Back Story: Independent type foundry Boharat Cairo was founded last year with the aim of introducing “new flavors to the Arabic design scene.” Its founder, type designer Abdo Mohamed, is currently based in Dubai, and releases a new typeface every quarter. This standout font, Felfel, takes inspiration from the “visual identity of the streets of Egypt,” according to its creator, who began work on the font in 2020 but continues to work on it from time to time, viewing the process of type design as endless.
“The Egyptian streets are an open calligraphy museum in a chaotic way,” Mohamed continues. “Every street has that Ruq’ah [a writing style of Arabic script made for writing quickly] painted on a wall with an ad for a class or a shop opening, or even with vegetables and fruits prices. You can also see that style on the street food cars and the old shop signage.” The typeface also draws inspiration from an old book that used metal type, which Mohamed found in a vintage store.
The Ruq’ah style heavily informs Felfel’s design. “It’s strongly connected to Cairo streets; it is our Arab daily handwriting style, and there are so few fonts that have that style that you can count them with your hands,” says Mohamed. “It’s a widely used lettering style, but not in typeface form.”
While the number of Ruq’aa fonts in the Arabic design scene is remarkably low compared to the number of Arabic typefaces that exist (and those number far fewer than Latin typefaces), “that wasn’t the point” of creating Felfel. Instead, it offers a counterpoint to the fact that most Ruq’aa fonts “are almost the same design as the classic Ruq’aa calligraphy,” says Mohamed. Traditionally, the lettering flows diagonally from top right to bottom left, “so between any two words there is a big space that does not work well with more than three words,” he explains. Felfel, on the other hand, flows horizontally.
Why’s it called Felfel? The foundry Boharat’s name means ‘spice’ in Arabic, and so all its typeface names are based on those of spices (other font names include Zaatar and Siwa). In Arabic, “Felfel” means pepper. “Every typeface gives a design a different flavor,” says Mohamed. “Cooking a font is a journey — a continuous work in progress — and Felfel is the first member of an upcoming family of ingredients, each with a unique character, weight, and flavor for the perfect seasoning.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? The fact that Felfel draws inspiration from Ruq’ah style lettering meant that Mohamed had to deal with the challenge of making the usually-slanted baselines non-slanted. He was keen to give Ruq’ah a “modern twist,” so there’s a wide range of alternate possibilities.
“The challenging part was the development because we were trying to reach all the calligraphic alternatives of ligatures and make them available,” he explains. “To let the user control every detail of the typeface, some words can have 12-18 alternatives.” Felfel comes with five stylistic sets, Tubular and proportional numbers, more than 90 alternative swashes, and more than 600 contextual alternates, as well as covering all the Arabic punctuation and marks. It’s available in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu.
What should I use it for? Since the Ruq’aa has always been used for headlines, Mohamed recommends those applications for Felfel, too; so it might work well across posters, editorial design, and anything where you need something eye-catching and dynamic. “Now Felfel works straight on the baseline like another typeface, so people think it works in the long text but we don’t recommend that use,” he adds.
What other fonts does it pair well with? We’ll have to leave that one up to your discretion. “I have no idea what goes well with the typeface,” says Mohamed. “People always surprise me about the pairing, and that is what we design typefaces for.”