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How do Gulf Arabs perceive the spaces around them?

Trompe l'oeil painting on wall

Is it likely to be different from the way in which other Arabs perceive space or, perhaps more significantly, how we in the West do so? Is there likely to be a single way in which everybody will read what they see before them? The most obvious clue to the answer is likely to lie in the cultures which shape our different upbringings. Let me start with two small examples of what I’d like to explore here.

The illustration at the head of this note is a piece of trompe l'oeil painting on an external residential wall in Doha, Qatar. The two points to note are that, firstly, the pattern is based on a classic Islamic tile pattern not found in the older buildings in the country. Secondly, and important from the point of view of the notes here, the shadows are painted as being thrown from top right. This is in direct contrast to the common manner in which this would be shown in the West.

Deliberately sloped photograph presentation

Here I’ve introduced a photo of the fort at Zubara in the north of Qatar taken by a young Arab photographer. You will see that it is deliberately sloped bottom left to top right and, as many photos by the same photographer share this style, I assume it is deliberate and thought to be a good way of showing this powerful subject. To a Westerner it appears to be a strong, positive presentation, and I see from the site where I found it that it has had a number of positive comments made on it.

Deliberately sloped photograph presentation reversed

And, here I’ve reversed the above photograph. In the West, because we read everything we see from left to right, we might assume that, with the image reversed, it will appear to us in a negative or depressed manner. This is certainly how it appears to me; it looks as if the gun is almost beginning to run away and the fort itself seems to be about to slide off the edge of the page. So, what’s happening? Why might an Arabic viewpoint see it differently from the way in which I do?

A necktie illustrating directional stripes

It may seem strange to see an illustration of a Western necktie on a page dealing with perception, but the sketch is worth considering for its implications relating to the way in which stripes slope. By implication the issue relates to the way in which we read, and how we feel when we see shapes sloping, as above as well as in this animation. Stripes on British neckties slope up bottom left to top right, this being reversed on American neckties, for historical reasons which are not important here. What is important is the psychological effect created by the slope of the stripes. Look at them and see if one of them appears to give a more positive effect than the other.

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How we read

Of particular relevance is the Western practice of writing from the left which extends itself both to the manner in which we observe and ‘read’ pictures, as well as to psychological constructions placed upon the manner in which we choose to locate writing on a page, set out the lines of handwriting and the slope of the individual letters.

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Western manuscript

Western writing concept

In the West an individual normally writes right-handed, drawing a pen from left to right. It is generally believed that handwriting is preferred that is written horizontally, parallel to the bottom of the page and, if there is to be any deviation from this angle, that the lines should slope upwards towards the right of the page rather than down.

In addition it is understood that, with Roman scripts, handwriting should slope forward from left to right – the converse being perceived as a sign of hesitancy or other disadvantages. At the least, writing of this sort tends to slow the reader. This thinking exists in most Westerners either through received knowledge or through a psychological feeling for what seems correct. Most people use it – to a lesser or greater extent – in reading and assessing handwriting and all forms of design, and it affects the manner in which we perceive and appreciate a number of arts, particularly graphic.

As in the West there has been a long tradition in the Arab world of using writing to obtain a deeper understanding of the writer. However, unlike the West, this has essentially been for purposes associated with legal requirements, and it is not particularly seen as a method of assessing character.

As an aside I should just like to mention Japanese scripts to demonstrate similarities to Western and Arabic scripts – in the sense that they reflect the characteristics of the tool used to write, in this case the brush. The order of strokes is imperative in understanding pictographs. Long strokes must not be drawn right to left, nor bottom to top, both of these motions being against the manner in which the brush is held to the paper.

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Arabic manuscript

By contrast with Roman scripts Arabic is written from right to left with the right hand. Not only is there a strong association with the right as being good and proper – as in the West – there is also an association in the Arab world of unclean activities being carried out with the left hand. The natural medium for writing is a reed pen, more latterly a normal pen or biro as in the West. However, the reed pen is still extensively used by calligraphers as well as within the printing world where headlines are usually hand written.

Arabic writing concept

Although this accounts for the reason why many Arabs write with a slope from top right to bottom left and, perhaps, why descending lines of manuscript seem not to have the negative connotations that graphologists believe similar Western manuscript has, this is not always the case. There are many beautiful examples of manuscripts being written sloping forward when seen from an Arabic point of view. I believe that the natural tendency is for manuscript to be sloped as shown, but that the arguments made below, relating to movement and balance, have much to do with this variation of slope.

An Arab writing right to left

Here you can see a photograph of an Arab writing in a notebook. The manner in which he is holding a roller ball pen appears no different from that which might be used by a Westerner, yet he has set the pad at an angle that facilitates his being able to write letters and words from right to left. Yet a right-handed Westerner might set his pad at a similar angle to ensure his writing sloped forward.

One of the reasons for the way writing is sloped is the fact that there are a number of firmly defined rules which govern the proportions of the various Arabic scripts. Most Arabs, because of this, have a firmly held belief in the correctness of written or printed Arabic from which they are reluctant to stray. Unlike Western practice there is no penalty associated with handwriting whose lines slope down from right to left, nor of letters which slope, although the latter practice strays from the understood principles of the art of calligraphy.

The phrase ‘naquwsh abwaab maghrabiya’ written by a left-handed Arab

Having said that, here is a hastily handwritten phrase made by a left-handed Arab. As can be seen, the handwriting demonstrates a significant forward lean when seen by an Arab reader, though with an apparent backward lean when seen by a Western observer. It is evident that the left-handed writer has sloped the writing for ease of execution just as a left-handed Western writer might slope handwriting backwards.

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The importance of Arabic manuscript

Documents in the government library – official government photograph from the 1970s

Long developed as an organisational and recording medium, writing developed not only for administering the Islamic world as it rapidly developed but also for retaining and propagating the written word of God. In its initial stages writing was essentially the medium of recording the spoken word but it soon developed a character which was capable of significant artistic definition and interpretation. I can’t over-emphasise the importance of recognising the use of manuscript in recording the words of God as the Holy Quran is, to Muslims, literally the word of God. In this respect it is fundamentally different from the Christian’s Holy Bible and, possibly, from the Jew’s Torah, which many believe is the work of a redactor and not the original writings of Moses, though it still requires of its scribes a similar state of purity as in those transcribing the Quran.

Unlike Roman scripts, Arabic script conveys not only the meaning required by its vocabulary but it is, in itself, an abstract form of expression. Because of this Arabs can understand the meaning of the written word and, at the same time, enjoy references signified by the letterforms – a benefit which is not available in Roman letters and words. Perhaps the nearest the West gets to this is in utilising type faces which refer to a style or character as when we speak of a ‘thirties’ face, or a ‘classic’ face for a more serious work. These non-calligraphic faces do not, however, have within them either the intrinsic beauty or meaning of Arabic traditional calligraphic styles.

You should be aware of two factors relating to this: Muslims are brought up to read and recite the Quran by rote and, therefore, have a profound knowledge of its form and words; and, secondly, their lives are governed by it in its form as their social code. Because of this, Arabic is a complex language in the interplay of its written form and meaning and I have heard it described by an Arab as a real language capable of infinite meaning, compared with English, a commercial code…

Perhaps the nearest we get to this in the West is in the allusions we understand from the words we read. Perhaps P.G. Wodehouse’s novels are good examples with their sprinklings of words and phrases from Latin, Greek, the Bible, Shakespeare and proverbs. However, without the traditional form of education, and the understanding this brings, his works are less comprehensible.

Before I move on to calligraphic scripts I should just like to mention the use of calligraphy in Arabic art form. You may be aware that there should be no figurative work in Islamic art – though it is not uncommon in more secular and different areas of the Muslim world and where there has been an unbroken tradition for hundreds of years. The injunction springs from hadith that hold it wrong to produce figurative work as it leads to idolatory. Certainly Muhammad and God may not be depicted even though there are a number of references to Muhammad’s appearance in the hadith. It is believed that the concept of unity in Islam is the focus for the requirement to avoid any figurative representation.

In non-figurative art there are three elements commonly found:

  • calligraphic,
  • vegetal, and
  • geometric forms.

Although it is the latter I am particularly interested in, you should be aware of the wide body of calligraphy combining with phrases to produce works of art. You should also be aware of the importance of calligraphy in Islam. It is commonly believed that the opening of Surah 96 of the Holy Quran was the first Quranic revelation. It begins, in translation:

Read! in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created –
Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,
He Who taught (the use of) the pen, –
Taught man that which he knew not.

From this verse, and from this – Chapter 31, verse 27, of the Holy Quran,

If all the trees of the earth were pens,
and the seas, replenished by seven more seas, were ink,
the words of God could not be finished still.

you might see how important writing must have been at the time of the Prophet, and how that significance has been encapsulated within the Holy Quran and, therefore, Islam.

Ahmed Moustafa – horse

A beautiful example of such calligraphy, by the Egyptian artist, Ahmed Moustafa, is shown here and uses a layered build-up of calligraphic words both to describe text as well as to bring out the form of the Arabian stallion as it is described by the pre-Islamic poet, Imru’ul-Qais – a man who dreamed of an Arab empire to rival Rome and Persia – and who died about 64 AH / 560 AD.

Often I’ve been off with the morn, the birds yet asleep in their nests, my horse short-haired, outstripping the wild game, huge-bodied, charging, fleet-fleeting, head-foremost, head long, all together. The match of a rugged boulder hurled from on high by the torrent. A chestnut-horse, sliding the saddle-felt from his back’s thwart, just as a smooth pebble slides off the rain cascading. Fiery he is, for all his leanness, and when his ardour boils on him he roars – a bubbling cauldron isn’t it…

From a Western perspective, it is a skilful arrangement of strokes to produce the form of a moving horse. From an Arabic point of view it has additional layers of information not just in the words used to form the calligraphic strokes but also from their meaning and its relationship with the artistic image.

As an aside, this same artist is also an exponent of the principles of the geometry underlying calligraphy. His work is complex and closely rationalised but he sees the calligraphy of the ninth century calligrapher, Ibn Muqla – whose work has been followed to this day – as starting with the dot and proceeding through the ‘alif – the letter from which all else flows.

A dragon in the form of calligraphy

Here, for direct comparison with the Arabic calligraphy above, is an original example of eighteenth century Western calligraphy illustrating, in the the overall calligraphic form of a fire-breathing dragon, a relatively normal script. It is also a reminder that it was mainly the initial capital letters which attracted design attention, and that the Arabic alphabet is not capitalised.

The comparison illustrates the manner in which the strokes of Arabic calligraphy are more suited to being stretched and distorted than Roman script. In this we can see an indication of the manner in which Arabic calligraphy can be manipulated to

  • cover or create forms,
  • exhibit visual references through repetition, symmetry, patterning and the like, and to
  • create instructions for better aural understanding through a variety of signals created with the calligraphy itself.

For a better description of some of the flexibility of calligraphy I can recommend a paper which, while relating to the critique of an exhibition, discusses the background of calligraphy.

Pages of calligraphy with associated notes

This photograph is of a double page spread from a water-stained manuscript document. It is instructive for at least two reasons. The first relates to the way in which the main body of text has been laid out with its upper and lower outer corners being located on the diagonals of the double spread, and the outer margins located at the centre of the pages’ widths – as illustrated by the superimposed white lines. This reduces the text to a quarter of the area of the double spread, less the space taken up by the gutter. It might be considered to show that paper was not expensive or, by extension, that the text was valuable, and worth the white space given to balance it.

The document probably relates to Arabic grammar or literature with the words in red being explained by the accompanying text. But the main point to make here relates to the laying out of the additional text. I don’t know if the notes are contemporaneous with the main text as they are both manuscript. The point made above relating to the text sitting on a large white ground suggests that the accompanying notes came later. Whether they are or not, the accompanying notes seem to have started in a regular, right to left manner in the top right corner, but most of the rest of the additional notes have free-form alignments, moving both up and down at a variety of angles, giving the written page considerable liveliness in counterpoint to the formality of the layout. It is a good lesson in the strength and character that can be produced in two-dimensional form with manuscript.

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The introduction of printing

One final note I would like to make here relates to calligraphy and the development of printing. It is generally accepted that Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440 based on technologies originating in the Far East around the ninth century. The technique of printing spread rapidly and was one of the main factors in bringing education and learning to a wider proportion of the populations of the West.

For centuries, the importance of Arabic calligraphy had been, in the main, a reflection of the need of the burgeoning Muslim empire to have a lingua francawith which to form the words of God accurately in writing and, by extension, extend the spoken word. Arabic became, therefore, an extremely precise language in its written and spoken form. Anybody within the Muslim world could read and understand the Holy Quran whatever their original language or dialect was.

With the arrival of the printing press it would be logical to suppose an increase in accelerating the dispersion of information, particularly scientific, in the Islamic world as occurred in the West, but this didn’t happen. The reason appears to have been the difficulty of transferring the far more complex letter forms of the Arabic language to common type forms. This, together with other events that had begun two hundred years before the printing press, reinforced the slowing down of scientific endeavours of the Islamic world, compared with progress in the West.

The title page of the first printed version of the Holy Quran

This first photograph illustrates a part of the title page of the first printed version of the Holy Quran. This book is now housed, and was printed, in Venice in the fifteenth century, the most likely reason being due to the close trade and political connections that had developed between the city state of Venice and the Arab world. The printing was probably intended to be a commercial venture but, as such, was a failure. There is only this single copy of this printed version existing in the West, though there may be others in the Islamic world. It is believed that many of the copies were destroyed due to their being unsalable.

Part of a page in the first printed version of the Holy Quran

The reason for this is likely to be two-fold. Firstly, there would have been difficulty in cutting the elements that comprised the many variations of line needed to create not just the many different letterforms of Arabic, but also the diacritics and elements needed to explain and pronounce the words. This has resulted in a printed form that looks naïve and child-like compared with the richness of nearly any calligraphic form with which you might be familiar. This can clearly be seen in this second photograph which has little or none of the beauty of a calligraphic page.

A spelling mistake in the first printed version of the Holy Quran

But it is also probable that those who were responsible for overseeing the production and manufacture of this book allowed or made errors in spelling, an unacceptable mistake in reproducing the word of God in the Muslim world. In this last illustration, the word at the centre of the lower line should read ‘dhalika’, but instead, reads ‘dhalaka’: the vowel, ‘a’, over the central consonant, ‘l’, should be the vowel, ‘i’, which would be located below it.

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Recitation of the Quran

This may not be the best place to comment briefly on the subject of tajweed in this paper, but tajweed relates very much to calligraphy. When the Quran was revealed to Muhammad it was imparted in such a manner that the meaning of every word was clearly defined through the clarity of pronunciation of each letter. The Quran – sura73, ayah4 – requires its readers to:

…recite the Quran in slow, measured rhythmic tones.

and sura8, ayah2 extends this to demonstrate that, through proper recitation, their faith and belief will be enhanced.

Indeed the believers are those who tremble with fear when Allah is remembered, and when the verses of the Quran are recited before them it increases their belief; and upon Allah they have complete trust.

In this way the spoken and written word were precisely related, this having a great deal to do with spoken Arabic of the day. Since then, however, the spread of Islam and the passing of time have brought considerable dialectic changes in spoken Arabic.

Because of this scholars have ensured that tajweed maintains the accuracy of the spoken Quran, and all Muslims are taught this from an early age. There are styles, of course, but they occur only within recitations that have complete clarity of understanding. These styles all maintain comprehension but reflect not only differences in geographic area but, to some extent, a range of formal and less formal presentations in which the different audiences should be considered participants and not just recipients of the recital. There is both a spiritual and intellectual component to tajweed. Nowadays tajweed has become a method of propagating the basic knowledge of the Quran as well as being regarded as an art and a science.

Arabic letters each have considerable precision associated with them. There is, for instance, an exact makhraj , the vocal point of articulation from which each originates, as well as sifaat – characteristics specific to them. It is these that give the spoken word its accuracy, and it these that are learned by all Muslims as they undertake memorising and recitation of the Quran. Tajweed binds all Muslims together both in a general sense as well as in their understanding of the interplay between the spoken and written word.

To give an indication of the degree to which rules govern tajweed, here is a list of the basic rules for recitation taken from a site that deals with this subject in greater detail for those who would like to learn more.

  • types of stops,
    • compulsory,
    • permissible,
    • precautionary,
    • prohibited, and
    • moderate pause
  • types of hamzah,
    • disjunctive and
    • conjunctive,
  • degrees of vibration,
    • lesser,
    • moderate and
    • great,
  • noonand nunnation,
    • turning,
    • assimilation,
    • manifestation and
    • true concealment,
  • noonand meem,
    • doubled noonand
    • doubled meem,
  • non-vowelled meem,
    • labial manifestation,
    • labial concealment and
    • idgam mithlain saghir– (the assimilation of small, identical letters),
  • non-vowelled lam,
    • definite,
    • verbal and
    • particle,
  • types of lengthening,
    • original and
    • derived,
  • meeting of two non-vowelled letters,
    • deleting the first, and
    • vowelling the first,
  • heaviness/lightness, and
    • degree of heaviness,
    • according to position, and
    • lightness,
  • meeting of letters.
    • identical letters,
    • proximate letters, and
    • similar letters.

The accuracy of the spoken Quran directly relates to and is reflected in calligraphy. There is really no equivalent of this in the Western world and for this reason it appears to be difficult for Westerners to understand both the relevance and importance of this in Islam. Nevertheless, they should try to as the Quran is both the religious and social backbone of Islam. A Muslim’s comprehension of the Quran is significant. An understanding of the importance to Islam of tajweed and calligraphy can improve our comprehension of the manner in which Muslims relate to their environment.

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Calligraphic scripts

With regard to scripts, the West has experienced and used a number of forms of script over the past eight hundred years or more. The first of these were calligraphic scripts relating to the use of the quill pen. More latterly printing type faces have obscured the original written forms and created an astonishing number of typefaces which are commonplace in the West, more so with the development of computers.

In the Arab world Arabic is written in accordance with a much smaller number of styles based on geographic area, and is effected by the use of the reed pen. The proportions of the individual letters are carefully regulated and there is not the degree of distortion found in the West. How this will be affected by digitising the letter forms, as has happened with Roman faces, it is not yet possible to determine. It is interesting to note that the increasing dependence on computers rather than type-setting for Roman fonts has produced a rapid and massive increase in the number of fonts available for all manner of documents, leading to increasing stylistic fashions.

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Harmony of form

What appears to be significant in the form of Arabic scripts is that the balance of letters; their size, form and relationship with the spaces between them have a strong geometric relationship which, with reference to the golden section creates a perfect harmony of strokes. Letters are considered to be living things and the mundane connotations placed upon them in the West are not relevant in Arabic. In addition to the scribes who are employed for their skills by organisations requiring formal calligraphy, there are a number of Arab artists involved in the arts using calligraphy as an element of their work, both traditionally and experimentally.

Arabs then, in contrast to Westerners, normally read and write their scripts from right to left and, because of the manner in which the pen is held – in the right hand – and writing formed, there appears not to be the stigma attached to the lines of writing sloping down from right to left despite the disapprobation associated with the use of the left hand in Islam.

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Balance and the relationship of line and space

However, there is an additional characteristic in Arabic handwriting which does not exist in the West: that is a categorisation of the face of a sloping stroke as being either mastalki or moukab – facing upwards or downwards respectively. This definition demonstrates a direct relationship between the line and the space above or below a line and shows that, in Arabic, there is a recognised perception of the manner in which the line and the space are related. This is not the case in the West.

More than this there is the assertion of balance between strong, geometric form and what has been termed fundamental biomorphic form. This is perhaps most readily understood in the cursive forms developed for setting down the words of the Prophet in the Holy Quran. The upright characters – particularly the aleph, contrast with the horizontal elements of many of the letters as well as the many cursive elements – in a manner which is not found in Western calligraphy. Moreover, there is in Islam a secondary meaning to written words, an underlying character and relationship which again are not present in the more commercial necessities of Western scripts. Here it must be understood that the holy Quran is seen to be a work of divine art: it is both a sacred object as well as a bridge linking religion to social behaviour. The Quran is, in effect, the means by which all Muslims organise their lives both individually as well as collectively.

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Gestalt principles in the perception of form

So far I have concentrated on form and line in calligraphy as this is an area familiar to many in the Arab world. However there is a significant body of work relating to the theories of the perception of form as seen – as usual – from the West. I don’t know if this applies in the Arab world in the same way it does in the West, but I suspect it does – within the arguments I’ve outlined here.

There are many descriptions of it but here and here you may find useful descriptions of the ways in which perception organises objects, essentially in two dimensions, but it also applies in a more complex manner to objects viewed in three dimensions. Bear in mind that design has to do with the selection and organisation of elements in order to achieve a specific goal. By extension, perception of form needs to reflect on the perceived rationale implicit in a design. Remember that design can be, and often is, manipulative.

The principles can be organised under a number of different headings, but those set out in the above articles will include, but are not confined to:

where we view a number of objects, whether similar or not, and tend to perceive groups in those closest together;
in which we identify groupings from those that are similar in some way, either in their own form or colour, or in their being contained by a background;
which has to do with our capacity, when we view a visual field, to see one object as more prominent against a background: the figure on its ground. In this way we see the view as having two component parts. A particular characteristic of this kind of view is that we are unable to see them both at the same time, one will always take precedent. The most common form in which this is demonstrated is the classic Rubin face/vase illusion;
which has us identify small elements at the expense of larger ones. A small object will, therefore, be read against a larger background;
where an area which can be seen as surrounded by others, will be read as discrete;
which perceives discrete objects against a regular or irregular background where elements have symmetry about their centre; and
reflecting the brain’s propensity to form the most easily comprehended shape from groups of shapes.

These effects should be borne in mind when we look around us, particularly when we consider patterns in Arabic / Islamic design. I hope to deal with this in a little more detail later but, for the moment, it might be useful to set down five commonly-quoted principles of design:

symmetry and
flowing, and
scale and
emphasis or dominance
non/completion, and

which can be compared and contrasted with the principles relating to perception outlined above them.

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The reading of space

I touched on the reading of pictures at the top of this page. Because of the cultural practice in the West of viewing everything we see from left to write as a reflection of how we read, I used to believe that Arabs similarly read what they observe from right to left – both in terms of writing as well as with everything else they observe. Children learn to speak first, while reading and writing are developed later. This implies that the way in which they read is acquired from the culture in which they are brought up.

Hokusai’s Great Wave print

Support for this view of the manner in which pictures are subconsciously read relates to the way in which other cultures, where reading and writing is from right to left, see things. An example can be seen in the Japanese artist, Hokusai’s, famous ‘Great Wave’ wood-block print shown here to the right. I have deliberately selected a non-Western, non-Arabic illustration to make the point. This print, one in a series, is generally accepted to be understood as illustrating the threatening nature of the sea to a Japanese, who would read the picture from right-to-left. I should note here that, nowadays, Japanese generally read in the Western manner, top left to bottom right in horizontal rows, but when these prints were made by Hokusai, top right to bottom left in vertical columns would have been the practice.

Hokusai’s Great Wave print

To give something of an indication of how this painting might appear to a Western viewer who would be reading images naturally from left-to-right, here is the illustration again, but mirrored on its vertical axis. Note how, compared with the original image, the wave now appears to be moving to meet the Western viewer and, because of this, suggesting a much more threatening image, in this case reflecting the Japanese artist’s intent to illustrate something of the dangers to be found at sea. The feeling created in the viewer is significantly different from the normal view of it shown in the original image above.

Incidentally, the way in which we subconsciously read static pictures also operates in a similar manner to that which we experience with the viewing of moving pictures. In the West, people moving into a film frame from the left are understood to be entering, moving forward or progressing the action, while those moving into it from the right can be seen to be returning, countering the action or in conflict with it. Those moving out of frame to the left appear to be leaving the action, perhaps even returning or moving back in time, while those moving out to the right may be leaving, but their motion implies continuing interest and future involvement.

Even more incidentally, in a similar way people viewed either in a frame or moving picture or, in fact, in real life, also create a subconscious response in the viewer. A face looking to the viewer’s left appears to be looking to the past or, to the right, to the future. Looking up can be seen to be positive and looking down, negative or reflective.

While there is, in Japanese and Chinese pictographs, a concentration on the form and character of the drawn word, and a significant art form associated with it, this does not mean that such a similarity occurs in Arabic calligraphy. Arabic letter forms are used to spell out words whereas Japanese and Chinese pictograms represent a whole word or expression.

Hokusai’s woodcut of ‘The Wave’ reflected along its horizontal axis

Having said that, it is also true that the way in which some artistic disciplines in the Far East use elements within a frame differs from the styles developed in the West. The use and manipulation of figure and ground are important aspects of this type of art which suggests a more contemplative aspect to artistic endeavours, and which can be discovered both in graphic work such as this, but also in arts such as music where the silences can take on as important a rôle as the musical notes. In this, there are certain analogies to Islamic design which will be looked at on the geometric design pages. The Hokusai illustration can be seen to use the ground and figure to some effect. Here is the image again, this time reflected along its horizontal axis in order to play down the subject matter and concentrate on the forms.

Hokusai’s woodcut of ‘The Wave’ reflected along its horizontal axis

Comparing the inverted image with either of the two images above it will illustrate how the element of the image occupied by the sky is almost the exact shape as that occupied by the sea and its waves. In order to demonstrate this, I have put together a rather crude graphic demonstrating, with a loose fit, the similarity of the two shapes. While the two shapes are not a perfect match, it is evident that their form must have been in the mind of the artist as he was considering and shaping the elements of this famous ukiyo-e, woodblock print.

The point of this little excursion is that there is, in some parts of the world, a contemplative character to the development of artistic endeavours, and that this is encapsulated in the structure of the art. Elsewhere I have argued that patterns in the Islamic world can be seen to be a small element or sample of an infinite pattern, and in which contemplative relaxation or spiritual immersion may be found. This difference in spatial awareness sets it aside from Western decorative models of the time.

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The third dimension

But this reading of space is essentially two-dimensional. What happens when we introduce the third dimension? One pointer to how we view space can be found in recent research into the manner in which north Americans compare with Chinese in their viewing of objects in space. In many ways the researchers may well have been talking about Arabs rather than the Chinese as the cultural differences relate well to Arabs.

They found that the American participants in their research tended to concentrate their focus on the main object of a scene, only visiting the background and context of their view as a secondary exercise. The Chinese, on the other hand, viewed the main object in its setting, spending more time studying the context of the scene and drawing inferences about the relationship of figure to ground. The researchers ascribed this to the importance in their culture of the Chinese view of the world. At its simplest the Chinese have to live in a more complicated world where the need to get on with neighbours is paramount for a number of socio-cultural reasons. The Americans, on the other hand, tend to be individualists and need to see how to get things done rather than concern themselves with harmony. In this the researchers drew the comparison with the agricultural need of the Chinese to share resources equitably with ancient Greek individuality and competition.

Interestingly the researchers felt that this characteristic, to take an overall view, was a possible explanation of the Chinese ability to understand phenomena such as tides and magnetism long before the West did. The research was only based on a small sampling but, in this, I see a distinct parallel with the Arab world and the advances they made in medicine, astronomy and the sciences generally.

It also relates to my own experience with Arabs in viewing scenes and watching television where their tendency to see and remark on the setting of what we were watching before I was able to, was initially a surprise to me.

If this is so, as I believe – that Arabs perceive a more generalised view of a scene than Westerners do – then it is interesting to speculate on how they perceive both three-dimensional and two-dimensional spaces.

Arabs are likely to appreciate far more than Westerners what the latter perceive to be formless, uninteresting residential layouts, and this will probably be reinforced by the limited colours and forms that describe the traditional environment of the Gulf. I have written elsewhere about the way in which this has required Arabs to appreciate far smaller differences in form and colour than we do in the West. This suggests that the Islamic/Arabic view of the world and their part of it gives both a more complete and a more complex perception of what they see compared with Westerners: a richer view of what they see with the possibility of a greater understanding.

The main inference to take from this is the probability that Arabs see and perceive differently from Westerners: where you come from affects how you see things.

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Reading in the West

Perhaps this isn’t the place to add these notes, but I think there is some relevance to Arabic calligraphy, and I hope to draw this out later.

It is commonly believed that Westerners read sentences, more or less word by word, but specifically by reading the shape of words. Many typographers believe this and it tends to be taught as fact in design schools. Considerable work goes into the identification and specification of suitable type faces with regard to their ability to produce good legibility. In this it is considered important that the amalgamated shape of words relies considerably on the ascenders and descenders – the parts of a letter above and below the line, respectively – to create recognisable word shapes. This is said to relate more to lower case words than upper as the latter do not present ascenders and descenders, consequently having less clues by which to recognise the words.

However, evidence over the last twenty years has demonstrated that this is not so. The speed of reading lower case against upper case is similar – provided that sufficient time is given to practise reading upper case.

Evidence is now understood to show that the way in which we in the West read is by first recognising the letters, which enable us to understand the word. This perceptual understanding is buttressed by contextual understanding as we see the words in their settings.

We now also know that we do not read word by word, but that the eye moves in rapid jumps, termed ‘saccades’, each jump taking us to a temporary fixation point. The interesting points to note are that the:

  • fixation points are situated just to the left of the centre of a word,
  • simple words tend to be skipped over in the saccade, and
  • the eye also makes between 10-15% backward saccades.

The significance of the fixation point being to the left of the centre of a word is that there is better comprehension of the end of the word than the beginning; hence the eye’s tendency to favour the left end of the word.

In developing an understanding of text, the movements the eye makes tend to encompass three zones at different scales:

  • the first zone contains the word being fixated on and might include a small, following word,
  • the next zone extends a little way beyong the fixated word, sufficient to gain preliminary information of what is coming, and
  • the third zone extends far enough to establish the location for the next fixation point.

Experiments have shown that these three zones tend to range from roughly seven to fifteen letters in length.

Now, the foregoing is based on Roman letters. As you can see from the glossary, Arabic letters are completely different. In particular, the diacritics or vowels – which appear as small shapes floating clear of the letters – are not commonly used. What can be learned or subsumed from this?

If it is true that Arabic readers take a more encompassing view of what they see, and bearing in mind that Arabic letters do not have the constant form Roman letters do – letters differ dependent upon their position in a word – then it might be assumed that Arabic is visually scanned and read in a different manner from viewers of Roman scripts.

My feeling is that Arabic is read as a series of pictograms. This would imply that the shape of a word is more important than it is in the West. The reason for this way of thinking is based not just on my understanding of the manner in which Arabs appreciate space, but also on the part that the holy Quran plays in the education of Muslims with the integration of word form and meaning through the Quran. As soon as they are able, Muslims begin to read the Quran, reciting it aloud, and learning the connection between the beauty of the words and their meaning. Traditionally, this meaning precedes any learning of Arabic letters. I have noticed that Arabs commonly mouth the words they are reading, and I wonder if this has something to do with the manner in which they learn by rote, or whether they are reliving the sound of the words.

Having written that, there is evidence that Arabic is harder to learn and read than languages using Roman letters. The reason for this is said to be caused by the difficulty in learning the different letters as a number of diacritics are deployed in distinguishing the letters. This slows learning the sounds associated with the letters. Normally when learning languages both hemispheres of the brain are involved, but when learning Arabic, only the left hemisphere is engaged. This is because the right hemisphere is not used in the detailed examination of the letters, this task being better carried out by the left hemisphere.

Coincidentally, it used to be thought that handedness relates to the manner in which the two hemispheres process language; the left hemisphere being predominately used by right-handed people, the right hemisphere by left-handed people. Recent evidence is that 90% of right-handed people process language in the left hemisphere, but so do 70% of left-handed people. This may have little or nothing to do with the general thesis relating to reading and the slope of writing, but I thought it interesting…

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Reading and order

Because of the different view Arabs have of the manner in which their scripts are appreciated – there is a stronger connection between the meaning of the word and its form than there is in the West – it may not follow that the directional issue is as strong a determinant as it is in the West. Rather it may be that the emphasis implicit in the appreciation of non-representational art suggests an inclination to look for pattern and form at the expense of temporal allusions – issues of movement, time and progress being rejected in favour of an automatic but essentially intellectual pursuit of searching for ordered form out of an apparent chaos.

Dr Moustapha argues that Arabic / Islamic understanding and reading of space has much to do with universality and an innate consciousness of the cardinal points. This is certainly my own experience of seeing Gulf Arabs looking at plans and buildings. But he takes it further, suggesting that there is in the Muslim mind a global resonance with the cube as representing the essential oneness of space, and that this is symbolically represented to Muslims by the Kabah in Mecca. From this he has developed a rationalised approach demonstrating how there are, contained in a cube, ninety-nine smaller cubes representing the relationship between the One and the Many – this being a reflection of the famous hadith qudsi which, translated, reads:

God has ninety-nine names, one hundred minus one.
Whoever enumerates them enters Paradise.

It is this concept of a central spatial consciousness, that sets Arabic / Islamic perception apart from our Western, more lineal view.

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Vertical lettering

Book showing lettering on the front and spine

Again, this might not be the most sensible place to make a note on the reading of vertical lettering, but it is an issue which receives considerable attention and seems to irritate some people. At the outset I should note that the issue is subject to different interpretations both in the West as well as in the Arab world, and that there appears to be no right or wrong way to execute vertical lettering, the different practices probably being rooted in very early developments in the history of bookbinding. However, it is well worth understanding the issues involved and considering them fully prior to committing funds to a lettering project which includes vertical lettering.

The first illustration, above, is of a book lying with its face upwards and showing its title on the front and on its spine. If a pile of books are laid flat with their faces upwards and spines towards the viewer, the lettering on the spine will be read conventionally, left to right. If the books stand upright on a shelf, then they will be read conventionally with the viewer to their left and head inclined right. This is the way book spines are printed in the United Kingdom and some other countries.

However, librarians generally arrange books along a shelf from left to right. This means that subsequent books will be placed to the right of the first book, causing the lines of lettering on each of the spines to be read, in effect, bottom-to-top.

Large scale signs on a wall in the United States

This photograph, while not of books but of large scale signing on a wall in a north American hotel, illustrates the reverse of this effect. The lettering is set out to be read bottom to top in a similar way to the lettering along some book spines. When books are arranged left-to-right along a shelf, then the lines of spines will be read, in effect, top-to-bottom. But when the book is laid horizontal, the lettering along the spine will be upside down.

Three vertical signs in the United States

In the United States, vertical signs customarily are read from bottom to top, with the viewer inclining his head to the left in order to read it logically. This photograph and the one above both illustrate the this principle. In this sense, the lettering is read bottom left to top right as in these three examples of large signs. If you are brought up with this system then there is likely to be no problem with it, particularly if it is logically and fully applied; if you are brought up in a country where the opposite is the case, then you will find this form of signing counterintuitive. Should you have on your bookshelves books from countries who produce both forms, then you may find it irritating if you are unable to group books by subject without having their legibility conflicting.

The spine and front cover of a book printed in Arabic The spine and front cover of a book printed in Arabic

So, how would you anticipate the spines of books and vertical lettering being set out to benefit Arab readers? Here are photographs of two books printed in Arabic, the upper one for Qatar and the lower one for Saudi Arabia. The first is the Qatar Year Book for 1976 showing both the front cover and its spine. As can be seen, the spines of both books are lettered so that, lying on a horizontal surface the lettering can be read right to left and, when placed vertically on a shelf, the lettering will be read top to bottom by a person inclining their head to the left. My understanding is that librarians of Arab books place books on their shelves starting on the right and feeding them in towards the left. In theory they would also start stacking books from the top right corner of a bookcase, but a number of other factors might influence this, as might be the case on Western shelves.

A dual-language sign in Qatar – with the permission of apivija on Flickr

As an aside, it is not uncommon for Western signs and, perhaps to a smaller extent, book spines to bear lettering on them arranged vertically – top-to-bottom, but with separate letters – this seems to be rare in the Arabic world due to the manner in which Arabic letters follow strict rules of calligraphy, unlike Western lettering. The closest example of vertical lettering I have seen is this example, but even here the three groups of letters – a loose transliteration of the Roman letters – follow the rules related to the joining of letters. In both cases, the setting out of letters vertically, slows reading and, therefore, comprehension.

A room direction sign in the United States A room direction sign in the United States

While these next two signs are not really vertical signs in the sense of the brief discussion above, they do have information presented vertically and show that there appears to have been a consistent thought process behind their presentation. Both are in Roman lettering and it might be considered that the first example would suit an Arab reader as the top number has an associated arrow which reads from right to left. But the numbers are presented with the lower number at the bottom when it might be anticipated both for a Western and Arabic reader that it should be at the top; that is the information likely to be sought first, not the direction. The second sign is similarly organised, with the lower numbers at the bottom rather than the top. Logic would suggest that numbers should be encountered with the lowest at the top and the highest at the bottom – regardless of direction and regardless of the cultural education of the reader.

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Movement and balance

Diagram of the field of vision of the human eye from Nasa’s Bioastronautics Data Book Chapter 17 – Vision

First it is important to understand that the eye is constricted by parts of the face, particularly the nose and eyebrows. The latter, evidently, providing a degree of physical protection to the eyes. As the accompanying diagram illustrates, vision is blocked vertically by the eyebrows and, to a lesser extent, by the cheeks and nose. The latter prevents each eye seeing everything which the other eye is capable of, the mid-blue colour showing the areas which each eye is able to add to the central view, shown white – the area seen by both eyes. While joint vision by the eyes can see down slightly more than sideways, the added area of view which each eye can encompass sideways illustrates how our sight has developed to range horizontally rather than vertically. This affects the way in which we see, for instance, visual movement and balance, though this is amended by cultural aspects.

It may even be that there are no temporal allusions whatsoever implicit in forms. As an example, where we in the West would view an object placed on the left within a frame as moving into the picture, an Arab or somebody in the Far East is likely to view the same placing, not as an object leaving the picture, but an object having only a series of relationships within the space. Mirroring its position to produce the same relative relationship for a right-to-left reader, would have the same reading.

Different ways to read a picture

The upper line of the illustration to the side suggests how a viewer in the West will perceive an object set within its frame. An object near the top of the frame appears light in weight and there is an implied motion towards the centre and the other side of the frame. When it is in the lower half of the frame it appears to have fallen or there is a feeling it is heavy or depressed. Contrary to what you might expect, if it is viewed by a person brought up to read from right to left, top to bottom, the reverse is not the case. The lower line of the illustration shows how a viewer who has been brought up to read and write from right to left – as well as being brought up in an Arabic or Islamic visual tradition – will interpret a similar condition. In both cases the object will be seen to be balanced within an overall geometry and, in this, there will be an understanding of the ground on which the object sits. In this there is a similarity with the importance of figure and ground experienced in the Far East as mentioned above.

If this is the case then the argument might be projected to suggest that an Arabic viewer of a building – externally or internally – might be far more concerned with the harmonious interplay of forms than might be a Western architect nowadays, though there is an obvious parallel with the development of universal theories of proportions four hundred years ago. In this there would be an obvious reflection of the importance of the simple geometries that, conversely, are the generators of the seeming infinite number of arrangements to be found in the decoration of Muslim buildings, particularly tilework.

How this latter issue – the extension of which suggests the importance of the elements of building forming the spaces – relates to the contrary view of architecture expressed by Hassan Fathy is unclear unless it is considered that he draws a distinction between forms which create architecture and any enlivening features that are either applied or intrinsic within the containing and defining forms of the building.

If this is so it supports the suggestion made elsewhere that seeks to define Islamic architecture. Fathy, in contradistinction to traditional Western architectural teaching, held that architecture was the space created by buildings rather than the buildings themselves. As such he has much in common with the views espoused by Bill Hillier relating to the social identification and logic of space. I shall discuss this a little later.

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This is a subject that particularly interests me. Its importance relates to the psychology of spaces, their containing elements and the manner in which we read what we see.

Traditional Gulf architecture generally has its spaces determined by the trabeated form of construction and its elements. This means that spans of rooms are restricted by the safe carrying span of timber joists, and the effective spans of openings between columns.

This tends to produce spaces that are divided into an odd number of openings, at least across the width of the room which, in residential buildings, would be a single span. Where the room has a central entrance, there is also, usually, an odd number of openings along the room’s length. Commmonly the proportions of many rooms I’ve noticed are seven to three or five to three.

Classical Greek temple

Classical buildings in the West share the unequal division of walls with a feature of Gulf tent structures: they both need to have a central opening at their approach; a column or pole can not be located in the centre. Hence there are always an equal number of columns or poles, and an odd number of spaces. In this illustration it is evident that the sketch on the left is correct, while that on the right looks, and is, impractical.

Having said that, it is common for openings to have windows and doors in them, the former usually covered by double shutters and the doors in two leafs with a central enf. Usually, windows both in the Gulf and the West have a central, dividing mullion, this relating to the mechanism for opening the window. Whereas in the West this has generally been vertical sliding sash windows, in the Gulf horizontally sliding windows were favoured as they were simpler to make in the newly-introduced material, aluminium. In traditional Gulf buildings, windows were protected by a number of relatively fine vertical iron bars though there were commonly one or two horizontal timber elements fitted in order to strengthen the iron bars.

Wall divided into two parts

In the West there has been a fashion in recent years to create duality in many two-dimensional areas of architectural structures. As mentioned above, windows in many recent and new buildings in Qatar, share this by having a horizontally sliding windows with a single vertical mullion. The first diagram here illustrates a window with a single vertical mullion in its centre, creating duality. The eye focuses on the mullion and finds it difficult to look through the pane on the left or right as it keeps being drawn back to the central mullion.

Two Qatari girls

A similar effect can be noticed when there are two people or subjects in a single portrait or photograph. If they have equal visual weight, the eye is not sure which to concentrate upon, and moves from one to the other and back again in its attempt to settle on the dominant image. Photographers will usually try to avoid this effect by having one subject further away or higher than the other or, perhaps, have one looking at the camera and the other away.

Wall divided into three parts

In this second example there are two mullions creating three spaces between them. The eye naturally goes to the central space and, if this were window, would look freely out of or through it. Although there is more material theoretically blocking the view through the window, the psychological effect is less constrained than it is when compared with looking through the single mullioned window above.

Wall divided into four parts

In this third example there are three mullions creating four spaces or windows. It has exactly the same effect as has the first example with its single mullion. The eye is drawn towards, and concentrates upon, the central mullion. When it moves off the central mullion it finds it has exactly the same problem with the two panes and their central mullion to the left or to the right.

Wall divided into fives parts

In this final example the opening is divided by four vertical mullions. If you compare it with the example above it, or even with the first illustration with its single vertical mullion, you should see that, if it were a window, it would be easier to see through. The lesson should be clear: psychologically, you will be more constrained or confined by windows with an odd number of mullions than you will be by windows with an even number of mullions.

The point of this particular note is that you should bear in mind, when looking at divisions of planal forms, that there are significant differences between those exhibiting duality and those not. The fashion for duality can bring with it penalties in terms of increased psychological discomfort.

Wall divided into two parts horizontally Wall divided into three parts horizontally

While the above note relates to the vertical divisioning of a plane, it is also worth looking briefly at what happens when there are horizontal divisions as they might be thought to have a different effect due to the way in which we scan or read scenes in front of us. Note that the example I have used in all these focal wall illustrations has a strong horizontal proportion.

Nevertheless, as you can see here, there is still the tendency for the eye to be drawn to the closer central horizontal line even though there might be an attractive view to be enjoyed beyond it. On first examination this might appear to be a lesser issue than when the divisions are made with vertical elements. The reason for this is most probably that the eye tends to scan from left to right and, in this case, there are no vertical elements that would interfere with this process.

It has to be borne in mind that, because we read what is front of us in a horizontal manner and that, physiologically, our eyes have developed to see more of the horizontal view than the vertical, any vertical element tends to make the eye pause as it is encountered.

But in making the illustration an approximation of a view through a window, I have introduced the issue of the object viewed through the window: a simplistic horizon formed where the sky meets land. In this case our eye is drawn to the farther object with, in the upper illustration, little interference. However, in the lower illustration there is a common problem with windows and handrails – the obstruction of the horizon by a horizontal element. So, in the case of the horizontal divisioning there is a similar effect to the duality described with vertical divisioning, though for a different reason. In real situations I am aware that lower horizontal elements such as these cause irritation when there is coincidence with an interesting focus or horizontal element outside.

Wall divided into three parts horizontally Wall divided into two parts horizontally Wall divided into two parts horizontally

In this upper illustration, where there is simplistic division into three spaces and with no external view to interfere with the point being made, you can see how the eye is drawn to the central horizontal space. The focus within this space, and any movement within it, is unobstructed by the two horizontal elements above and below it, the eye level admittedly being within this central area.

This introduces the possibility that the relative height of the eye to the horizontal elements might influence the manner in which the divisioning is perceived.

To make the point more strongly, the middle illustration also shows the effect without the external horizon, but with a single, horizontal dividing element. It is evident that the eye is clearly drawn to the central horizontal division, just as it was with the central vertical division illustrated above.

In order to reinforce the point, the lower illustration shows the eye at a different relative height to the horizontal element. The visual attraction to the central horizontal element appears to be no different.

But there is more to this issue than the general note made above on duality. Take doors, for instance. Below is an illustrative sketch of a pair of doors. Double doors are often used to give importance to an opening, or to provide the opportunity for more people to move through an opening, though this latter point is often illusory.

Illustration of a pair of doors

We understand doors to provide a measure of security, which they do; but double doors are notoriously difficult to secure as effectively as a single door due to the potential for differential movement there is between the two leafs, and the benefit that locking to a frame rather than a leaf provides. So the evident duality, with its implication of greater security, paradoxically is a less effective arrangement than a single door. This type of door arrangement rarely sees both leafs used when a person moves through the doorway, unless it is an internal pair when both leafs are often left open by choice. Moving through the doorway where only one leaf is open, therefore, requires the person to move to the side of the centre of the pair. The duality of the pair of doors, with its connotations of higher security, is understood to be less secure, but there is ambiguity in the decision to use only a single leaf for access.

Illustration of a tall pair of doors

In some parts of the world, France and Italy, for instance, there is a tradition of using double doors with narrow leafs, but the disadvantage is that both leafs usually have to be opened because a single leaf provides too narrow an opening to move through comfortably. Note that the opening of two doors together is a more formal exercise than the opening of a single door, and is more suited to classic arrangements. Sizing such doors is difficult as their dimensions have much to do with the scale of the rooms they divide.

Illustration of a door to a traditional Qatari building

Traditional Qatari houses had a similar arrangement of double doors at their entrances, both to the compound as well as to a majlis room or building. This sketch illustrates a typical arrangement, the doorway being relatively narrow, and fitted with heavy double doors within a strong frame, and with one of the leafs fitted with a distinctive enf which reinforces both physically and psychologically, the centre of the doors. For added security on external doors there would have also been a lock arrangement, though that is not shown on this sketch.

Illustration of a single door

More commonly, and less expensively, single leafs are used in doorways. As noted above they provide greater physical security though are less formal than double doors. The single leaf acts in a similar manner to the single framed opening of a window discussed above with the door being the focus on approach whereas, in the double doors, the focus is on the junction of the two doors together with the door furniture.

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Notwithstanding the argument that direction is not as important – or even does not exist – in experiencing Islamic buildings, and with the obvious exception of the knowledge that mosques are always constructed to face Mecca, there are two areas in which Arabs have an apparent in-built sense of direction.

Firstly, distinction is specifically given in Islam to the right compared with the left. This can be seen to be reflected in attitudes towards the occupation, situation and direction of spaces. It is notable, for instance, that a majlis is preferred on the right side of a building, and that an Arab moving into an unknown space, usually tends to move towards the right. There appear to be at least two possible reasons for this:

  • reinforcement of the Islamic preference for the right, and
  • traditional custom organising the interior of a defensive building to favour a right-armed swordsman defending against an aggressor. This creates desire lines of travel towards the right and is a characteristic of buildings all over the world.

Secondly, there is the inbuilt knowledge that all Gulf Arabs seem to have with regard to their orientation at any time. This is assumed to be a reflection of the importance of the sun and moon to people where natural elements are so much a part of their daily lives. On many occasions I have seen Arabs turn a map to orientate it correctly without looking up to see where they were. This, again, has two important strands:

  • an in-built knowledge of the location of Mecca towards which all Muslims face in their prayers, and
  • spatial awareness and, more particularly, a strong awareness of direction.

I should add something here about the relationship of Arabs generally and the Bedouin, particularly, with the sky. It won’t be realised in the West but, in the desert the relatively clear air and lack of aerial pollution produces extremely clear skies in which a lot more stars are apparent than can be generally seen in the West. The movement of the stars, moon and meteors through the sky are readily discernible and have become very much a part of the environment in which many Arabs are familiar. To the Egyptians the sky was a living spectacle and a setting for marking their progress through time. In a similar way this is true for Arabs and is, perhaps, one of the chief reasons for their familiarity with two-dimensional space.

These points tend to support the argument that orientation is significantly more important to Islamic architecture than it is in the West, and that direction within and around buildings is not as important other than for route-finding, an element of design which is also strongly related to traditional security, a subject that is dealt with elsewhere.

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Movement, direction and way-finding

But there is another significant area that is important to understand when looking at how buildings and the spaces around them are used. Known as environmental psychology, this discipline looks at how we interact with the spaces in which we stand and move, particularly how we find our way around. From such studies, a number of important findings have been developed in the retail industry, for instance, to guide people around stores in a predetermined manner such that the store benefits. The principles, however, also relate to other activities and can be used to influence our movement in and around buildings.

These findings relate to mostly to our sensory characteristics, particularly those relating to smell, temperature and colour. But there is also the understanding that people tend to follow paths that are similar to their part of the world and its driving habits. For instance, those who drive on the right tend to walk on the right and, when entering a space will prefer to move to the right.

One of the consequences of this discovery relates to the way in which airports are laid out. In countries where driving is on the right, people will be led along a path on the left of which there are locations you would want them to move into or make impulse purchases. Whereas, on the right of that path you would locate fast food outlets and the like as, when people are hungry they will happily move across the traffic to reach it. Supermarkets will use the same knowledge but will also locate items such as bread at the end of the store knowing that people will have to move past all the other items in order to reach and return from it. There is also the knowledge that the smell of fresh bread is a strong attractor, as is coffee, for instance.

Controlling temperatures will also affect the speed at which we move through spaces taking us faster through areas that are cool and slowing us down when an area is warm. This also applies to the use of colour. Fast food outlets will use strong warm colours in order to move people to consume their food quickly, giving their tables to new customers. But the system is not as simple as it seems as young people also prefer strong colours where older customers prefer more muted palettes, a characteristic which may also cause people to linger.

The issue of way-finding is also important in the design of buildings. We need to know whereabouts we are within a building or an urban environment, and suitable design decisions will create landmarks, regions and paths as well as orient us in our movements. Designers must produce coherent and legible buildings for us.

Demolition preceding development in the central area of Doha

The lack of identifiable landmarks is an issue with many people and is briefly mentioned in regard to planning blight. The importance of understanding where we are is important in reducing anxiety and stress, common problems in unfamiliar areas where people may feel, at best, lost or, at worst, threatened by their unfamiliarity with the area in which they find themselves. Where people live in areas under development they may well feel stressed by the changing nature of their surroundings, a characteristic which might apply particularly to expatriates in Qatar. For instance, having to make decisions quickly on a changing road system can not only be stressful, but dangerous, and the lack of a fixed urban framework for reference can be challenging to those needing a significant degree of stability as a background to their lives.

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The importance of sound

A bend in old Doha’s sikka system

There is one other aspect of the urban environment that should be considered, and that is one that affects all of us, not just Gulf Arabs – sound. I have written elsewhere that Arabs appear to have a higher sensitivity to sight, smell and taste than we do in the West, but I believe this is also true of sound as I have experience of Arabs referring to sounds in terms of their familiarity and orientation. This is similar to the experience of deaf people who are more conscious of the sound of spaces or, to be more accurate, sounds relating to the reverberant characteristics of spaces. But it is an area sighted people rarely seem to be aware of in urban areas, and one for few architects and planners incorporate considerations within their designs, though this appears to be changing, albeit slowly.

