SAN DIEGO — Teachers of writing often say "$25 words" should be avoided. Those are words with three or more syllables that flourish in the current decade of "isms" and "ologies" and raise the hackles of such policemen of the language as William Safire and John Simon.
Little words, the policemen say, are in many ways big words, for which a single syllable usually suffices. Such words include love, death, fear, hate, war, fire, rain, soul, heart, even taxes. Doesn't love sound better than "attachment to significant other"?
Anwar Dil, 58, is not a Safire or Simon soldier hoping to save the world from the sins of scurrilous language. Dil focuses more on the positive than the negative. He's spent a lifetime studying words, not just the way they sound and what they mean, but how they look and feel--how they touch the heart and soul. Dil is an artist who specializes in calligraphy, which he calls the trait of writing beautifully.
Dil calls his highly abstract paintings calligraphs , a word he says he invented. He calls calligraphs word paintings, or "the study of one word."
Universe of the Word
"I try to enter the universe of a single word," he said, sitting in his living room in Rancho Penasquitos, a home adorned with calligraphs done by Dil and many others. "I probe the universe of a word--its sound, meaning, origin, look. I first write the word, usually on a blackboard. Then I try to make it an abstract painting. Each word is a symbol of a larger meaning. I seek to discover the symbolism of words. I know of no better world to explore. Certainly, I could never find one that gives me as much joy. I feel I am really alive when thinking of the meaning of these words."
Dil explores single words and occasionally phrases that he says symbolize entire cultures. One such phrase is yin-yang , the Chinese expression of the male-female essence. He has "calligraphed" many variations of the Islamic phrase Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem , which in Arabic means "In the name of God the Merciful, the Beneficent." Versions of this calligraph can be found in several Pakistani embassies around the world, including New Delhi and Paris.
Dil, a native of Pakistan, has lived in San Diego since 1973. He has taught at United States International University for 15 years. He teaches language science and communication. His wife, Afia, a native of East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh), teaches linguistics and intercultural understanding at USIU.
The Dils left Pakistan shortly after it was divided. Dil came to the United States in 1969 and taught at Stanford University for three years.
Work Widely Shown
He has shown his work in Argentina, Japan, Pakistan and the United States. Most recently, his work was shown at the University of San Diego. He is working on a book called "Japanese Calligraph Art: A Study of the Japanese Creative Mind." In 1983, he wrote a book with his longtime friend, the late Buckminster Fuller.
In that book, "Humans in Universe," Dil wrote of "the beauty of calligraphy":
"My medium is pure form and I work with the interplay of positive and negative elements. Through the interaction of the basic opposition of black and white forms I seek to discover the 'Cosmic Unity in Variety' and the incredible simplicity and elegance inherent in the universe.
"For me, the creation of a calligraph is a deeply stirring experience--a moment of inner illumination. In this process I feel myself a witness to the beauty and power of the Word. I derive inspiration from the Word in its varied forms as manifested in the universe, especially the names of men and women of excellence in history, and the qualities humans have attributed to God.
"I aspire, through my calligraphs, to leave life a little more beautiful than when I came upon it."
On the cover of the book, one of Dil's calligraphs is superimposed on one of Fuller's geodesic domes. He greatly admired Fuller, saying that he overcame the lack of a formal education (Fuller dropped out of Harvard) to become one of the great thinkers "not just of this century but of all time. He was a very good man, a very loving man."
Inspired by Artists
Dil said he has also been inspired by Matisse and Leonardo da Vinci and by some of Picasso's early works. He is not inspired or moved by political or religious statements--he openly disavows both, believing the world has enough problems without contributing more rhetoric.
Still, it's hard to find goodness in the inner turmoil of his native land. He travels to Pakistan once a year but discusses its troubled political life only reluctantly and with obvious pain.
"Certainly, I'm saddened by what's happening there," he said. "I have friends in the present government, and I have friends in the opposition. If asked my opinion (on the political situation), I offer it. But I don't like to give it."
Dil prefers "aesthetic statements."
"Words I choose generally represent something endemic to a culture," he said. "In Chinese, I'm interested in the concept of courtesy; in Japanese, a kind of truthful wholeheartedness; in Arabic, a feeling of mercy."
Dil, a young-looking man with a pensive face and well-groomed silver hair, paints with pure black ink, in a monochrome style, on smooth white paper. He often talks in joyful aphorisms, telling a listener: "This is such a vast area to explore--the universe of human language! This is the universe of one word in itself!"
Dil claims to find raw beauty in words. He sees his adopted San Diego as a metaphor for the beauty in words.
But like Simon and Safire, he frets over rampant abuse of language.
"Nowadays, the beauty and truth in so many words gets lost, clouded, muddied, torn asunder," he said. "We must do what we can to restore that--to restore the goodness inherent in words."