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14/05 2006

Problems of Arabic Typefaces

This article is concerned with the problems of Arabic typefaces for Mac. The fonts in question are basically those available to Quark Arabic users. Quark Arabic is still the main DTP application used by designers and publishing houses and thus the fonts that are bundled with it play a very important role in the field of Arabic typography. The problems are categorized into two kinds. The first is related to indirect problems such as culture and identity, the complex writing system, and the complex grammar, and the second is related to design and technical problems.

I- Indirect Problems

1- Complexity of the Arabic script
The Arabic script is considered to be complex to read, write, or design. This stems from a few factors:

a- Context sensitivity; joining and non-joining characters:
The Arabic script is a joining one. Except for 6 characters that join only to the preceding ones, all other characters join to other characters on both sides. By way of design, dual-joining characters have 4 different glyphs for their representation: isolated, initial, medial, and final. Right-joining characters have 2 glyphs: isolated (=initial) and final (=medial).

Context sensitivity

Context sensitivity implies that the character set is at least 4 times the actual number of characters (excluding all the ligatures needed for true calligraphic representation) and that special attention needs to be given to ensure the fact that all characters “appear” as if belonging to one long continuous stroke.

To the reader, the changing forms of each character means adding an extra memory tax and mental work to the correct identification of characters and words.

b- The use of dots:
Of the 28 characters in Arabic, 17 have basic forms and the rest are variations made by adding dots above or below the characters. The same procedure of adding dots to make new characters (of different phonemes from the Arabic ones) was used for extended Arabic used in Persian, Pushto, Kurdish, Urdu, Sindhi, Ottoman Turkish, old Malayan, Swahili, and Croatian. The result makes the text look like one long freckled stroke. Having less basic shapes to design makes the designer’s task somehow easier but creates very strong legibility problems where the presence of too many dots can lead to confusion, especially for new readers.

c- The use of diacritics:
Like other Semitic scripts, Arabic is a consonantal alphabet. Vowels, which are usually left out, are represented as diacritical marks (harakat) above or below the character. This makes Arabic close to a shorthand kind of writing. It is left to the reader’s knowledge of the language to be able to mentally guess the vocalization of each word. Or, when the diacritics are actually provided, the reader’s eye will have to keep darting up and down while moving across the line, and thus tiring both the eye and the brain.

2- Complexity of the language and difficulty of learning:

The complexity of the Arabic language (and the intricate grammar rules) combines with the complexity of the script to create a real difficulty for those wishing to learning the language. Arab scholars have pointed, for years now, the fact that the Arabic script is very difficult to learn. Some highly distinguished Arab authors describe the Arabic script as:

Makhoul “highly complicated”
Ashamma’ “does not help in propagating knowledge amongst the young Arabs” and “does not make the culture easy to grasp for foreigners who are eager to learn about it”
and Freiha “it increases the time needed to learn the language” and “puts people off from reading.”

This is no wonder since, as Freiha quite rightly asserts, the Arabic script has evolved to become highly ornamental at the time when this increased ornamentation was there to hide the discrepancy and disproportion in letter sizes. He goes on to say that the Arabic script has become so decorative that reading it has turned into an act of guessing and that the point of writing is not art, or guessing, but communication.

3- Problem of illiteracy

It would be very unscientific if one were to blame the high level of illiteracy on the script. However, after examining what Arabic scholarly literature states, it is highly conceivable to say that the complexity of the script as a factor is positively correlated with the low level of literacy. Of course, by looking at recent statistics, one would realize that the major factor behind the literacy rates is not the complexity of the script. These rates, while the script and language remain the same, have more than doubled for almost all Arab countries. Still, some rates go down to as much as 26.3% literate adults. Put differently, of every 3 women living today in Morocco, only one can read and write.

Literacy rates
4- Culture and identity problems
Speaking primarily of the Lebanon, one can find in a large sector of the society a deep rooted wish to be anything but an Arab; namely middle class and upper. Heavily influenced by French and, lately, American examples, the Lebanese society seems to revel in anything Westernised while trying really hard to forget the fact that it is an Arab nation. Being well educated, unfortunately, implies the assimilation of foreign languages and the rejection of the local one. It is not uncommon to find individuals who speak and write better French or English than Arabic. People seem to want to forget about their native tongue. A short walk in the streets of Beirut reveals the predominance of foreign languages over the local one which is perceived to be of lesser value.

5- Design education
Very few books address Arabic typography, let alone Arabic typedesign. Universities in some Arab countries are starting to address the topic but it will be a while before significant results are seen. The awareness that there is a deficiency in the number and quality of Arabic fonts is increasing. One would assume that to be a good sign. It is unfortunate that the solution that many practicing designers and design agencies and studios are coming across is the chopping of existing Latin typefaces and re-arranging the parts to make “Arabic” display fonts. This will be discussed further later on.

II- Direct Problems

1- Design Problem

Lack of Variety:
The number of Arabic fonts for Mac today is not very big, those for Quark Arabic being much less. If one were to be generous in their assessment, one would pick 15 usable ones.