Walking through traditional sikkak you are conscious of the limited sensual environment in which you find yourself. The walls and floor tend to be of a similar colour and, by and large, only the sky contrasts with those colours and textures. By extension we become more conscious of smells and sound within that setting. There are at least four aspects to sound in this context:

  • sounds that might orientate people in a tight urban situation,
  • those that people might use to familiarise them with the character of the space in which they find themselves,
  • sounds relating to a feeling of comfort, and
  • those that might relate to degrees of personal safety.

The surfaces of sikkak are hard though, in the past, the floor was often sanded. Sounds in them were magnified though localised due to the relatively tortuous nature of their path. This characteristic enabled people in adjoining properties to be more conscious of movements in the sikkak, thus contributing to their overall sense of security.

Planting within properties adjoining the sikkak creates olfactory, aural and visual experience to those using them, creating a pleasant degree and character of sound with plant movement as well as providing birds and other fauna with the necessary cover to live there and introduce their particular songs and noises.

Before leaving the subject of the senses – and although it may not fit comfortably here – it is worth noting that Gulf Arabs also favour high ceilings inside buildings, preferably ceilings that are out of the normal line of sight. I had at first thought that there were a number of possible reasons for this, mostly relating to local environmental conditions:

  • firstly, that people who are used to living in the open favour maximising their enclosure when inside, feeling constrained by ceilings and, secondly,
  • the traditional internal space uses a tall volume in order to optimise internal environmental control.

But there is now evidence of a psychological effect that favours higher ceilings. It has been shown that rooms with high ceilings promote visuospatial exploration which, in turn, suggests that the brain is stimulated to investigate and think more freely in such spaces. The study further suggests that this promotes good feelings in the viewer, a noted effect by estate agents who are able to demand higher prices for properties with higher ceilings than the norm – despite the higher purchase and running costs.

There is another factor that may well be related to the issues of spatial properties of rooms:

  • the quality of sound is likely to be quite different with the higher ceiling.
Drummers at a razeef, 1973

The latter suggests that it is increasingly important for designers to understand more about sound and, especially, the way it affects and is affected within the spaces they create or treat. In particular, sound should not just be associated with traditional sources such as that illustrated here – drummers at a razeef held in February, 1973 – but be placed in its wider context of wide variety of activities in their specific and particular settings.

It needs to be understood that our bodies receive sound in a number of different ways, and that the reception of sound affects us

  • physiologically,
  • psychologically,
  • cognitively, and
  • behaviourally.

Physiologically, our breathing and heart rates are affected by sound. The more heavily sound impinges on us the faster our breathing and pulse increases. Conversely, sound can be soothing and slow both rates, improving our general feeling of well-being.

Psychologically, sound impacts our brain waves, altering our emotions positively or negatively, a feature used, for instance, in film music to establish a particular mood.

Our cognitive functions are influenced by sound, particularly ambient noise. When this is too high or low our ability to focus and comprehend is impaired.

Sound can also affect our behaviour. For instance, on the one hand it can make it difficult for us to carry out tasks or, on the other, establish a mood that will encourage retail purchase – a characteristic that is often married with olfactory elements to enhance this effect.

Drummers at a tambura, 1972

A traditional activity where particular sounds affect those who witness or participate in it is the tambura. The drums are beaten with considerable vigour and the sound that emanates from them can be felt within the body. When the event is carried out indoors, the effect of the drumming is considerable heightened, to the extent that it can be extraordinarily uncomfortable to experience. Yet those who attend the events accept and, perhaps, encourage this effect in order to participate more fully in the experience.

Increasingly we find that we have to concentrate in order to be able to hear in many of the circumstances associated with our daily activities. While we are generally aware of this, it is not fully understood how sound can affect us adversely, bearing upon our

  • quality of life,
  • health and well-being,
  • social behaviour, and
  • productivity.

Even when it is understood, we rarely attempt to ameliorate the problems, nor are there many professionals whose work it is to do this for us in the creation and operation of the environments in and around which we move. But it is needed. One of the pleasures some Qataris enjoy is to get away from their homes and businesses to camp in the desert and enjoy a tranquility impossible in their day-to-day lives. We should be more conscious of the sources of noise around us, its affect on us, and the methods open to us to intervene and reduce its more damaging aspects.

Related to this, we should also understand better and provide for those who have impaired hearing both for those who wear no corrective device as well as for those who use cochlear implants or hearing aids.

more to be written…

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Building characteristics

Deserted housing in Wakra, 1972

So, the environment in which an urban Gulf Arab moved was characterised by simple buildings, one and two storey in height with relatively high ceilings, outside which a passageway sikka system moved him through a simple urban landscape of sand-coloured walls, unrelieved by decoration but often having the hand or tool marks of the finishing juss, but with strongly contrasting teak doors, abwab, shuttered and barred window openings, shubbabik, indicating a majlis, and the occasional built in seating area, dikka. the floor of the sikka was covered with sand or, near the coast, with shell sand, and was swept daily by the neighbouring owners whose duty it was to keep the area of their curtilage clean to the benefit of the neighbourhood.

The housing in urban areas comprised a random series of house expansions. The urban fabric, then, can be understood to have coalesced over a period of time and has to be envisaged as a series of internal expansions, on the periphery of each being the public or private/public spaces which constituted the common walkways. These areas were not of a common or regular width and were not parallel-sided. The main thoroughfares had to accommodate donkeys or camels with their loads and so, in some areas of the Arab world, there were some form of standard widths. However, the smaller sikka might be quite narrow, accommodating only a single person in its width.

This neighbourhood would be in the general domain of a particular qabila, or family group, so it was necessary to ensure that the individual area represented the qabila generally, and the specific family in particular. The qabila would be located in a feriq or district, often named for the family who lived or predominated in that area of the town.

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Urban characteristics

Housing adjacent to a sikka in the old centre of Doha

The external urban spaces were, then, a series of narrow volumes with limited long views due to the changes in direction necessary to move round the housing developments. The walls to each side were, generally, single storey in height but would appear as two storey where roofs had been adapted as open living and sleeping spaces by the raising of the walls for privacy. The top of these walls might incorporate badgheer to sweep cooling air onto the roofs, and the walls generally would give shadows when the sun was low enough.

It is noticeable that the worn pedestrian path along a sikka would be closer to the south and west sides of the path, in order to keep out of the direct sun. Sometimes barasti, flattened out oil drums or cloth shading would be used to cover a walkway, the advantage here being that not only was there some relief from the direct sunlight but, with the wind in the right direction, a venturi effect could be set up which would help to move the air in the sikka.

The only long distance element of the urban scene would be the minaret of a mosque, a tree or overhanging plant, or a bridge link or second storey building.

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The final element in this urban scene was planting. Many houses had one or two tamr, date palms in their courtyards and, with time, these would be seen over the top of walls. In addition, plants were sometimes grown within the courtyard and which would spill over the tops of walls, displaying their flowers in the sikka. bougainvillea was the most common plant to be used in this way – and still is – and has the advantage of having thorns which makes it, additionally, a useful security device. These natural planting elements are the only splashes of colour normally to be seen in the public thoroughfares.

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Mechanical air-conditioning

There is one other element to add to this list of elements. Regrettably, in the seventies and early eighties, air-conditioning hit the Gulf. Japanese and American wall-mounted units were introduced and found themselves not only in the new constructions being thrown up for the rapidly increasing expatriate population, but also in the traditional constructions. While providing unaccustomed coolness inside the housing, the introduction of this increasingly essential machine had three unfortunate effects on the external environment, particularly the sikka :

  • for the first time noise was introduced into the public realm with the air-conditioners rattling and throbbing away,
  • a new visual element, the unattractive, working back of the units was exposed in the sikka with no attempt being made to mask or protect them and, perhaps most unusually,
  • the rusty condensate was allowed to fall onto the sikka with, in my experience, no attempt being made to keep the area clean; a significant breakdown of the duties of adjacent residents.

To this should be added the general mess created by uncoordinated wiring, piping and conduiting which is face-fixed and suspended wherever it was needed.

I might be more fair to argue that the lack of interest in responsibilities may have had something to do with the increasingly mobile character of the residential areas. As wealth increased and the Government assisted Nationals to obtain land and build on the periphery of the towns, the old houses were rented to ex-patriates who had no interest in the traditional responsibilities. This breakdown was reflected in a lack of maintenance of the urban environment which, in turn, hastened the arguments for demolishing the old urban fabric and re-planning and constructing the ubiquitous, new scale, Western style developments.

So, here are all the elements of the old urban developments in Qatar, perhaps more typically, the littoral developments such as Doha, Wakra, Ruweis and Khor. Compared with what we are used to in the West, there is not a lot of variety, but as has been explained elsewhere, the perceptions of our external environments are different.

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Identity in urban areas

Talking to Arabs it is interesting to understand how they have seen this environment. Its restricted use of colour, limited perspectives, the absence of noise and apparent lack of identity make it confusing and uninteresting to Westerners. Yet Arabs see it quite differently. Their need to be aware of the slightest variations in the limited colours of the desert and sea enable them to perceive a far wider range of colours within this limited range than a Westerner would, so they can perceive variation where Westerners wouldn’t. Arabs are more finely attuned to smell and taste and ‘see’ in the sikka more than we in the West might. This is particularly true at night when the area can be extremely dark.

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With regard to the security of the area, Arabs feel far safer in this type of urban environment than a Westerner would. The physical characteristics of the area will be well-known to those who live and have business there, strangers are more easily noticed, and each house is a seen as a haven. I can recall being escorted at night, before the days of street lighting, to a house in the middle of such an area and, although I’ve a good sense of direction, having no real idea of direction or way-finding, yet it might as well have been daylight to my Arab friend.

Another way of looking at this aspect of the traditional environment is to remember that the resident sees the area from within – from his home, outward – whereas visitors, particularly Westerners, will experience it psychologically as their visiting or penetrating the area, even if they know that neighbourhood well.

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View of the environment

But, more than this, there is not the intellectual interest in the physical environment that there is in the West. Elsewhere i have written about the tradition of intellectual Arabs to take an interest in mathematics, particularly two-dimensional geometries, and to relate this to calligraphy with its concomitant reproduction of elements of the Holy Quran and poetry. This has produced building developments such as the Alhambra which can be seen as settings for curiosity and contemplation. But this is very different from Western traditions. In the West, urban design is a well-recognised discipline and profession. While there are certainly Arabs following the Western tradition in this respect, there is no apparent replication found in the Arab world of the design of the urban environment. In a sense the two approaches are inimical.

