] can really appreciate [the Quran] for what it is ... maybe that would change the way some people think about it.”
Once his Quran is completed, Barbee intends presenting the first two copies of the book to Park 51 and the ICM.
But completion is still two to three years away. So far, Barbee has finished just 25 of 114 Surahs.
And those 25 are “mostly the shorter ones,” he admits, confessing that his task will become much more difficult as he takes on the longer Surahs.
Drawing each Surah as a picture is relatively easy for the last 70 or 80, but fitting the hundreds of verses that comprise the likes of the second Surah onto a single sheet of paper is a daunting task, Barbee explains.
“How I’ll get that on one picture, I still haven’t quite figured out,” he says. “It may have to be quite large.”
He muses that perhaps the final volume will contain both a print of the whole picture – in which the text will be quite miniscule and unreadable – alongside the picture reprinted across several pages in order to make the words decipherable.
Although still in its early stages, Barbee’s project has so far been well-received. “I haven’t gotten any bad feedback about it,” he says, “and I have gotten quite a few sponsors – sponsors from Pakistan, America, probably about seven states in America now.”
All the sponsors to date have been private individuals, about half of whom are Muslims and half other religions, Barbee says.
When someone sponsors a Surah, Barbee finishes the piece and sends the sponsor the original picture. However, he retains the right to use scans and images of it in his final Quran.
Sponsors may also have some input into the figurative calligraphic design of their chosen Surah.
For instance, in Surah Ar-Rahman one particular verse says the trees will prostrate before Allah. So at the request of the sponsor, Barbee manipulated the words of the Surah into an image of a tree bowing down.
The use of words to create portraits of animals and people is a regular feature of much of Barbee’s other calligraphic work, however, when writing the Quran he says he’s more comfortable working with abstract and geometric patterns.
“I’m still not sure how I feel about drawing animals in the Quran,” he says. He admits that he has drawn an elephant for the Surah Al-Fil, but says “I might have to redo that one.”
In addressing such matters, one enters a complex debate.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of Muslims about it,” Barbee says, “but as far as actually going to an imam or sheikh about it ... no, I haven’t actually. [That] might be a good thing to do.”
“But ... do I go to a Shiite imam or do I go to a Sunni imam?” he asks.
Ideally, Barbee would also like to have his Quran appropriately blessed, but he’s happy to address such matters at a later stage. “I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them,” he says.
For now, he continues work on the Surahs, each of which he must handwrite three separate times to produce the final picture.
“It’s a slow process,” he says, as he motions toward his current Surah in progress: “This one I’ve been working on for about two weeks now and it’s still [only] about halfway done.”
“But,” he adds, “it’s fun. It’s very relaxing and I enjoy it.”
The artist also articulates a deep aesthetic appreciation of the Quran: “It’s a very beautifully written book ... the language is amazing, the poetry in it is phenomenal, but the rhythm of the actual strokes, the way it’s drawn, is actually pretty amazing.
“If I try to write a poem by Mahmoud Darwish [for example] ... there’s not really a rhythm. I mean you have a lot of tall strokes at one point and then a few short ones.
“But, it’s really bizarre, when you write the Quran [there’s] actually a visual rhythm to it as well ... It’s almost always more beautiful than other writing ... Whenever I’m writing a Surah, it always fits together in this bizarre way ... I really have to struggle to make poetry or something I’ve written work the same way.”
For further information on The Quran for Solidarity or Everitte Barbee’s other works visit http://everitte.org/.