Thomas Milo

The Ottoman roots of Arabic typography

Before the invention of photography, 19th century travelers were often accompanied by artists. Their meticulous drawings reveal an interesting blind spot in these observers' minds. The famous David Roberts RA does not depict a single letter of Arabic . Others seriously tried to reproduce Arabic script with varying success: a drawing by Caspare Fossati of the interior of the Hagia Sophia Church, alias Aya Sofya Mosque, in Istanbul includes some of the large calligraphic tableaux with the names of the caliphs (visible are the names of: Ali, Umar, Husain, Hasan and Abu Bakr). The delicate beauty of the building is captured with an eye for subtle detail. None of that subtlety remains in the Arabic calligraphies. What does remain is the visual equivalent of Van Beethoven's Fur Elise as played by a cell-phone. This alarming lack of perception still pervades all attempts to deal with Arabic script.

The first part of this talk has the subtitle "Backgrounds". It is in this part, that Thomas Milo will talk with relevant historical information about the development of the alphabet in general and the Arabic alphabet in particular. The second part, with the sub-title "Aesthetic and Technical Challenges" dwells on the problems and solutions relative to reproducing Arabic mechanically. During the talk I shall expand with a more precise account of the excellent Middle Eastern typographic technologies and why they vanished during the first half of the 20th century. Together they will serve as a case study of cross-cultural technology.

Tom Milo, lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and was educated at the Vossius Gymnasium, Amsterdam, followed by four years of Slavic Studies with Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Bulgarian and Macedonian at the University of Amsterdam, six years of Turkish Studies with Ottoman Turkish, Modern Turkish, Azeri & Yakut Turkic at the University of Leiden with additional Arabic Studies including Modern Standard Arabic as well as Egyptian, Lebanese and Moroccan Arabic at the University of Amesterdam.

Tom obtained an HGV (heavy goods vehicle) driving license and worked in Saudi Arabia in a Dutch trucking company from 1976 to 1977. This turned out to be an excellent way to develop conversational and driving skills in both Arabic and Turkish, as the firm mainly employed Turkish drivers on the roads between the North Sea and the Gulf.

Tom served as a captain in the Royal Netherlands Army and completed two tours of duty as an Arabic speaking officer in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Worked as a freelancer producing Moroccan dialect translations of the Amsterdam City Council Information Office. During this time he also taught courses of Turkish and Moroccan Arabic.

In 1985 he incorporated DecoType together with two partners: Mirjam Somers, an architect and Peter Somers, an aircraft engineer. DecoType contributes fonts and Arabic Calligraphy applications to Microsoft Office Arabic Edition; to Adobe PageMaker Middle East DecoType provides a special interface for Calligraphic typesetting; to the MacOS 9 it contributes Arabic fonts and together with Barco Graphics DecoType is working on a complete implementation of its design strategy.