Arabrew: Can New Typeface Create Arab-Jewish Equality in Israel?

A new exhibition featuring typefaces that mix Hebrew and Arabic letters couldn't have come at a better time.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Daniel Grumer’s Avraham-Ibrahim typeface.
Daniel Grumer’s Avraham-Ibrahim typeface.Credit: Daniel Grumer
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

As can be seen in the road signs for Arab communities, to mention just one example, in Israel the Arabic language has been marginalized at the expense of Hebrew. This is further emphasized by the contrast between the square and aggressive Hebrew typefaces of official Israel and the softer and more rounded letters of typical Arabic typefaces, a difference that in fact reflects the balance of powers between the country’s Jewish and Arab communities.

Type designers Liron Lavi Turkenich and Daniel Grumer each designed a new Hebrew-Arabic typeface, and while their solutions are different the objective was the same: to achieve visual coordination, equal visibility and presence and peaceful coexistence between these two languages that share a same space while taking a small step for peace. Grumer created Avraham-Ibrahim as his final project as a visual communications major at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 2014. Lavi Turkenich created Aravrit (“Arabrew,” if you will) as her final project in the same program at Ramat Gan’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in 2012. Both are showing their work in “Davar Hamelekh” (“the king’s order”), an exhibition that is part of “Lashon Rishon,” the eighth annual conference on the Hebrew language. The exhibition runs from December 27 through February 25, at Rishon Letzion city hall.

Last year a scandal erupted at the conference, which is sponsored by the Culture and Sports Ministry and the city and features discussions, performances and other events, when Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat barred the author and former politicians Yossi Sarid from participating on the grounds that the conference is not political. “Lashon Rishon” takes place this year on January 12-14.

“The King’s Order” sneaks some politics into the conference using typography, which like everything in these parts is neither naive nor neutral. In light of unjustified attacks against Arab-Jewish cooperative efforts, the obsession with Jewish identity and a recent Knesset bill that would strip Arabic of its status as an official language in Israel, this show is definitely in order.

The exhibition name comes from the 1922 British Mandate-era Palestine Order in Council, a king’s order in council giving Arabic and Hebrew parity as Israel’s official languages. In practice, however, Hebrew has superiority over Arabic in every area and forces that language into the margins.

While the respective typographies of each language did not cause this situation, they reinforces it. Even when the two languages are viewed side-by-side, Hebrew — with its rigid, aggressive, geometrical shapes — dominates the soft and almost pictographic Arab letters curving in its shadow. Lavi Turkenich’s and Grumer’s typefaces are an attempt to bring these typographies closer, among other things.

The road to coexistence offered by Aravrit is a single set of symbols for both languages, while Avraham-Ibrahim offers two sets for two peoples.

Children of Abraham

Grumer softened Hebrew’s angular aspect while giving the Arabic letters a certain squareness. He gave both of them “cuts at regular angles in the letters that help create a visual connection between the languages,” in his words. His typeface also strikes a balances between the opposing directions of the languages, between the Hebrew letters, that hang down from the ascender line “as if from a laundry line,” and the Arabic letters that seem to “grow out of the ground” from the bottom descender line — an illuminating observation of the cultural differences between these two cultures, both of them the descendants of Abraham.

For her Aravrit, Lavi Turkenich blended the two languages into a single typeface that is half-Hebrew and half-Arabic. Typographical studies have found a difference in the way each of these languages is read, Lavi Turkenich explains. It is possible to decode an Arabic text almost perfectly if only the top half of each letter is visible, whereas for Hebrew it’s enough to see the bottom half. Using this premise, Lavi Turkenich created a hybrid typeface, in effect cutting each letter in half and reassembling it so that each letter is Arabic on top and Hebrew on the bottom. Inessential elements were also removed from each letter, leaving only the aspects necessary to the decoding process. The common alphabet she created contains 638 symbols, in which every Arabic letter is attached to every Hebrew letter.

Help from fellow train passengers

Grumer, who learned Arabic in the army, got help (over the Internet) from a Jordanian calligraphy designer of Syrian descent. He found another source of inspiration for his typeface in the Hebrew signs written by Arab merchants that “simply make the Hebrew language dance and liberate it from the geometric pressure,” he says. Something of that “liberation” is evident in his tyface. Lavi Turkenich does not speak Arabic, but she says she made substantial use of the comments she solicited from Arab passengers she approached at random during her daily train commute from her home in Haifa to her studies in Ramat Gan.

In typography, as in politics, both typefaces are a result of compromise, concessions and an attempt to achieve peace without either side losing its fundamental identity. The Hebrew Avraham gave up some of its geometrical character and the Arabic Ibrahim became somewhat more rigid, but there is no mistaking the cultural and national affiliation of each typeface.

Lavi Turkenich’s Aravrit is somewhat less legible for speakers of both languages than each of the original typefaces from which it was crafted, and the Arabic letters are isolated rather than attached as they are usually written.

But these issues pale in the face of the possibility of peace. At my request, Grumer spelled out the acronym for Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), which in Hebrew is Da’esh, a transliteration of the Arabic initials. Who knows, perhaps something good will come of it.

Also participating in the exhibition is Dalia Bachar, a painter. “I was born in Iraq, my native language tongue is actually Arabic. But my parents weren’t allowed to speak Arabic, and in school I studied only in Hebrew, and I wanted to present this rift, and the belated attempt to correct it by means of art,” Bachar says.

“Language in Bachar’s work is sharp, concise, demanding,” writes the municipal curator, Keren Weisshaus, in the text that accompanies the exhibition, adding, “The Arabic words written in Hebrew script tell a story that is a hybrid of the two worlds.”

The works in the exhibition combine striped fabrics, fragments of ceramic plates and overdone decorative patterns, and “despite their being very personal works, they offer an opening into a new, intercultural, interlinguistic understanding,” Weisshaus writes.

Only two of the 100 or so presenters at the conference, which will be held in the Rishon Letzion Cultural Center, are Arab.

Prof. Mahmoud Ghanayem is the president of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Israel, which was established in 2007 with the aims of countering the increasing exclusion of Arabic from the public domain in Israel and “the ignorance of the Arabic language in many Jewish communities” in Israel, according to Ghaneyem.

It should come as no surprise, in this connection, that in advertisements for the conference in Hebrew media outlets Ghaneyem’s first name was erroneously given as Mohammed.

Dr. Abdul Rahman Mari, a scholar of Hebrew literature and medieval poetry, is the author of the book: “Walla Beseder: A Linguistic Profile of the Israeli Arabs” (Hebrew, Keter, 2013), which describes the creation of a new Arab language in Israel as a result of the increasing infiltration of Hebrew expressions — called, like Lavi Turkenich’s blended typeface, Aravrit — or Alarabriya in Arabic.

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