The Kamiş Pen
The Kamiş kalem is the backbone of Arabic calligraphy. Kamiş kalems, meaning reed pens in Farsi and Turkish, have been used by Arab, Turkish, and Iranian calligraphers as the pen of choice for more than 500 years. It is made from reeds that grow along rivers. However, there is a lengthy process of “curing” the pen to make it ready for use by the calligrapher. Among other aspects of the process, the pen is buried in manure for more than a year.
There is a debate as to which riverbanks or waterways provide the best reeds. As David Roxburgh writes in Traces of the Calligrapher, ‘opinions varied, with most calligraphers preferring to use reeds cultivated in the coastal lands of the Persian Gulf, but other praising the qualities of reeds harvested from the banks of the Nile or the shores of the Caspian Sea.’ The pens I use have always been Iranian-made, as the pen-making trade in Egypt died out around the same time as the schools of Arabic calligraphy did, in the mid-20th century.
The ideal pen is one that is a full length between two knobs in the stalk, and the pen will be cut (or ‘opened’) at the very end, cutting off one of the knobs and creating a long, sweeping cut leading down to the writing edge of the pen. That cut, the most crucial cut in the pen cutting operation, must be completed with a single knife-stroke.
Roxburgh continues, “Because the act of cutting determined the quality of writing, a certain anxiety attended the operation, and calligraphers describe in detail the cutting of the nib on a diagonal, repeating the advice and admonitions of earlier masters. Cutting the tip of the pen to the perfect slant was an example of nasib, or an initiation into mystical orders. Techniques and materials aside, the ability to cut a pen straight and true required that the pen cutter be straight and true of character”