June 23, 2013

Swahili in Arabic Script, part 2, the pen

The pen
            The Swahili writers of the Islamic tradition often mention the pens with which they write their works. These pens are said to have been imported from as far away as Syria, and some are made of gold, or so we are led to believe by one anonymous poet, who begins his work addressing his scribe thus:
            “Ahi, patie kasabu kwa kalamu ya dhahabu”
            My brother, find me a reed for a golden pen.”
            Here kalamu is obviously intended to mean ‘penholder’ a metal cylinder in which a reed writing-piece fit. The Swahili kalamu comes ultimately from the Latin calamus, which itself means a read (botanically unrelated to modern calamus, which is a rattan palm). The reed writing-piece was at one end sliced obliquely or slightly concavely, after which the resulting point was slit vertically through the middle, a fifth of an inch or a little more, to permit the ink to run down slowly and evenly. Cutting the nib (jilifa) was a great art in which one had to be a specialist. The left side (insi, i.e. the side held toward the writer, for no one was allowed to write with the left hand) was cut half a millimeter shorter than the right side (wasihi), and slightly softer. The best reeds for writing were found near Basra and in the Nile Delta, from where they were dispatched directly to the cities for use, since the reeds must not be dry, for that would make them stiff and brittle. Reeds found at the seashore (bahari) could also be used. Cutting a good pen was considered so important that Islamic scholars used to say: “Good cutting is half of good writing.” Every type of writing required its own special method of cutting the pen. Every Islamic nation has developed its own typical variant of Arabic script, so that connoisseurs can see at a glance whether a page of writing is in Persian, Hausa, Malay, Urdu, or Swahili, without knowing those languages, simply by recognizing the shape of the letters. Pens are so precious that they have to be kept in a special container (mkilama) a long flat, wooden box often beautifully ornamented with inscriptions of proverbs like ‘allama bi’l-kalami[i] “He taught mankind by means of the Pen”. Attached to it one often finds an inkwell (dawati or dawaya, sometimes used for the ink itself). The word kalamu is often used in the meaning of “Man’s destiny”, since God created a gigantic pen to write down the future events until Judgement Day[ii].


Anonymous,  July 16, 2013 at 12:05 PM  

Hujambo Nathaniel ~ I just recently discovered your online zine. Thanks to your most recent post I've tracked down a used copy of "Cargoes of the East". Could you please provide me with Knappert's citation relating to cutting the pen's nib (jilifa) in Part 2? Asante sana, Lynn-Marie

Nathaniel Mathews July 16, 2013 at 1:56 PM  

sijambo Lynn,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. The reference comes from Knappert's own work, Traditional Swahili Poetry, page 70. You can access and download a copy of the article here:


all the best!

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