With and Without a Firm Grasp, Part II

by Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab and Forough Abadian
With and Without a Firm Grasp — a Ramadan calendar published by Inga with Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab and designed by Forough Abadian.[A close-crop of someone holding the bright green calendar. The image is open in a computer window with the file name visible, almost like we are watching the image in the process of being edited.]

Last month, Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab and Forough Abadian published a Ramadan calendar (also known as imsaakiyat Ramadan) in collaboration with Inga Books. These calendars were distributed throughout Chicago to masjids, organizations, and community centers at the start of Ramadan, and we ran an essay by Shiraz for the project’s launch. Now that Ramadan has ended, Shiraz and Forough agreed to close this project with a conversation, which is transcribed below.


Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab: Hi Forough.

Forough Abadian: Hi Shiraz.

Shiraz: Thank you for making time to talk through the imsaakiyat Ramadan project that we collaborated on. I’m excited to have this conversation with you.

I reached out last fall about this project and gave you some background on the visual research that I had been conducting on Islamic prayer timetables. I'm wondering, what was your initial response when you first learned about this project? 

Forough: I was honestly a bit hesitant because this was my first time seeing these types of calendars and printed ephemera. They aren’t something you see everyday in Iran, or at least I never saw anything like them in the environment I grew up in. So when I responded to your email and agreed to get involved, I was worried that you would politely reject me as a collaborator [laughs]. A big part of this project is understanding the context of these designs.

Shiraz: It’s interesting that the existing prayer timetables were unfamiliar territory for you. And to be honest, I think that strengthened the design in a lot of ways, because you had to approach each element as a new thing, which likely made you more sensitive to the designed details. I’m curious to hear more about your process in the early stages. How did you approach the calendar design?

Forough: Your Are.na channel dedicated to salah tables was super helpful to just get a sense of how the information is organized. My mind works in a way that tends to test out different structures and different organizing methods. There are several ways of arranging the information on these calendars, since we’re looking at a grid of five prayer times per day, and normally 30 or 31 days per printed calendar. The data can be arranged so that your eyes scan through the daily prayer times row by row or column by column. Which option would be legible and visually interesting? What information do you merge? What information do you divide further? For example, some of your references merged the hour and minutes into one cell and some divided them into two cells. 

After showing the first draft to you, I started thinking about things like typefaces. I had to let go of some of my training from design school, and try things you’re told not to do, such as stretching type, or using certain system fonts, like Comic Sans, Chalkboard, American Typewriter. It wasn’t until I stepped out of my trained mindset when my design started resonating with the original references.

Example of the prayer timetables that Shiraz has been collecting and studying for several years. [A prayer timetable bordered in bright orange, with the dates and times in vibrant green, magenta, and purple.]
Another example of the collected prayer timetables. [This one is old school digital, with different buttons for personalizing the calendar and the times below. Text along the top reads International Astronomical Center. A split screen shows both Arabic and English.]
A third timetable example. [One that looks like a color-coded spreadsheet in a pale blue and yellow.]

Shiraz: That makes a lot of sense. The calendars that I’ve been compiling and referencing are important design precedents, because they’re coming from communities that you and I can connect with. They’re compelling visual materials, they’re typographically robust, and they’re doing things that I can’t fully grasp. I don’t know exactly how all of these calendars were made. I can only guess, and there’s something special about that. The process is intriguing, but it’s not something that I can easily borrow from and recreate. So the work is kind of preserved in a way; the only people who can successfully make these calendars are the people who have already made them. My hope is that we’re honoring and celebrating that work, not appropriating it. 

Forough: A valuable conversation we had early on was about visual adaptation. There’s a fine line between appreciating and appropriating design references. We were talking about to what extent we can borrow from these calendars. As designers, we need to be conscious that the visual materials we encounter and approach are informed by their complex cultural and subcultural dynamics. We need to reference those visuals consciously.

