A visionary of the Arabic script: How Yassine Ben Miled meticulously merges craftsmanship with the soul of the Tunisian language

Merging craftsmanship with the soul of the Tunisian language
5 min read
07 September, 2023
The majesty of the Arabic language lies in its diversity. Taking advantage of this characteristic, Tunisian calligrapher Yassine Ben Miled is championing his nation's dialect by translating colloquial linguistic idiosyncrasies into pieces of art.

Yassine Ben Miled's journey into Arabic calligraphy projects began serendipitously.

Born into a prominent Tunisian family, his father Tarak Ben Miled, a celebrated architect, and his mother Mina, a designer of artisanal home goods, provided him with a creative upbringing.

"I've always been drawn to beauty," Yassine reflects. An unapologetic aesthete, his burgeoning career in fashion and craftwork is distinguished by its intricate production methods and the inspiration he derives from Islamic art.

"Yassine employs Tunisian vernacular instead of formal or classical Arabic in his calligraphic works. Thus, his art becomes a form of rebellion — a departure from traditional Arabic calligraphy — to emphasise the importance of adopting spoken Arabic as a written language"

After spending many years working with Parisian haute couture labels, the Tunisian native returned to his homeland to launch his eponymous brand. "I needed financial stability while pursuing my fashion endeavours," he explains. "So, I turned to art to support my daily needs." What began as a supplementary project has since transformed into a "passion," propelling Yassine to the forefront of innovative Arabic calligraphy.

In contrast to most calligraphers in the Arab region, Yassine employs Tunisian vernacular instead of formal or classical Arabic in his calligraphic works. Thus, his art becomes a form of rebellion — a departure from traditional Arabic calligraphy — to emphasise the importance of adopting spoken Arabic as a written language.

"I am Tunisian, after all. I currently reside in Tunisia, and I spent a decade in Paris, giving me exposure to two distinct cultures," Yassine explains. This dual experience led him to a profound realisation. While French harmonises spoken and written language, Tunisia faces a divergence between spoken Tunisian Arabic and formal written Arabic. The vernacular language is marginalised, with Tunisian literature predominantly composed in French or formal Arabic.

Merging craftsmanship with the soul of the Tunisian language
Yassine's calligraphy is distinguished by hand-painted pins

This linguistic dichotomy, he argues, hampers Tunisians' ability to articulate the intricacies of their lives through writing. "Mastery of a written language often requires familiarity with its spoken counterpart," Yassine asserts.

"This is where the idea of using Arabic calligraphy emerged," he adds. "Arabic calligraphy, the most esteemed form of Islamic art typically reserved for religious or poetic texts, became a means for me to convey popular colloquial expressions." Through this approach, he underscores the worthiness of incorporating spoken Tunisian into sacred Arabic calligraphy.

Yassine is swift to clarify that he doesn't advocate for sidelining formal Arabic. "Our formal language is exquisite and links us to our collective Arab heritage," he emphasises. "It should be part of our education." Nonetheless, he believes that without a written form of the vernacular language, authentic self-expression will remain elusive. "How can a nation thrive if its people cannot convey the depth of their thoughts in writing?"

He points to Europe's adoption of vernacular languages as a precedent. "It's no coincidence that, during the end of the Middle Ages, European countries transitioned from Latin to their native languages. "For instance, in France, King François I championed the literary use of French, fostering its development, and codification, and enabling the emergence of literary masterpieces by figures like Victor Hugo and Molière — works written in French, not Latin. “Such a transformation has been lacking in Tunisia, and that's a lamentable state,” he adds. 

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Yassine exudes confidence. Seated in his tastefully minimalistic apartment, he firmly believes that Tunisia's progress hinges on adopting a national language. "Without making our spoken language an official written form, we cannot attain true progress," he exclaims.

Beyond spoken Arabic, Yassine's vibrant calligraphy is distinguished by hand-painted pins adorning the script, imbuing it with a three-dimensional quality. The incorporation of pins is as much an aesthetic choice as a historical allegory — a declaration held in place. This idea draws from Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses to the doors of German churches, an act that sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Yassine aims for his Tunisian Arabic script to spark cultural reevaluation. "I see myself as a rebel," he muses.

Unlike intricate calligraphic styles, Yassine employs a simpler approach to reinforce the message that intrinsic value lies in what's closest to the people. His approach goes beyond aesthetics; he composes full sayings and texts. In contrast, many contemporary Arab calligraphers emphasise the visual aspect — creating abstract art from letter compositions. Yassine, on the other hand, crafts messages for the people.

Merging craftsmanship with the soul of the Tunisian language
Yassine transforms colloquial Tunisian terms into calligraphy 

With elegance and approachability, Yassine's artwork has achieved recognition beyond his wildest expectations. In Tunisia, he has successfully showcased his work in multiple exhibitions and recently forged a partnership with a Dubai-based art dealer.

For Yassine, calligraphy offers an infinite avenue for artistic evolution. As he elaborates on his expansion into the UAE, he emphasises, "There's so much more to explore within the aesthetic I've developed; it's a journey without end." This notion nods to the uniqueness of popular expressions and colloquial languages across Arab nations.

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Despite his growing popularity, Yassine remains uninterested in the mass-market art scene. Every piece he creates is bespoke and meticulously crafted by hand. Even his exhibitions consist of pieces tailored to specific clients, displayed with the sole purpose of sparking interest among potential buyers.

Hence, he dismisses his brother's suggestion — an editor of a magazine — to establish a website. "The dialogue between artist and client is incredibly enriching, as clients inspire new ideas through their requests," Yassine explains. "It's a discourse that can yield remarkable outcomes; I've evolved significantly through this process."

Yassine's upcoming project delves into a reinterpretation of Arabic scientific texts spanning various eras. "While I'll maintain the same aesthetic I've cultivated, the focus will shift towards geometric figures and diagrams," he shares. Reviving an Arabic art form accessible to all remains the innovative calligrapher's foremost objective.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications