In a hyper-digital world, Dubai still has a thriving fountain pen-loving fraternity

Modernity is a part of life but writing the old-fashioned way is even more important, says the owner of the city's oldest pen shop



By Leslie Wilson Jr & Thanweeruddin Mohammad; Visuals: M Sajjad

Published: Thu 1 Sep 2022, 7:29 PM

Last updated: Fri 2 Sep 2022, 5:01 PM

Bahauddin is called the ‘penman’ by his friends. Stories are told of how he would produce pens out of thin air to offer someone in need of one. Generous by nature, Baha would often say, "You can keep it. I have many more."

However, he was not referring to the one that he always proudly carried in the top pocket of his jacket, and symbolically close to his heart – a quintessential fountain pen.

Unlike the many ballpoints or micro tips that he would give away without even batting an eyelid, Baha is very protective of his pride and joy that he is never seen without.

What’s so special about a fountain pen?

Baha is one of an elite number of pen lovers who have a passion for the classic ink pen. Like some sort of secret society that remains shrouded in mystery, the fountain pen fraternity is part mystery, part legend.

There is something exceptional about a person who uses a writing instrument that is over 300 years old in the modern hyper-digital world, where most communication is done on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. It is an idiosyncratic choice — but a most interesting one.

Like Baha, members of the pen-lover’s fraternity will tell you that there is something very intimate about a note that is handwritten using an ink pen. Only they can identify with the joy you get when the pen’s nib caresses the paper and you begin to craft a letter or message.

How popular are ink pens today?

There is no denying that the popularity of the fountain pen has not diminished even if you don’t use it enough to sign a cheque, autographs or personal letters. They have their permanent niche with people who still prefer to write.

It is a given that a fountain pen will make your handwriting look instantly better, artistic, bolder, and perhaps even more legible.

“With a fountain pen, you can write more clearly and communicate better,” explains Bharat Karani from Pen’s Corner, a shop that was founded by his father, Hemchand Karani, in 1964. “The digital age is necessary for everybody but writing is even more important."

“Writing with a fountain pen is an education in itself. You have to be disciplined and learn how to hold the instrument at the correct angle to the paper; you don’t need to exert much pressure when using a fountain pen as opposed to a ballpoint or gel pen,” adds Karani.

“The cap has an important role to play as you always have to keep the pen capped when not in use, otherwise the ink might dry out of the delicate nib and damage it. In short, you have to be responsible to look after a fountain pen.”

History of the fountain pen

Legend has it that the fountain pen was born out of a botched signing of a contract by insurance broker Lewis Waterman in 1883. The ancient pen that Waterman used on the occasion refused to work; instead, it leaked and ruined the precious document.

Waterman tried to save the situation as he raced back to his office in New York City in search of a duplicate contract, but by the time he returned, a rival broker jumped in and closed the deal.

Having learned his lesson the hard way, he decided to make his own fountain pens in his brother’s workshop — one of which, a solid gold work of art, was even used to sign The Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

However, writing instruments reportedly existed 100 years before the Waterman incident and dated as far back as the Quill pen which was made from a bird’s feather. But the inconvenience of having to dip into an inkwell ever so often forced people like Waterman to devise an ink reservoir made of hard rubber.

The oldest known fountain pen was designed by a Frenchman, M. Bion, in 1702 while John Jacob Parker is credited with patenting the first self-filling fountain pen in 1831. But these were far from perfect and impractical.

By the turn of the 19th century, pen users needed an eyedropper to fill the reservoir with ink which would eventually lead to the ink cartridges that are in use and popular to this day.

Long live the fountain pen

While most of us are consumed by digital pursuits, some things in life will never go away – like the bicycle, hairbrush, and fountain pen.

Is an old-fashioned letter out of place today? The answer is no. Writing a letter is far more personal and intimate than communicating with a WhatsApp message, a Facebook post, or a tweet. It's things like using an ink pen that brings an old-world charm to our lives, which we live at breakneck speed, thanks to digital dynamics.

Fountain pens allow us to slow down and reflect on things we may not normally have the time for. So yes, they’ll be around — and that's not a bad thing at all.


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