Materials for Aravrit (all images courtesy Liron Lavi Turkenich)

JERUSALEM — On June 11, Israeli typeface designer and professor Liron Lavi Turkenich found herself teaching a new student: her country’s president, Reuven Rivlin. Turkenich, a 32-year-old professor of foundational graphic design at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art, is the creator of Aravrit, a writing system that combines Israel’s two official languages, Arabic and Hebrew, into one readable script.

Armed with markers and an easel, Turkenich arrived at Rivlin’s office and set to work teaching him and two young children, Marian and Yafe, how she creates her hybrid letters. By the end of the lesson, the three students had written their own Ramadan blessing in Aravrit.

A Ramadan blessing in Aravrit

It had all the makings of the perfect political photo op: a celebration of Israel’s diversity, the union of the country’s two languages into one — only weeks after a committee in the Israeli Knesset moved to revoke Arabic’s “official language” status.

But Turkenich’s motivations for creating Aravrit, a writing system she has honed since 2011, were not so much political as social. She was spurred by personal observations of Israel’s signage, which often contains three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English. In a place where even street signs can be politically charged, there’s little in the way of national guidelines for language placement, spacing, or typeface usage. In Haifa, the northern city where Turkenich lives, a thriving Arab community and cultural scene mean that written Arabic is more common than in other, primarily Jewish areas of Israel.

“I realized that I look at these Arabic letters as if they were ornaments or decorations, like it’s not any content that needs to be read,” Turkenich told Hyperallergic, noting that she was never taught Arabic growing up.  “I was reading the Hebrew, obviously, and I was reading the English, but the Arabic wasn’t something that I needed to pay attention to, and it really started to bother me. I wanted to do something that would help us see both scripts equally.”

That was about six years ago, when Turkenich was finishing her degree at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. What began as a graduation project has morphed into a full-blown script that contains 638 characters and accounts for all Arabic and Hebrew letter combinations, as well as the unique sounds found in each language.

With Aravrit, “anyone can read the script that they feel comfortable with, but they are not ignoring the other script, which is always there — it is present,” she said.

Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic, calligraphic scripts, but they’re legible in different ways. In her preliminary research, Turkenich took cues from 19th-century French ophthalmologist Louis Emile Javal, whose studies of Latin concluded that legibility relies on the upper half of any given letter. She conducted her own legibility studies and found that, like Latin, Arabic is read largely in the top half of the script, but the opposite is true of Hebrew — its meaning resides in the bottom.  Aravrit — itself a combination of “Aravit,” the Hebrew word for Arabic, and “Ivrit,” the name used for modern Hebrew — blends the two by using the top half of Arabic characters and the bottom half of Hebrew ones to create new letters.

Graphic showing the making of a word in Aravrit

The system is designed to be flexible — there’s no specific formula for where characters begin and end. Instead, Turkenich worked on each hybrid letter individually, making compromises with certain characteristics. Much of her process involved conducting research with unsuspecting members of the public, by asking people on the train whether or not they could understand a word or letter she had designed. The result is a smooth calligraphic script in which the joins are invisible to the untrained eye, while Arabic- and Hebrew-trained eyes take a few seconds to recognize them.

“Give me 10 minutes so I can think about it more!” said Yeghia Nalbandian, 27, when presented with a few of Turkenich’s words. An Arabic speaker who lives in Jerusalem and is currently taking Hebrew classes, Nalbandian initial reacted to Aravrit with confusion, then sudden recognition. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that you can understand the words — but you need a minute to get it.”

That seems to be the consensus: once the writing system is explained, the words become recognizable. At the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva, visitors to the current exhibition, Maktub, can examine Aravrit alongside centuries-old Arabic manuscripts. Curator Sharon Laor-Sirak has watched schoolchildren pore over the new words, as though they were solving a puzzle.

“I can read them, in the Hebrew part,” Laor-Sirak said, smiling and pointing out the Aravrit word for language. “When we have groups of children come in, I ask them what they can read, and most can decipher them easily, either in Arabic or Hebrew. It’s really quite amazing, this meeting spot between two languages.”

An array of words in Aravrit

For years, Turkenich has presented Aravrit at a variety of Israeli cultural events and institutions, as well as at lectures in New York and Europe. Clients, often Israeli musicians, artists, or cultural organizations, commission posters or logos rendered in the script. But in the past two months, thanks to the internet, the story of Aravrit has become big international news. The idea of coexisting languages in a region with so much conflict clearly resonates.

“I think that this project should serve as inspiration,” Turkenich said, noting that her ultimate goal is to have the typeface available for public use; right now it’s only available on a commission basis.  “We can send a message with type. I took action with something that bothered me, and if others find it compelling then, even better.”

Mary Pelletier is an American writer and art historian specializing in early Middle Eastern photography. She is based in Jerusalem.