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The building as symbol

What has changed, I believe, is that buildings are now seen and read as symbols by Arabs. In this respect it is the antithesis of an Islamic approach. Importance is now seen in presenting personality – corporate, governmental or individual – through buildings. It has not helped that the planning of new towns and cities has been founded on Western principles based, for the most part, on compartmenting, identification and focus, a very different approach from the more traditionally anonymous Arab development. While this is more understandable in the functional buildings of cities – particularly with states attempting to establish their international identity – it is much more regrettable in housing development. The decision to have houses set in the centre of a peripheral wall has encouraged those with the finances to develop their housing in what many see as competitive ways.

This concept is not apparently perceived in this way by Arabs. Rather they see the opportunity given them to build as a means of establishing their families in ‘suitable’ accommodation, and all will tell you that the choice of materials used on the façades and, of course, their individual designs, are due to their architects; all of whom, of course, are Westerners or trained in the Western tradition. Nevertheless, clients give instructions to their architects – as well as taking advice from them, and I am aware of competition relating to design decisions on domestic as well as State buildings.

The outcome of this is that Arabs have to adapt to their houses in order to be able to live in them properly or effectively and, particularly, in privacy. Many are aware of the problems they face but argue that everybody has the same problem so they are not doing anything unusual. In particular they do not accept the argument that they are behaving in a less Islamic way than they did traditionally in apparently building competitively.

The understanding I have of my discussions with young Arabs who are building or have just built their first house is this: they argue a Muslim enjoys a personal relationship with God and, therefore, his physical circumstances can have no influence on this relationship. By extension, his neighbour will not be affected by physical circumstances and, therefore, the physical circumstances will not affect his neighbour. The argument is, of course, spurious, as one of the main principles of Islam is consideration for neighbours, and the physical aspects relating one neighbour to another are patently important. I believe that we – or, more accurately, they – are in a period of transition which has been focussed by the State’s massive development plans. This has released considerable finances into the local economy, empowered national professionals and their clients to demand designs that reflect the pride they have in their country and, to a large extent, the funds they now have available for development.

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Meaning of space

I didn’t want to write much about the concept of space in the Muslim world because it’s a very complex subject, and I have to admit that I don’t claim to understand fully what I’ve learned, noticed and considered. However, it is important to think about its meaning as this relates strongly to Islamic mathematical interests as well as forming a useful factor when considering the manner in which modern Western and Arab Islamic architecture has changed from its origins. It also relates to the perception of space, on which I’ve written elsewhere.

The French philosopher, Lefebvre, noted that space was essentially a Euclidian, mathematical concept, and that it required the intervention of people to create a socio-political forum: a space which could only be understood in the context of those using it. He realised that nature was modified in order to expand and provide the space for human needs and experiences, and that spaces had a period of original use which might – at the end of that purpose – become vacant, and then offer the reappropriation of an alternative use established by new uses.

More importantly he believed that it is abstract space, the space of bureaucratic politics, that produces and reinforces social homogeneity. And it is here that the difference between traditional Western and Arabic Islamic spaces can be best understood. I have written elsewhere on the formal spaces created in the Ancient World and continued up to this day in the West. This can be compared with the manner in which Islam has seen the importance of the individual and his or her relationship with Islam, and its reflection in the built environment. Essentially this produced the irregular external spaces associated with Islamic neighbourhoods.

The relevance here is that these constructions were defined by the social order they represented, and they lacked, for the most part, the decoration and embellishment found on Western buildings. Where there was façadal treatment it would be there to reflect one of two aspects of their creators: the adornment thought necessary to represent the relationship with Islam, or the decoration of functional elements of the building – badgheer, abwab, enf, naqsh, and the like.

As such they enlivened the containing faces that formed the background to the social movements of Qataris in and around buildings. Where the work was associated with musajid, they would reflect and represent the personal relationship with the religion that is so important to Muslims. Where it was decoration associated with a functional element of a residential building, it would have marked the skill of a builder and his natural relationship with the materials of construction under his hand. In neither case would there have been an attempt to flaunt decoration. In the case of Qatari musajid, the wahhabi tradition is austere and eschews decoration. To reflect this, musajid in Qatar were decorated no more than residential buildings and did not have any of the zulij work associated with musajid in other Muslim States. To this extent, traditional Qatar had similar construction for all its buildings, producing an amorphous character to buildings in its rural and urban areas.

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Space around buildings

For some time it has been understood that there is a difficulty in describing the spaces in and around buildings. Even today buildings and their associated spaces are discussed in terms of their uses, containing heights, materials and articulation. In fact, they’re even designed that way. Yet the importance of buildings and the spaces in and around them lies in the social functions they represent and facililtate. The work of Hillier on space syntax goes a long way to deal with the difficulty of describing social spaces, but it is not yet mainstream and is difficult to use. Moreover, it is not taught in many schools of architecture. Perversely the massive amount of development in Qatar, in common with other areas of the Gulf, has reinforced the traditional and easier attitude to design: that of treating buildings as isolated elements, each representing their owners’ or designer’s view of their organisation.

And this, for the most part, is the way in which buildings are still conceived and perceived. Iconic buildings are thought to be good advertisements. They can represent simple or complex ideas ranging from identification with their owner, the building’s function or, in the case of the burj al arab hotel in Dubai, Dubai itself and the tourist-oriented activities and progress associated with it.

There appear to be four reasons for this. Firstly, there is the traditional approach to planning.

more to be written …

Secondly, easiest approach – more to be written –

Third, consolidation of land – more to be written –

Fourth, construction costs– more to be written –

So far, the messages for designers which I have taken are:

  • Try to connect up new paths with existing
  • Try to keep longest possible sight-lines,
  • Keep a clear distinction between active, concentrated public spaces and secure private spaces.

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View of Arabic houses

I have been lucky enough to visit and work in a number of Arabic houses and seen round not only the men’s, but also the family or household side. My general observations are that:

  • the inter-relationship between the occupants of houses in the same district does not work as it used to,
  • there is little privacy for the family from passers-by and neighbours, particularly in the use of the outside spaces,
  • the inter-relationships between the rooms of a house do not work as it should,
  • the arrangement of rooms generally replicates those of a Western house,
  • furnishing of rooms again replicates Western houses with the exception of the majlis,
  • the requirements of the household are not always met by the house design, particularly such as in the need for storage and external cooking,
  • the way of life of the household is dominated by the habits of the women,
  • there appears to be little accommodation of the men’s way of life discernible in the family side of the house, and
  • it appears that the men can be ill at ease in their own houses.

There are many other observations I might add but I don’t think this is the place for them. However, it is relevant to say that the houses:

  • are not used in the way in which the architects may have thought they would be and that, despite this
  • they reflect the way in which most clients ask for their houses to be designed and furnished;
  • the disposition of windows and doors, and the selection and arrangement of furniture is almost always problematic,
  • socket outlets are insufficient and light switches often poorly located,
  • furniture tends to be heavy with highly polished surfaces, glass and gilding, and
  • carpets, commonly fitted in living and bedrooms, have unsuitable long piles and light, plain colours to show off Persian carpets.

So, perception in the Arab world follows that of the Western world. Like much else in the Arab world, the approach to design, understanding and appreciation of the urban environment is learned from Western traditions. The sadness is that not only has this created environments which cause difficulties for Muslims, but that it has added to the politico-socio problems of the region.

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Finally, as an addendum, I should like to introduce notes on colour and its use. This will be related to geometry later, and commentary added on colour preferences of the region and the reasons for this.

In a sense, colour doesn’t exist; colour is an abstract construct of the brain. Most of us are able to see objects as being coloured and associate names with them corresponding to general cultural norms. While each of us might see and name a colour as, for instance, ‘red’, we might each be seeing or interpreting a different colour although, of course, the colour is understood to be the same. A variety of industries whose business revolves around colour – paint, design, interior design, fashion and many others – depend on being able to describe and sell colour. The point is that we talk about colours existing and as being fixed when, in fact, they are not.

The primary colours

Having said that, to the right are the three primary colours – yellow, blue and red. They are illustrative approximations and may appear slightly different on viewing monitors. From these colours it is often said that all others are derived. This is an over-simplification as the human eye can see a greater range than these three colours can produce. Colour theory is complicated and I don’t intend to cover it completely. This is a very basic introduction. For more information, please look elsewhere.

The secondary colours

These three colours are the secondary colours – purple, orange and green. You can see that they complement the primary colours and that they sit opposite the primary colours on the colour wheel below.

Primary and secondary colours clashing

In layman’s terms, they clash with the primary colours directly above them. This is more evident when the primary and secondary colours are placed directly next to each other as is shown here, creating an uncomfortable effect.

The colour wheel

Here to the side is the standard form of colour wheel. Based on the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, the wheel sets these out equidistant from each other and develops the colours between them made by their mixing in the outer ring. Here I have illustrated them as thirty-six steps but in reality there would a seamless progression around the ring.

The grey triangle points to the three primary colours from which the other colours on the wheel are derived. As you can see, the inner ring shows twelve colours. These are composed of the three primary colours – yellow, red and blue and the three secondary colours – purple, orange and green together with the six tertiary colours.

The six tertiary colours

These are the six tertiary colours which are created from the mixture of the adjacent primary and secondary colours. The twelve primary, secondary and tertiary colours are shown in the inner ring of the colour wheel above.

Some knowledge of the theories associated with the colour wheel is necessary in understanding the different ways in which colours work. This needs to be allied to an appreciation of the psychological meaning of colour, an area which introduces cultural and other issues which I will make notes on later.

But, before I go further, I’d like to make a brief note on colour blindness which should, perhaps, have come earlier in these notes. The reason I’m referring to it here is because I know it’s a problem in the region, but not the extent. There is certainly a significant incidence of cataracts, but it is proper that designers take note of colour blindness wherever they are working.

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Colour blindness

Colour blindness affects many people. The percentages vary slightly according to a number of factors, but eight per cent of Caucasian males and less than one per cent of females are colour blind to some extent. The highest disability occurs with those being unable to distinguish between red and green.

Within the retina of the eye there are a collection of rods and cones which read the light falling on them. Rods outnumber cones in the proportion 10:1 except for the centre of the retina which is packed with cones. These are responsible for reading the colours red, green and blue, giving us our perception of colour; rods read only the amount of light.