Lack of variety of design
Inconsistency in letter sizes and forms:
One of the factors that contribute to the richness of Arabic calligraphy is the variety of forms of the same letter. When it comes to typefaces, disproportionate and unharmonious characters flourish; large and wide characters sitting next to nearly invisible small characters that almost disappear below 7pts sizes. Forms of the same letter are sometimes different to the point that they do not feel like the same letter anymore.

Inconsistency in relation of dots and diacritics to body characters:
Many fonts have the dots placed haphazardly. Their relation to the characters and to one another is not always studied. This results in a chaotic, unorganized look to the fonts, for these dots occur in 15 of the 28 characters. As to the diacritics, they too seem to float around. Opentype enables control over their location (with GPOS lookups) but Quark, today, is not Unicode savvy.

Inconsistency in Numerals:
In the case of numerals, there is a lack of a unified grid and consistent style. In some cases, it is obvious that the letters and numbers just do not fit, stylistically, visually, or proportionately.

Legibility at small sizes:
The treatment of the counters should be as careful as that of the outer forms. Small or no inner forms tend to be too confusing at low point sizes because the forms become incomprehensible and many characters start to look either the same, or like ink blobs.

Spacing problems: Kerning-Kashida
Spacing in Arabic is different from how we know it in Latin because the script is joined. As such, users cannot “space out” a word or a paragraph. The extra space is actually controlled by the kashida, a horizontal stroke that has a separate key on the keyboard. According to the rules of calligraphy, its placement has specific rules. Unfortunately, someone who is not knowledgeable in that field would not know these rules and thus would apply it haphazardly because there is not technical barrier against its being applied in any type of situation.
Another important issue here is kerning. The abundance of dots creates problems when the decenders bump into the below-the-line dots. This is especially the case with the “waw” and “reh” characters that have a pointing forward decender. It is very similar to the Latin case of lowercase f and i creating an awkward combination that is taken care of by a special ligature.

Loss in Visual Impact:
All the stated problems above lead to one major issue, which is the loss of the strong visual impact of Arabic writing. Arabic typography is still nowhere near the diversity, grace, delicacy and presence of Arabic calligraphy. One of the reasons is the elimination of ornamentation. This was dropped because of the demands of printing techniques (already printing Arabic was complicated enough), and the fact that calligraphic ornamentation is usually added in relation to a whole sets of words and not just one letter. Another contributing agent is the lack of calligraphers’ talents, lack of research and studies, lack of funding, and the small number of specialists. The lack of a specialized touch to cover up the imperfections results in many cases in a weak, unbalanced visual impact.

Failure to answer to modern needs:
Typographic applications evolve in relation to the technical and cultural advancement of any given culture. The rapid evolution that occurred in Arab countries in the 20th century after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire gave rise to a large demand in Arabic printing types and instigated a new era of Arabic type design. However, that period (mainly the 50’s and on) was largely influenced by the economic and technical limitations of printing a complex script like Arabic. Today, these limitations are long gone but the typefaces available still look like they were designed for metal type composition. Moreover, they still “look” like they belong to a past. This is especially the case in display faces.
The advent of Opentype does away with many limitations and now it is truly possible to design typefaces that are true to calligraphic examples. The question that remains: is technical advancement means to a typographic regression into calligraphic roots? Typography is not limited to the faithful rendition of calligraphy and there definitely is a need for sturdy text faces, strong display types, and even fun and informal types.

The recent years have seen a new locally driven trend in Arabic type design. The lack of specialists and variety in available typefaces left the door open for experimentation at the end-user level. The result is the Frankenstein of Arabic typography, cut up pieces of decent Latin typefaces put together to make up Arabic characters. This trend is highly popular in Dubai and starting to make its way in Beirut. Both of these cities have to cope with bilingual typography and this is the unfortunate solution that many are dishing out. Most often, the result betrays a lack of understanding of structure, form, the essential characteristics of the script and the basic difference between a terminal and a body stroke, or instroke vs. outstroke.

2- Technical Problems

Incompatible software and shortage of Arabic enabled software:
The advent of Unicode has made working with Arabic texts much simpler. This is especially the case with the release of Middle East versions of Adobe products. Still, there are many products that we use daily that are not Unicode savvy. Until then, users will need to think twice before transporting text from a program to the other.

Incomplete character sets:
Unhappy surprises occur when using some of the Axt fonts. The text changes when one changes the font. This is true for the extended Arabic characters and Qoranic notations which vary across keys.

Inconsistency in body size:
An easy problem to fix, many of the typefaces are just too small on the body with no apparent reason as to why. It is not uncommon for many to jump off the baseline.

Many typefaces have outline problems such as the direction of the counters, intersecting tangents, bumpy intersection points when a smooth intersection is to be expected, and no points at extremes.

Outline problems
Fortunately, not all typefaces are like this. Some are quite good. The situation is improving (except for the latinization craze) and better typefaces are being released every year. Opentype and Adobe Indesign ME are surely offering better typographic subtleties and Indesign is able to read legacy Axt fonts and new Unicode compliant ones. Today the possibilities are great, and with time and effort, things can only get better.