Shiraz: That’s such an important point, because it begins to address the risk of us extracting visual materials that we are inspired by (which happens a lot in graphic design). In this case, I grew up with these salah tables. I look at them as important design precedents because they stem directly from my upbringing, my childhood, my relationship to Islam. I’m not at all removed from the communities that produce these prayer timetables, but I still worry about the role I play when I’m participating in the process of designing them. There’s an interesting exchange that might be happening, a translation of different design processes maybe.

With that in mind, I’m wondering what role translation played in your process. What did you need to translate in order to design the calendar? What wasn’t familiar in the beginning, and what did you learn in the end?

Forough: I think of translation here as both linguistic translation and cultural translation, or, more specifically, an act of religious translation. In Twelver Shi’ism, Muslims combine prayers, like midday and afternoon prayer, so many Shi'a Muslims end up praying three times a day rather than five. This calendar has all the five prayer times. So I had to double check the differences there, and make sure that I understood them correctly — to me that’s a cultural/religious translation. 

We also included the Arabic and English translations of the weekdays. I looked up the Arabic translation and found some variations. In a few translations, I would see diacritic marks but in others I wouldn’t. With the central calligraphy, Ramadan Kareem, which is set in Thuluth script, I found examples where I couldn’t tell the difference between short vowel diacritics and ornamental marks. I asked a student in my class who’s fluent in Arabic to help me with this.

Arabic manuscript featuring an excerpt from the Qur'an, set in Kufic script calligraphy with red diacritics, sourced from the Abbasid dynasty, 8th-9th century AD.
Urdu headline set in Nastaliq script calligraphy with short vowel diacritics highlighted in multiple colors. Image via Abeera Kamran.

Another interesting thing was the numbering systems. In Arabic, four, five, and six are different from how we write those numbers in Farsi. 

Shiraz: All of this brings up the question of, why Arabic and English? What languages do we use on a calendar like this, for a community that includes many different people who speak many different languages? Arabic obviously plays a big role in the Islamic faith, and a lot of the terms on Ramadan calendars are either translated or transliterated Arabic terms. But there are real questions surrounding who dominates discussions on Islamic practice, who remains more privileged, and how can we counteract or challenge that? 

Forough: I think including Arabic on the calendar — even if I don’t read it or understand it — is more of a symbolic act. Even as a non-native speaker, I can recognize the form.

Shiraz: I agree, especially when we think of the role that Arabic calligraphy plays in Islamic art and architecture and how it often is preferred over pictorial images and iconography.

Forough: What is your relationship to Islam, and how has it developed and evolved throughout the years? 

Shiraz: I’m an American Muslim who toggled between living in the States and visiting Sudan as a child. As I spent more time in Sudan and compared those experiences with living in the US, I found that American Muslim communities have a heightened sense of identity that is informed by our vulnerability in this country. We’re very vulnerable to different policies and threats posed against us. Because of that — because we live in the margins of American society where we are regular targets, where we’re not, you know, governed by a body that reflects us — there’s a lot that we have to preserve and protect for the sake of survival, or even for the sake of feeling grounded in our day-to-day happenings. 

In the first blog post that we published at the launch of this project, I reference the word amsak, which means “to hold,” and I feel like that word is relevant here. American Muslims (as well as immigrants and diasporic folks in general) are holding onto themselves in a distinctive way. We are preserving aspects of our faith, culture, and personhood that are vulnerable to erasure and attack.

I’m wondering about your relationship to Islam and Ramadan, more specifically. Can you elaborate on your background in relation to the practices that are reflected on our calendar?

Forough: Growing up in Iran, I had a different experience of Ramadan from many practicing Muslims. In my family, a lot of religious practices and holidays received less attention than other cultural events and traditions. In my experience, I found that Muharram and more specifically Ashura held more cultural significance than Ramadan back home. The Persian New Year, which is based on the religion of Zoroastrianism, is another example that has similar, if not more significance, in my country.

