In 2012, when I painted the minaret of Jara Mosque in my hometown of Gabés, in the south of Tunisia, I never thought that graffiti would bring so much attention to a city.
At the beginning, I was just looking for a wall in my hometown, and it happened that the minaret was built in '94. And for 18 years, those 57 meters of concrete stayed grey. When I met the imam for the first time, and I told him what I wanted to do, he was like, "Thank God you finally came," and he told me that for years he was waiting for somebody to do something on it. The most amazing thing about this imam is that he didn't ask me anything — neither a sketch, or what I was going to write.
In every work that I create, I write messages with my style of calligraffiti — a mix of calligraphy and graffiti. I use quotes or poetry. For the minaret, I thought that the most relevant message to be put on a mosque should come from the Quran, so I picked this verse: "Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made you people and tribe, so you may know each other." It was a universal call for peace, tolerance, and acceptance coming from the side that we don't usually portray in a good way in the media.
I was amazed to see how the local community reacted to the painting, and how it made them proud to see the minaret getting so much attention from international press all around the world. For the imam, it was not just the painting; it was really deeper than that. He hoped that this minaret would become a monument for the city, and attract people to this forgotten place of Tunisia. The universality of the message, the political context of Tunisia at this time, and the fact that I was writing Quran in a graffiti way were not insignificant. It reunited the community.
Bringing people, future generations, together through Arabic calligraphy is what I do. Writing messages is the essence of my artwork. What is funny, actually, is that even Arabic-speaking people really need to focus a lot to decipher what I'm writing. You don't need to know the meaning to feel the piece. I think that Arabic script touches your soul before it reaches your eyes. There is a beauty in it that you don't need to translate. Arabic script speaks to anyone, I believe; to you, to you, to you, to anybody, and then when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it. I always make sure to write messages that are relevant to the place where I'm painting, but messages that have a universal dimension, so anybody around the world can connect to it.
I was born and raised in France, in Paris, and I started learning how to write and read Arabic when I was 18. Today I only write messages in Arabic. One of the reasons this is so important to me, is because of all the reaction that I've experienced all around the world.
In Rio de Janeiro, I translated this Portuguese poem from Gabriela Tôrres Barbosa, who was giving an homage to the poor people of the favela, and then I painted it on the rooftop. The local community were really intrigued by what I was doing, but as soon as I gave them the meaning of the calligraphy, they thanked me, as they felt connected to the piece.
In South Africa, in Cape Town, the local community of Philippi offered me the only concrete wall of the slum. It was a school, and I wrote on it a quote from Nelson Mandela, saying, "[in Arabic]," which means, "It seems impossible until it's done." Then this guy came to me and said, "Man, why you don't write in English?" and I replied to him, "I would consider your concern legit if you asked me why I didn't write in Zulu."
In Paris, once, there was this event, and someone gave his wall to be painted. And when he saw I was painting in Arabic, he got so mad — actually, hysterical — and he asked for the wall to be erased. I was mad and disappointed. But a week later, the organizer of the event asked me to come back, and he told me that there was a wall right in front of this guy's house. So, this guy — (Laughter) like, was forced to see it every day. At the beginning, I was going to write, "[In Arabic]," which means, "In your face," but — (Laughter) I decided to be smarter and I wrote, "[In Arabic]," which means, "Open your heart."
I'm really proud of my culture, and I'm trying to be an ambassador of it through my artwork. And I hope that I can break the stereotypes we all know, with the beauty of Arabic script. Today, I don't write the translation of the message anymore on the wall. I don't want the poetry of the calligraphy to be broken, as it's art and you can appreciate it without knowing the meaning, as you can enjoy any music from other countries. Some people see that as a rejection or a closed door, but for me, it's more an invitation — to my language, to my culture, and to my art.