Saint Ambrose University

Munir Sayegh will study in Egypt on a Fulbright grant.

Contributed photo

Born to an Iowan mother and Palestinian father, Munir Sayegh said he appreciates the virtues of both his languages: English and Arabic.

But as a graphic artist, the 23-year-old recent graduate of St. Ambrose University, Davenport, isn't happy that Arabic printed typefaces are looking more and more Westernized, with fewer curves and straighter lines, like English.

In an effort to preserve Arabic alphabet tradition while adding a modern twist, Sayegh soon will leave on a prestigious Fulbright research grant for Cairo, Egypt, where he plans to study Arabic calligraphy and typography. He then hopes to create new Arabic and Roman alphabet fonts that flow well together visually, he said.

"It's my answer to a gap between the Middle East and the West," he said. "It's my graphic design answer."

Sayegh, who graduated from St. Ambrose in May with a double degree in marketing and graphic design, is set to leave at the end of this month to begin his nine-month study at the Egyptian national archives in Cairo.

He hopes to get permission to photograph manuscripts of Arabic calligraphy and typography in the National Library of Egypt, while also interviewing typographers who develop fonts and typefaces in Arabic, he said.

His interest comes from his background. His parents met at Kent State University in Ohio. His mother is from Ames.

Sayegh said his father taught him how to read and write in Arabic as a child.

"I can read it, too, but I've always loved writing it," he said. "Doing Arabic calligraphy is a passion of mine."

Now, as a graphic designer working for a marketing firm in his native state of Indiana, Sayegh said he doesn't like to see his industry move away from the look of that traditional Arabic alphabet.

"Right now, in the world of graphic design and typography and developing fonts and typefaces, a lot of Arabic countries have westernized typefaces to adapt to the western world," he said.

He said that's happening as more Middle Eastern companies sell products in English-speaking areas and try to cater their typeface designs of their brand names to appeal to that market.

He said the appearance of the traditional Arabic and English language typefaces, when placed next to each other, "doesn't look very good." But instead of changing the Arabic to look more like English, why not create typefaces that preserve the best of both?

"What I really want this project to show is that Arabic is beautiful," he said. "There are a lot of aspects of its design that maybe the west hasn't even looked at or thought about."

"It's kind of like a response to corporate America westernizing a lot of these fonts," he added. "It's kind of like, ‘Hey, from the Arab world, we have something to offer that's completely different than what we're used to seeing, from a design point of view.'"

Barbara Pitz, a St. Ambrose English professor and the university's Fulbright program adviser, said Fulbright scholarships are the oldest government-sponsored award given to students in the nation and are extremely competitive.

She said very few grants were awarded this year, after a months-long application process done by many students across the country, but Sayegh's proposal was definitely a winner.

"He deserves it," she said. "He's extremely talented. He's passionate about his field. He's willing to try new things, and he's eager to improve his Arabic, which is something we need as a nation."

She said she worries about Sayegh - whose grandparents are Charles and Jane Havener of DeWitt, Iowa - as he prepares to travel to a country in such turmoil.

"But if I know Munir, he'll find a way to meet the people he needs to meet and do the work he wants to do," Pitz said.

Sayegh called it "a time of rebirth" for Egyptian society.

"I'm not saying this typeface will change the world," he said, "but hopefully it will put a little dent in the design world."