It wasn’t until I started hanging out with friends in Dubai that I saw Ramadan as a religious and spiritual journey that’s experienced on a personal, internal, interpersonal, and communal level. In many Muslim countries, the everyday living experience changes slightly to accommodate Ramadan. The working hours would end by 2 pm, and the city would quiet down until iftar, becoming alive afterward until dawn.

Process image featuring early typographic treatments. [A computer window with a close-crop of the times on the calendar, in white and green.]
Process image featuring back pattern construction. [An open InDesign file with a neon yellow grid and cluster of black dots.]

Could you talk about your relationship to the Arabic language?

Shiraz: I grew up in a household where Arabic was spoken every day, but I spoke English for the most part. At the age of seven, I remember visiting Sudan and awkwardly adjusting to the new environment for what felt like the first time. I had to adapt and learn Arabic on the spot. After a few weeks, I got used to speaking it almost effortlessly, but I still had a strange relationship to the language. I would avoid speaking Arabic with or even around my aunts and uncles who knew English, for example. And to this day, my dad speaks to me in Arabic and I respond in English.

In college, I took a few classes and got to level three (High Classical Arabic) after studying abroad in Cairo, and at that point, I was pretty good at reading, writing, and speaking the language. But then I reached a point where I was like, I can’t keep doing this. I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve always had this complex relationship with the Arabic language where I appreciate it, but because I grew up hearing both English and Arabic at the same time, and because I intuitively think and speak in English, it's an added process for me to act like I know Arabic. But it’s also an important aspect of who I am, and I don’t want to lose access to that. 

Forough: When you went to Chicago at the start of Ramadan to distribute our calendars, how was your experience? 

Shiraz: I honestly didn’t know whether people would care about the calendars we produced, since a lot of masjids do this sort of thing every year. But luckily, I got a positive response. I connected with a few organizations, including IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network based on the south side of Chicago. They were eager to connect, learn more, and talk further about the work that they’re doing. The donations for the calendar are being forwarded to IMAN as a result of our conversations.

My friends and I went around town and circulated calendars to Masjid Al-Faatir, the Downtown Islamic Center, the University of Chicago’s Spiritual Life office, and a few other spots. I also ended up handing out calendars in unexpected places. I went in a car to drop off some calendars for UIC’s Muslim Student Association, and the driver was Sudanese and Muslim. We talked throughout the ride about being Sudani in America, and before I stepped out, I offered him some calendars. When I was heading to the airport the next day, I took another car and the driver was also Muslim. We talked about our families, Ramadan, and life in America, and I offered him some calendars before the ride ended. Those were some of my favorite exchanges, because they facilitated conversations that were both spontaneous and deliberate. And looking back on it, the calendars could be a way of sustaining those new connections, perhaps by building on the small scale gesture that ensued.

Documentation of the printed Ramadan calendar's back side, photographed outdoors. [A hand holding Shiraz and Forough’s Ramadan calendar, which is cyber green and, here, overlaid with shadows.]

Forough: Sometimes graphic design can be an isolating process, because we don't always see our work come to life after we submit it. I can imagine distributing the Ramadan calendars in person gave you a better understanding of why this project was made and what purpose it served. It also gives you a different perspective, that graphic design is just one component of a bigger social engine. 

Shiraz: Right. I try to remind myself that our work is a small scale gesture. In projects like this, graphic design helps signal or point to things that people might need to talk about. For example: do we want to rely so heavily on today’s technology for things like prayer and fasting? Or do we want to find other routes of seeking and supplying this information that gets us offline and perhaps brings us in closer physical proximity to one another? I think these are important questions that go beyond graphic design, but also directly involve graphic design. 

Inga continues to offer calendars with a suggested $5 donation to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. If you haven’t already done so, please order a calendar and/or donate directly to IMAN.

Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab is a designer, publisher, and learner based in Providence. She is interested in language, form, and specificity, and she co-published the aforementioned Ramadan calendar with Inga.

Forough Abadian is a graphic designer and educator based in Baltimore. She is interested in the narratives of identity and belonging shaped by sites and structures, and she designed the Ramadan calendar in collaboration with Shiraz.