From Nashville to Beirut: Everitte Barbee, Arabic Calligrapher
“If you read the Qur’an in its entirety, you’ll see that everything in it has a specific context. The idea was to encourage people to read the Qur’an and take a look at it for themselves. If I could make something the most beautiful that I can make it as a non-Muslim, as an American, maybe people will see that and think, “Okay, why has a kid from Tennessee decided to write the whole Qur’an? Maybe I should read it, maybe I shouldn’t hate or fear these people.”
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, calligraphy artist Everitte Barbee has been living and working in Lebanon’s capital since he finished college nearly three years ago. A former Arabic and international business major at the University of Edinburgh, Everitte began studying calligraphy during a semester abroad in Syria in 2009. Nearly six years later, his work has been exhibited in museums, embassies, and international festivals on four different continents. Euphrates was lucky enough to get an interview with Everitte–take a minute to browse some of his incredible artwork here!
What inspired you to study Arabic in the first place?
I became interested in Arabic after traveling in Northern India when I was seventeen. I was amazed at how welcoming and accepting the Muslims there were of Americans. People I met told me that while they had a problem with the American government, they loved the American people. I was really impressed and moved, and decided I wanted to learn more about the Muslim world and try to change the way America is perceived there.
How did you become involved with calligraphy?
Studying Arabic in college sent me to Damascus in 2009, where I studied calligraphy on Qamariyya Street under the master calligrapher Adnan Farid. I actually joined the classes because I liked a girl from my Arabic course who was taking them, and I wanted an excuse to hang out with her. I ended up loving calligraphy–I found it very relaxing, almost therapeutic.
I never thought I’d make a living as an artist–I hadn’t had formal art classes since high school. But as I got better, I put a few pieces online, they began selling, and things just snowballed from there. Most of my sales are actually to the US, Europe, and the Gulf, while the majority of my exhibitions are in Lebanon.”
Your work covers a number of themes, from pop culture to politics, and poetry to religion. Could you tell us about what inspired these themes and what they mean to you?
In all my work, I aim to celebrate the Middle East by taking a positive or lesser known view of the region. Some of the more Western pop culture references in my work don’t necessarily pertain to the Middle East, but the reasoning behind it is this–I feel that Arabic calligraphy is the pinnacle of human writing, the highest form of writing that man has created so far. It is one of the greatest exports of the Islamic world. And the pinnacle of modern entertainment, it is hard to argue, would be the American film industry.
So I paired these two pinnacles of global culture–the most sophisticated form of writing and the most sophisticated form of film culture–in the Pulp Fiction piece and the Star Wars piece. The movies were personal choices, and seem like a contradiction but in fact are both hugely popular in the Middle East–it might not occur to an American that some kid in Lebanon is a big Star Wars fan. And when a Tarantino movie comes out here in Lebanon, all the theaters are packed. For me, it just goes to show how similar we all are.
My map of Syria is just a red surface with a blank center in the shape of Syria that says, “We talk, we discuss” in Arabic repeated hundreds of times throughout the piece. It embodied the conflict to me–everyone is just talking about Syria, while the Syrians are the ones suffering.
The Afghanistan and Iraq map paintings were commissioned by the IVAW–Iraqi Veterans Against the War–and the text within the piece is the names of cities and places in each country like Baghdad, Al Basra and Erbil, and Jabrael, Rakwa, and Bilcheragh. Many of the prints went toward fundraising for the IVAW. My other political pieces generally focus on the themes of freedom and resistance.
The text in the American flag piece is the Pledge of Allegiance. The piece deals with American identity really–who is an American? America is made up of every nationality in the world. So for me, writing the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic in the form of an American flag was one of the most American things I could do. It looks like a contradiction, but is not at all when you really think about it.
I base a lot of my work on Qur’anic scripture because it is, after all, the source of Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy’s purpose is to express the Qur’an’s words. In my opinion, the Qur’an is the most beautiful book ever written–if you listen to it, the sound is just perfect. And people don’t often talk about the physical proportions of the writing–it’s really phenomenal. Whenever I write something from the Qur’an, the words just fit together like a puzzle. No matter what angle you study the Qur’an from, it has these bizarre perfections which I would never have expected. The pattern of the letters always balances out–it is visually stunning as well as audibly stunning.
