Hussein al-Kharsan kneels, bent over a giant sheet of paper, laboriously writing the words of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, in beautiful Arabic script with a traditional wood and feather pen.
The 25-year-old Iraqi aims to take an unusual path to fame: writing the longest copy of the Quran in the world. Kharsan says the scroll is to be between 5,500 and 6,000 metres long, or 3.4 and 3.7 miles.
His aim, he says, is to set a Guinness World Record.
If that happens, it will be another entry on the Islamic holy text, which expressly prohibits the consumption of alcohol, in a record book conceived by the managing director of a brewery.
The copy of the Quran was supposed to be shown this year, when Najaf was to be the Islamic Capital of Culture, but that project has been postponed indefinitely amid serial delays and allegations of corruption.
It has not however stopped Kharsan, who graduated from Baghdad University’s college of fine arts, from continuing his work inside a religious school in Najaf, despite pains in his neck and back from long hours of carefully writing out one verse after another.
“At the beginning, the agreement was to finish the work in six months, on the basis of writing three pages out of 503 pages of the Quran every day,” Kharsan said
“I succeeded at the beginning and worked for 16 hours a day for more than two weeks until I started suffering pains,” he said.
“The doctor asked me to stop working for about a month but I refused and told him that I work with the blessings of the Koran. Now I take pain-killing pills and work for five hours a day, which means I need about a year to finish.”
Kharsan, who began participating in Arabic calligraphy competitions when he was just nine years old, writes on four pieces of white paper that are each 1,500 metres long.
He has succeeded in copying 13 pages of the Koran since he started his work about a month ago.
Arabic calligraphy is one of the most prominent forms of Arab and Islamic art
“We are the people of Arabic calligraphy,” said Sheikh Ali Merza, the principal of the school where Kharsan is working on the Quran.
“Kufi calligraphy (named after Najaf's twin city of Kufa) is well known, and when we want to do calligraphy, it is not something new for us because we practised this kind of art historically,” Merza said.
He added that Kharsan’s work will be displayed in Najaf, even if the Capital of Islamic Culture project does not go ahead.
Guinness World Records does not have any entries for the longest Quran, but the largest printed copy measures two metres (6.5 feet) high and 1.52 metres (4 feet, 11 inches) wide, and was unveiled in Russia last November.
The smallest copy, printed in Cairo in 1982 and owned by a Pakistani man, is 1.7 by 1.3 centimetres (0.66 by 0.5 of an inch), but still 571 pages long.
The biggest book in the world, meanwhile, measures five by 8.06 metres (16.4 by 26.44 feet) and weighs some 1,500 kilogrammes (3,306 pounds). It is on the life and achievements of the Prophet Mohammed, and was unveiled in Dubai in February.
“It is very nice to do work that is related to the Koran or (holy) shrines,” Kharsan said. “This is a blessed work. But at the same time, my name will be part of history, because we compete on an international level.”
“I do not take any salary for my work, although there is an agreement that I get a percentage of the budget of the project, which is about 100 million dinars ($83,300).”
“I feel proud of what I am accomplishing, and all I want is to leave my mark.”