The three types of cone correspond to different wavelengths, each sensitive to a particular colour. They are

cones sensitive to the longest wavelength – red,
cones sensitive to medium wavelengths – green, and
cones sensitive to short wavelengths – blue.

The various forms of colour blindness are named after the particular type of cone in which the deficiency is found. The suffix, -anomaly, indicates a mild deficiency; -anopy indicates the total absence of the particular colour. Bear in mind that the percentages given here are for Caucasians. I do not know the percentages relating to Gulf Arabs.

The six normally perceived colours
Normal vision
is enjoyed by only 85.5% of the population, this diagram illustrating the normal range of vision
The six colours viewed with protanopy
relates to 1% of men – this diagram illustrating the total absence of red retinal photoreceptors,
The six colours viewed with deuteranopy
relates to 1% of men – this diagram illustrating the absence of green retinal photoreceptors,
The six colours viewed with tritanopy
relates to 0.003% of men – this diagram illustrating the absence of blue retinal photoreceptors,
relates to 1% of men – problems with red,
relates to 5% of men and 0.4% of women – problems with green,
relates to almost 0% of men – problems with blue,
Full colourblindness
relates to 0.005% of population, and
Atypical monochromatism
means that a person is lacking two out of three types of cone, consequently only seeing one colour.

The main point to bear in mind is that fifteen per cent of the population do not see colours properly, nor does everybody seem the same colours they think they see.

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The meaning of colour

This is a difficult area to deal with both due to the way it’s perceived in Islam, as well as there having been a very limited range of commercial colours traditionally available for buildings and areas such as dyeing. This led to a relatively unsophisticated approach to its application in buildings, though this is, of course, no longer a problem. What is interesting to see nowadays, is the way unsuitable colours are selected for room surfaces and furniture. It appears that this is usually due to peer pressure or lack of understanding of what effect colours have, either psychologically or practically.

Two other factors influence the manner in which colours were enjoyed in the region: firstly the strong, harsh sun and the angle at which it falls and, secondly, the relatively small range of colours to be seen in the desert. I have watched Bedu playing a game in which they guess the distances from ‘the blue stone to the red stone’ where the western viewer would see a plain of light buff limestone. These small differences of tone are extremely important to travellers in the desert, particularly near the sea where sabkha can be extremely dangerous if driven into. Again, my own experience is that, when driving, it is essential to scan the desert constantly in order to distinguish areas of danger by their slight differing tones. This honing of the eye can also be observed in the ease by which Arabs can spot irregularities in plasterwork and similar fine finishes on buildings.

Physiologically it is understood that the eye focuses the constituent colours of white at different distances from the retina. Red is focussed in front of the retina, yellow on the retina, and blue behind it. This is said to explain why reds seem to advance and blues retreat. This is, presumably, true for Arabs as well as Western observers.

As with many aspects of Arab design, colour has to be taken as being different in selection and meaning from that way in which we perceive it. In Britain, for instance, there are a range of constructions placed upon different colours and the effect or influence they have on the viewer. The following are the most common, generally positive, perceptions in the West with comments as I’m aware of them, in the Gulf:


Perceptions in the West

…and the Gulf

red exciting, stimulating aggressive, related to the colour of blood. It is also associated with love and fertility.
maroon similar to red, but more stately also aggressive and related to the colour of dried blood. Note that maroon was selected to represent the blood spilt in Qatar’s various wars, and that nationals are extremely proud of their flag and its colour.
orange sensuous, fun not a colour that is seen much.
gold opulence, rich similar in the Gulf but with the wahhabi overtone that it should be eschewed.
yellow lively, creative, optimistic similar in the Gulf.
green reassuring, balancing but with a very religious overtone seen in the flag of Saudi Arabia and a number of Muslim institutions. It is widely associated with the Prophet, Muhammad, and has therefore come to have religious connotations. It is, perhaps, more widely associated with Shi’ites than Sunni, but is certainly extremely important in its use – and prohibited under certain circumstances. I should also mention that it is not uncommon to see a green version of the flag flown, I assume, by Pakistani or Shi’ite guest workers.
blue cool, calm, light with a similar feeling in the Gulf. But it also has a strong relationship with masaajid due to the use of blue tiles on them. It is also related to the sea and, particularly, the sky which is read by the badu in carrying out their daily lives.
dark blue authoritarian there is also a richness felt by Gulf Arabs, related to the deep blue of the sky at dusk and dawn.
light blue cool, calm, light this is thought to ward off the evil eye and is commonly seen used on the woodwork of buildings. But I have heard it suggested that there is a strong association with homosexuality in the Gulf, though have never seen this confirmed in writing.
purple royalty, religious, spiritually healing, meditative but has overtones of virtue from Egypt and of foreboding from Shi’ite Iran.
white pure, sterile, hygienic a sacred colour in ancient Egypt while having similar associations of purity in the Gulf as there are in the West, and of the struggle against evil. It is commonly associated with death – perhaps this following from the latter association. In some parts of the Muslim world widows commonly wear white in stark contrast to the black worn in Europe. Interestingly, the Romans associated white with death as did medieval France.
black elegance and death though also the colour associated with death in ancient Egypt it is not thought of in the same way as it is in the West, but is associated with wisdom. It is also a very common colour for the outer garments of women and men.
silver wisdom, healing A colour that is liked, provided it can be kept clean, but also with the negative connotation shared with gold – though not to the same extent.
grey depressing, conservative being associated with mechanical equipment in buildings tends to reduce its use in interiors. Dark and light grey are both found in the colour of the thub worn by men, perhaps more commonly in the winter thub than the summer. My impression is that it is worn by more sophisticated and professional nationals.
brown serious, centred similar in the Gulf and a common colour for the winter thub, but with negative associations from the Indian sub-continent.

Having written that I should add that, if you look through literature and the Internet, you will find many other – sometimes contradictory – qualities, though they will generally be similar to what I’ve written. What is important to bear in mind is that different cultures often associated colours with particular characteristics of their lives. For instance yellow with waving fields of rice and indigo blue with the sea are both associations found in Japan.

There are negative qualities, of course. For instance, in the West we associate green with jealousy, gold with greed, yellow with cowardice, red with aggression or danger, pink with homosexuality, black with evil, and so on.

In the Gulf there is little tradition in the occurrence and use of colour due to the very small range of colours naturally found there. Colours found in the area were those which were brought in commercially both for dyeing and building decoration. In fact little was dyed locally, the main source of dyed yarns being brought in as yarn or finished material generally from Iran or the Indian sub-continent on the dhows which plied the Persian/Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. For this reason I understand that the associations of colour are either religious connotations or they are ones that have been brought in from, particularly, the Indian sub-continent and Iran.

Sand dunes in the centre of Qatar

The Qatar peninsula appears to be virtually all one colour. That’s an exaggeration, of course but, to the Westerner, the colour of the desert and sand dunes are similar and certainly lie within a very limited palette in the yellow/brown range. The few trees there are and the seasonal growth of grass and other plants bring some relief to the eye, but the main colours of the country to those living on it were in the yellow and blue range, the latter being the sky and sea, of course.

Although natural colours may seem restricted, Qataris distinguish many shades in much the same way as the Inuit see different shades of white in their snow and ice oriented environment. To the latter, these are not shades but different colours; the same is true of the badu, I’m told, though I don’t yet know the names of these colours. The differences were, and are, necesssary for way-finding in the desert; they are a natural consequence of the need to be safe, to understand what is happening around them and, ultimately, to find a personal balance with the environment that is one of the true characteristics of Islam.

While I don’t know the names of different shades within a specific colour, there are two points to make. The first is that different cultures have different descriptions – and, therefore, names – of colour. Even within cultures which are similar, there are different vocabularies dealing with the same colours. The second point is that, in Qatar, I have experienced Qataris pointing out elements of extremely similar colours in the yellow range, and referring to them as ‘red’ or ‘blue’.

The night sky in the desert

I mentioned above the connotation with dark blue in Qatar and, earlier, the appearance of the sky to the Egyptians, but I should like to repeat it here. There are few places in the developed world nowadays where the night sky can be experienced clearly due to high ambient light pollution. But, in the Qatar peninsula it is possible to see what appears to be every star. It is clear enough to see movement of the celestial bodies as well as lively asteroid showers and meteors. The sky seems very much alive, something which was noted by the Egyptians as having a living character. So it is to the badu who have a more direct relationship with the sky and its colours than we do in the West.

Historically, we know that it was from the Arabs that the West learned astronomy. In the desert it is easy to see the different colours of the stars ranging from the cooler, orange and red stars to the hotter bluer and white stars – the opposite of what you might imagine. But my point only is that these small elements in the sky and their colours have always been important to badu and Arab sailors.

What I do find interesting is that, in my experience, many Qataris of badu stock enjoy interiors whose prominent colours are beige and light blue. On the floors na’in carpets – which are predominantly a range of beiges with light red or blue to complement them – are particularly liked.

With regard to traditional buildings it is noticeable that the painted areas of building were confined to small elements of the building, particularly wooden ceilings, and were treated in strong primary colours, perhaps because of a limited range brought in by the merchants.

Nowadays any colour can be used and applied to buildings, inside and out. Externally, most buildings are finished with a render in Qatar. There are some pre-cast concrete elements used but, generally, concrete is considered to be an unfinished material and, exposed, is confined to elements such as concrete walls and elements of Government street furniture.

Concern for the manner in which wind-blown fine sand sticks to the external faces of buildings has caused many to decide to paint their buildings in sand-coloured or similar toned finishes. Where panels were painted different colours in the past – usually only small areas of dark red or dark green; I don’t remember seeing dark blue or light blue for that matter – it was soon seen that they discoloured not just from the harsh environmental conditions affecting the poorly-applied paint, but the dust adhering to the rough material made the buildings appear old before their time.

Where different colours were used externally – and still are – was on the standard steel gates of properties. Both the pedestrian wicket gate and the double steel gates for vehicles that relieve the standard column and infill panelled boundary walls are often painted in an assortment of colours. The gates are formed of flat steel panels with bent steel figure work that relieves the flat plane while providing a degree of structural rigidity. These gates are one of the cottage industries with considerable ingenuity employed in producing a variety of designs. Having said that, I can’t recall seeing any that were decorated in a traditional Arabic manner. They are delivered painted black and it seems to be up to the owner to direct their painting. The design and, particularly, colour differences are one of the few ways that standard housing can be personalised. This brings me back to the issue I’ve dealt with on the Islamic urban design page, looking at the way in which traditional housing should not seek to set one owner above another.

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