The Soul Searcher

On Mohamed Zakariya's drafting table, small brown bottles of solutions are lined up near round jars filled with colorful inks. A dozen sleek bamboo calligrapher's pens are crammed into faded cans. Delicate sheets of paper treated with tea and egg whites are aging in drawers behind the table. Zakariya— at the time in his mid-60s—is a hard man to pigeonhole. It's not just because he has a broad gray beard, nor is it because he's an Islamic calligrapher, a profession few people have heard of. It's because he's white. You don't expect a man who looks like he does to answer to the name of Mohamed. Yet he has since he was 19, when he started down the path that would lead him all the way from Southern California to the mosques of Morocco, the art museums and calligraphy schools of London and Turkey, and, ultimately, to his cluttered drafting table in Arlington, Virginia.

Zakariya has spent years hunched over this table, teaching himself the pen strokes of former masters. Today, he's considered one of the most accomplished Islamic calligraphers in the United States. His work may be remembered for centuries, but Zakariya is unconcerned with fame. He's simply thankful he found Islam. It has helped him discover his true self.

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Because his father was off fighting in World War II and his mother was sick with tuberculosis, Zakariya spent his earliest years growing up on the farm of a family friend in rural Ventura, California. He loved the farm. He'd run around without shoes and spend afternoons fishing. At night, he listened to his caretaker read from the Old Testament. "We'd hear about Abraham, Moses," he says. "It was my only education at the time."

After the war, Zakariya's father got a job as an art director in Hollywood, and his mother started to rise in society circles. It was supposed to be the good life, but even as a boy, he didn't seem to fit in. He could feel a certain life being laid out for him—one of suits, grand jobs and phoniness.

As an escape, he would hang out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles with eccentric characters or lose himself in old movie houses. To make school interesting, he joined a greaser gang and fought violently with classmates. One time, he used a chain to knock out another student's front teeth. "I felt repelled during my first fight," he says now. "Once you've done it, it's disgusting."

The day he turned 18, he moved into a flophouse near Malibu and got a job in an aerospace parts factory. It was a relief at first, since he could live by his own rules. But he grew bored with his job and began drinking heavily. He was eager for an adventure, and a travel agent suggested Morocco. He knew little about the country, but he could get there on a Yugoslavian freighter for only $50.

Zakariya arrived in Casablanca an hour before sunset. He remembers the ship docking and then seeing a man in a suit wearing a bright yellow turban. It was the holy month of Ramadan. "You immediately got the feeling that everything was different," he recalls. To make sense of the mysterious land, he hung out in cafés, chatting about Islamic culture in English with Hasidic Jews. Zakariya found himself attracted to the city's ornate mosques and was disappointed to learn that only Muslims were allowed to enter. He felt akin to a people whose lives were defined by things beyond material goods.

The trip home made his new insights seem more urgent. The freighter was caught in a vicious storm. Waves lifted the ship so high the engine was damaged. Zakariya and the crew were lost at sea for several days. One crewman died. The ship finally limped into New York Harbor. By the time he got back to California, drinking and scoping out women with the guys from the factory were no longer enough. He had managed to escape his parents' world, but he was stuck in a lifestyle that suited him even less. "I decided I wanted to break away from the scene I was in," he says.

Islam didn't just appeal to Zakariya's spiritual side; he was also drawn to the artistic traditions of the religion. A few weeks after his journey, Zakariya spotted a rug hanging in a Wilshire Boulevard shop owned by a Persian immigrant. The Arabic letters on it were beautiful, but it was expensive. "If I can't buy it," he thought, "I'll make it." He found a book called How to Teach Yourself Arabic and memorized words while he worked, propping language cards up on the assembly line. Then he used his savings to buy a 19th-century hand-scripted version of the Qur'an.

He began experimenting with Islamic calligraphy using his own hand-carved pens and reading English translations of the Qur'an. Zakariya had always seen religions as hokey and cultish, but Islam's openness to all faiths inspired him. Once he understood enough Arabic to read an official version of the Qur'an, Zakariya became obsessed. He felt the text could make him a better man. In his mind he had already been reinvented many times over. He was brought up with one identity on the farm and given a second identity by his parents. In his late teens, he created a self that was defined by whatever his parents were not. "I was an artificial self," he says. "Islam was stripping those layers off me." He decided he wanted to return to Morocco as a Muslim.

The process of converting was simple, though it took three hours and several bus transfers to get to the only mosque in Los Angeles. Once there, he repeated, "There is no god but God. Mohammed is God's prophet," in Arabic in front of the congregation. Another Muslim told him to experiment with the name Mohamed.

Zakariya did go back to Morocco, three years later, and spent several months studying Islamic art and calligraphy. The first time he entered a mosque, Muslims pulled out knives, mistaking him for a disrespectful tourist trying to enter their holy site. He explained in Arabic that he was a convert.

By the early 1970s, he had moved to the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, where he met Sally, the woman who is now his wife. He began exhibiting his work, and it was well-received. Soon he was able to quit his job at a local gallery and focus entirely on his own art.

As Zakariya's commitment to his artwork deepened, so did his connection to his faith. He remembers jogging around the Grand Mosque in Mecca in the mid-1980s and feeling overwhelmed by the thought that his life was turning out the way he had wanted it to. His parents, who had felt betrayed when he converted, eventually accepted his choice. On her death bed, his mother confided that she finally understood the power of religion in his life.

Today, Zakariya is one of the world's leading calligraphers, says Massumeh Farhad, a curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. "Islamic calligraphy looks fluid and spontaneous," she says, "but it's governed by specific rules. To master these rules is not easy. Many spend a lifetime doing that. Zakariya is considered a master."

His works now sell from between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Muslims aren't the only people who buy his art: Many of his customers can't read Arabic. They simply love the grace and color of Zakariya's images. In 2001, he was asked by the U.S. Postal Service to create the first stamp honoring an Islamic holiday: Eid, the end of Ramadan.

Many more Americans have converted to Islam since the 1960s, and the popularity of the faith is growing in the U.S. But Zakariya has drifted from the religion as it is practiced in mosques. Islam has changed since he converted more than 20 years ago, he says. Extremists believe that their faith is superior; it's the opposite of the openness that initially attracted him to the religion. Because he finds mosques too political, he avoids them and prays at home. His adult son, who was raised Muslim, moved away from the religion after he heard the conservative interpretations of extremists on the University of Virginia campus where he had attended college.

But Zakariya's devotion hasn't changed. In his studio, he runs his fingers along a delicate sheet of black paper. Tan-colored Arabic letters are arranged on it in a pear shape. He translates the passage from the Qur'an: "The greatest fault that anyone can have is to have the same fault they're criticizing in somebody else." To an untrained eye, the words may look like nothing more than a beautiful design. Zakariya, though, marvels at the way Arabic letters dance off the page, like "music you can see." When he works, he feels close to God. "The divine finger is pushing mine," he says.

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