Amid my preoccupation with events and variables of present times, among which are the issues of e-publishing and online journalism which I tackled in recent editorials, my attention was unwittingly caught by a related matter intimately concerned with reading and writing. I will explore this matter here, fully aware that some may find it curious, others shocking, and still others rather scary on the cultural level. I speak of the riqaah Arabic script.
Riqaah or ruqaah script is the variety of Arabic script commonly used in everyday handwriting; or more accurately: commonly used in everyday handwriting till now by the older generations. The riqaah is known for its clipped letters composed of short, straight lines and simple curves, as well as its straight and even lines of text, as opposed to the naskh script which is the more complicated classic Arabic script used in print. Riqaah is a functional style of writing that readily lends itself to quick writing and easy reading.
I belong to a generation that still uses pen and paper to write, overwhelmingly in riqaah. Computers, electronic devices, or the Internet have not changed our affinity to pen and paper.
Every one of my generation and the ones that followed it, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Gen Z has been taught in school both the naskh and riqaah scripts, practising handwriting in both scripts in special notebooks to enhance handwriting skills; beautiful, clear handwriting was always considered an asset and a form of art.
Whereas the older generations are adept at riqaah for its handiness and ease, I was ill-prepared for a surprise comment by my granddaughter who saw me writing this editorial. “What are you writing, Geddo (Grandpa)?” she asked. “My article,” I replied. “Is this Arabic?” she said; “of course,” I answered. “Then why can’t I read it?” she wondered out loud. I thought maybe my handwriting was not clear and, knowing her to be an excellent student of Arabic language, asked her to focus again on the text, hoping she would identify it. But it turned out the problem had nothing to do with the clarity of my handwriting. “This in no way resembles the Arabic we write,” she said. “It is different from the one we see in books, on computer screens, or on keyboards of tablets or mobile phones.” My amazement turned into shock as I realised this was a generation that had almost no need for handwriting! They learn handwriting skills, including riqaah script of course, but end up forgetting all about it since they have no use for it. They write using keyboards which invariably have the classic naskh, not the riqaah Arabic letters.
The realisation left me stunned. Was it really possible that our Gen Z grandchildren can no longer read riqaah or write it? But the facts set in: Why not? They read paper or electronic publications that use only naskh script, and they write using keyboards that produce only naskh. So where does riqaah come in? There is no need for it; it is falling into disuse, heading towards obsolescence.
I realised the matter had nothing to do with school curriculum or the teaching of Arabic language. Rather, it was the natural development of our modern times, in terms of writing and publishing. My mind went back to the days of my childhood and youth when newspaper and magazine headlines would be carefully scripted in various Arabic scripts—among them the riqaah—by gifted calligraphers who would frequently sign their names in tiny letters at the tail end of the headline; they were signing their pieces of art. Today, computers generally offer a variety of Arabic fonts for their keyboards, but all are variations on naskh; no riqaa. This comes as no surprise, seeing that the main advantage and possibly purpose of riqaa is not its beauty, but its use in handwriting.
Finally, and even though I handwrite this editorial in Arabic riqaa, it looks like our generation will see that beautiful, handy script go obsolete.
14 August 2020