When choosing images for my pieces, I do prior research by consulting other Islamic artists and calligraphers as well as sheikhs and imams (often they overlap) to ensure that the image is Islamically sound. I wouldn’t consider myself Muslim, but I think the Qur’an is an incredible book and I would encourage other people to read it.
Could you tell us a bit about the science of calligraphy itself?
Calligraphy has been around for 1400 years, and the expertise is passed down from master to apprentice to perfect the scripts. A lot of geometry and algebra is involved to make sure the space, weight, and shading of each letter makes the image look proportioned and balanced. Calligrapher’s ink is traditionally made from the ash that collects above kerosene lanterns in the mosque. While it’s manufactured now, I try to make as much of my own materials as I can. I think it’s important to know how a calligrapher 1000 years ago would have worked.
I was recently invited to the International Calligraphy Festival in Algeria, where I was the only non-Muslim calligrapher. My work was generally well received and I got a lot of support and advice from some of the best calligraphers in the world.
You are currently working on a project called “The Qur’an for Solidarity”. Could you tell us what that is, and where your inspiration came from?
There are 114 surahs in the Qur’an, and I aim to create one abstract image from each surah. The inspiration for the Qur’an for Solidarity project came after I read the Qur’an. Calligraphy owes its very existence to the Qur’an, so I decided I wanted to write the Qur’an in calligraphy, surah by surah, in its entirety.
So far 41 of the surahs have been completed, with help from sponsors–I am inviting families and individuals to sponsor surahs of their choice. Ideally, I hope to have sponsors from a wide variety of faiths and ancestry in a display of solidarity against Islamophobia and general religious and racial intolerance.
I aim to donate a bound final book to Park 51 in New York and to the Islamic Center of Murfeesboro, Tennessee, near my hometown, which has been victim to recent racial vandalism. So far I have received sponsorship from people in Pakistan, Palestine, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the United Kingdom, from Muslim, Christian and secular backgrounds.
How much time goes into each calligraphy painting?
The shortest surahs may take a few days to complete, but longer surahs, like Surah 36, Al-Yaseen, has 8,000 words and took me 6 weeks to complete the final draft. That’s six weeks where I can’t make a mistake–otherwise I have to start over.
What other upcoming projects can we look forward to?
Another ongoing project I’m working on is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, painting one image for each article of the UDHR on large canvasses. The goal is to highlight the importance of this document and its potential to give America legitimacy in the world. If my work makes people think of human rights and the necessity of following this document, that right there is a goal in and of itself. The UN in Lebanon has been incredibly supportive, and has offered me space for exhibitions.
Where is home for you?
I love America. I’m still very patriotic, I love going back, I love Nashville. I miss the excessive friendliness, the positivity, the gung-ho nature that Americans have. That being said, Beirut does feel like home and I don’t want to leave–it’s difficult to imagine not living in Beirut. It’s such a nice place to live. But I definitely feel more American than anything else.
I consider myself very patriotic and pro-American–I’m certainly very critical of some aspects of US policies, but at the end of the day, my work is to improve American foreign policy, not to end it. I’d prefer that we take a constructive approach to the Middle East rather than a destructive approach.
How has your life been affected by the recent bombings in Beirut?
The bombings become so morbidly common that they seem less scary. You do see signs of the Syrian war everywhere, though. A quarter of Lebanon’s population now is Syrian refugees. There is definitely tension, but at the same time, Beirut is an incredibly easy place to live. I never feel unsafe here.
Beirut is such a melting pot, really a crossroads between East and West–you’re right in the middle of everything here. That is why I chose to live in Lebanon. It’s a great place to be an artist–there are loads of galleries, and it’s a really culturally charged place, which makes life more interesting.
Everitte has donated much of his work to charity auctions and helped raise money for environmental causes, war veterans, and the Syrian refugee crisis. In March, he will be displaying his work for the American Task force for Lebanon in Washington, DC.
Image at top: Everitte Barbee, 2013. The American Flag is depicted using only the symbols and characters from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance written in the Diwani Jali script.