Back to the complete issue
Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Nasri Khattar: the Lebanese architect who attempted to revolutionize Arabic typography

A little less than a century ago, a little-known Lebanese architect tried to do away with the way Arabic script is written. This podcast episode from Kerning Cultures explores the story of Nasri Khattar, the man “tried to completely overhaul the Arabic script — singlehandedly” (listen, runtime: 24:20). Khattar’s idea was to reduce the number of variations for each letter in the language: The entire alphabet is only 28 letters, but once the different shapes according to their position in a word and vocalization marks are taken into account, “a complete set of glyphs can easily reach up to 150 shapes,” type designer and professor Yara Khoury Nammour notes. This vast number of variances made it extremely difficult to fit all of the letters on a regular typewriter. Ultimately, Khattar believed that replacing the traditional Arabic typography with his proposed Unified Arabic system would reduce illiteracy rates across the Arab world by eliminating hurdles to mass producing printed materials in Arabic.

Sadly, Khattar’s system never caught on: Few people actually liked the idea of Unified Arabic; not scholars, not politicians and not the average book readers. And when computers replaced typewriters, the problem that Khattar spent his life trying to solve became irrelevant.

But although Khattar’s system never properly took flight, his ideas lived on: In Egypt, the Academy of Arabic Language actually launched a competition to revamp Arabic script and make it more uniform. While some proposed “Latinizing” Arabic (the equivalent of modern-day “Franco-Arab” WhatsApp language) and others wanted to literally recreate a whole new alphabet, there were some entrants in the competition who prescribed to the idea of reducing the number of letters or otherwise streamlining the Arabic language.

Enterprise is a daily publication of Enterprise Ventures LLC, an Egyptian limited liability company (commercial register 83594), and a subsidiary of Inktank Communications. Summaries are intended for guidance only and are provided on an as-is basis; kindly refer to the source article in its original language prior to undertaking any action. Neither Enterprise Ventures nor its staff assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy of the information contained in this publication, whether in the form of summaries or analysis. © 2022 Enterprise Ventures LLC.

Enterprise is available without charge thanks to the generous support of HSBC Egypt (tax ID: 204-901-715), the leading corporate and retail lender in Egypt; EFG Hermes (tax ID: 200-178-385), the leading financial services corporation in frontier emerging markets; SODIC (tax ID: 212-168-002), a leading Egyptian real estate developer; SomaBay (tax ID: 204-903-300), our Red Sea holiday partner; Infinity (tax ID: 474-939-359), the ultimate way to power cities, industries, and homes directly from nature right here in Egypt; CIRA (tax ID: 200-069-608), the leading providers of K-12 and higher level education in Egypt; Orascom Construction (tax ID: 229-988-806), the leading construction and engineering company building infrastructure in Egypt and abroad; Moharram & Partners (tax ID: 616-112-459), the leading public policy and government affairs partner; Palm Hills Developments (tax ID: 432-737-014), a leading developer of commercial and residential properties; Etisalat Misr (tax ID: 235-071-579), the leading telecoms provider in Egypt; and Industrial Development Group (IDG) (tax ID:266-965-253), the leading builder of industrial parks in Egypt.