The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour

by Michael Beard

illustrated by Houman Mortazavi


اعزرینی یا حروف الابجد
اذا ما بعمل الواجب علیی
Forgive me, O letters of the alphabet
If I am unable to fulfill my task.

— Zaghloul al-Damour, trans. Paula Haydar

قلم ز نیک و بد نا سود است
. . . good or bad, the pen can’t read itself.

— attributed to Omar Khayyam

What is the meter of the dictionary?

— Dylan Thomas

ئیمه‌ کتێبێک ده نوسین که‌ تا دونیا دونیایه ته واو نابێت
We’re writing a book that won’t be finished before the end of the world.

— Bakhtiyar Ali, Ghazalnus (غه‌ زه‌ لنوس), trans. Kareem Abdulrahman

Bütün hurufilerin sonu kötüdür zaten.
All Huroufis invariably come to a bad end.

— Orhan Pamuk (Kara kitap)


Before I learned to read it, I confess that the Arabic alphabet seemed to me mysterious, amorphous, drifting, cloudlike, and a little sinister. Eventually, I came to feel that I wasn’t the only one. Eventually, as I learned it, letter by letter, it looked like any other alphabet, but a bit more beautiful. Eventually, this seemed a good reason to write a book about it.

The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters (one for every day of the lunar month); Persian uses the same 28, plus an extra four. (Urdu adds an extra five. I’m told that Pashto is written with 41. Everywhere you go you run into additional variations.) We’re sticking with 32 chapters. Each chapter starts with a letter’s c.v.: its pedigree, its shapes, the sounds it likes, its use in calligraphy, what makes it beautiful, and how it constructs words (“Ba is for baksheesh.” “Sin is for salaam,” etc.). The romance of letters and the words that love them.

If the alphabet could talk, what would it say to us? It works in silence. It carries our messages for us, but after a while we stop noticing. Like hired hands noticed only by newcomers or by children, the letters are still there, right in the foreground. Sometimes a calligrapher makes us notice them again. Perhaps all this time they are mumbling among themselves. Oh great, there’s that dull pencil again. Call that a loop? Be careful where you put those dots. Ooh, we’re in good hands now.

Up next...

Alif: The Minimal Stroke