After graduating from secondary school, Aqeel Ahmad applied to the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University, but he wasn’t accepted. He enrolled at the Institute of Technical and Applied Arts instead, to study calligraphy.
Ahmad loved that the Institute was located in the building of Damascus Castle, which overlooked the historical Hamidiya Souk. He had been seduced by the magic of Old Damascus from the minute he had first visited it as a child, on a trip from Aleppo with his father and some relatives.
Ahmad had begun dabbling in calligraphy in 2004, before he began his studies at the Institute. It had long been a hobby of his, and he embarked on the project in earnest by purchasing a machine which would allow him to engrave lettering on metals, precious stones and wood, a technique he learned from an Iraqi artist. A bookshop owner in the the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood offered him the funds to buy the tools he needed. He began selling mementos and engraved pieces to all the international visitors coming on religious pilgrimages to visit the tomb of Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).
After enrolling at the Institute of Technical and Applied Arts, specializing in calligraphy, Aqeel began working in one of the shops on Qabaqibiya street inside the Hamidiya Souk, making sand drawings and calligraphic engravings on precious stones, silver and gold.
“Qabaqibiya Street, just adjacent to the wall of the Umayyad Mosque, got its name because of all the workshops that were once there, specializing in making clogs (qibqab in Arabic), the wooden shoes Damascenes used to wear in their homes and to the hammam. Those workshops all turned into places selling gold, silver, antiques and textiles and other things. Most of my customers were young people, young lovers who wanted to exchange unique gifts with their special someone. There were also foreign tourists who came in search of pieces engraved with Arabic calligraphy.”
Damascus is famous for some of its ancient, handmade crafts, says Aqeel, “such as the weaving of Aghabani and Damask textiles, among the most valuable in the world. There are also artisans who engrave on wood and adorn it with seashells, make fine silverwork and other eastern handmade items, like engraved nargilehs, clogs, Damascene swords and other things.”
During the course of his work at the Hamidiya Souk, Aqeel met a lot of foreign tourists coming from all over the world. “Tourists would flock to the Hamidiya Souk in Old Damascus from all corners of the globe,” says Aqeel, “and when I would ask some of them for their impressions, they would express amazement at the beauty and ancient wonder of Damascus, and they loved choosing different eastern art objects or tourist mementos to take home.”
Aqeel went on to study fine arts at Aleppo University, taking up residence in his grandfather’s house in the Bab al-Hadeed neighborhood in Old Aleppo. Two years after the move, Aqeel managed to establish his own project, opening up a shop where he drew on sand, made engravings on silver and precious stones and created souvenirs. Soon, he began making calligraphic paintings, embellished with lettering and decorative arabesques.
“I was in my third year of studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts when the Ministry of Tourism announced that they were looking for a new craft to be featured at the handcraft souk. I approached them with a proposal to set up a sand-drawing studio at the souk. After submitting a research proposal outlining the history of the craft and undergoing an interview, where I presented samples of my work, they accepted my proposition and I opened up a shop at the souk. It was the first time I was working independently on my own personal project.”
Though Aqeel is originally from Jarabulus, a town north of Aleppo, both Damascus and Aleppo left deep impressions on Aqeel. “You only have to visit Damascus or Aleppo for a few days,” he says, “and you’re seduced for life.”