Appy to oblige

Emo­jis now play a key role in how we com­mu­ni­cate, yet Arab cul­ture is still poorly rep­re­sented. Two Dubai res­i­dents de­cided to put that right – and chal­lenge mis­con­cep­tions about the Mid­dle East. Af­shan Ahmed finds out more

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page -

Seven years ago an emoji fea­tur­ing a man wear­ing a tur­ban was ap­proved by Uni­code, the group that gov­erns the cre­ation and ap­proval of emoti­cons, as a generic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Arabs, Mus­lims and Sikhs for use in chat apps. Most Arabs viewed it as a flawed de­pic­tion of their cul­ture. This prompted Saudi teenager Ray­ouf Al­humedhi to send a pro­posal to Uni­code last year re­quest­ing a hi­jab and ghutra emoji be cre­ated. The 15-yearold’s re­quest was ap­proved and is ex­pected to come to fruition this year.

In the mean­time, app de­vel­op­ers across the re­gion are fill­ing the gap with cus­tomis­able key­boards and sticker apps that are more cul­tur­ally ac­cu­rate and add a play­ful twist to the stereo­type of the hu­mour­less Arab.

The Halla Walla emoji key­board – the name is the brain­child of Dubai res­i­dents Yas­mine Ra­sool and Eriko Varkey – is the lat­est ad­di­tion to this app mar­ket. It cel­e­brates Ara­bian Gulf na­tion­als and the nu­ances of the Khaleeji so­ci­ety with a range of emo­jis, in­clud­ing a kan­dura-clad man with hearts for eyes, and a wink­ing woman in a loose hi­jab.

For peo­ple who grew up in the re­gion, im­ages of Omani chips, Sun Top orange juice, a bot­tle of Tabasco and a su­per­car will also strike a chord.

There are also text bubbles con­tain­ing Ara­bic col­lo­qui­alisms such as “Habibi”, “Miskeen” and “Mabrook”.

The key­board, which is avail­able in Ara­bic and English on Google Play and the Ap­ple Store, sends the emo­jis as large im­ages, stick­ers and gif an­i­ma­tions.

It is a third- party ap­pli­ca­tion that can be used with most chat apss, in­clud­ing What­sApp and Mes­sen­ger. “Just Google Arab or Gulf emoji and you’ll get rib-tick­ling re­sults,” says Ra­sool, the Bahraini co- founder of Yerv, the life­style- app com­pany be­hind the key­board. Bust­ing those myths about all Arabs be­ing this se­ri­ous, cov­ered from head to toe, ho­moge­nous com­mu­nity is at the very heart of our fun key­board Yas­mine Ra­sool Co-founder of Halla Walla “Bust­ing those myths about all Arabs be­ing this se­ri­ous, cov­ered from head to toe, ho­moge­nous com­mu­nity is at the very heart of our fun key­board,” says the 31-year-old fine-arts ma­jor.

Ra­sool, who splits her time be­tween New York, Lon­don and Dubai, says con­stant ques­tions such as “Why do you speak such good English?” and “You seem re­ally open-minded for an Arab” prompted her to ad­dress such per­cep­tions and at­ti­tudes the best way she and her part­ner pos­si­bly could – with an emoji app.

“I have had to keep on ex­plain­ing to peo­ple dur­ing my trav­els that Arabs are re­ally cool and there isn’t just one type of Arab,” she says. “We are rich in dif­fer­ent cul­tures.” When she sat down with her de­signer, from New York, and asked for ideas about how to best rep­re­sent peo­ple in the Mid­dle East, she was sur­prised at the re­sponse.

“She sent me il­lus­tra­tions of a sort of Aladdin palace, a fly­ing carpet and a woman in a tight fuch­sia pink hi­jab,” says Ra­sool. “She said she drew them from ref­er­ences on­line. She was right – when you search for Arab-re­lated emoji, you get these fan­tasy im­ages or it’s a cov­ered Malaysian one. Noth­ing is cater­ing to the Khaleeji so­ci­ety.”

Ra­sool worked with de­sign­ers and de­vel­op­ers Oxygn Hold­ings Limited to draw each of the char­ac­ters she wanted, each re­flect­ing an as­pect of the di­ver­sity across the re­gion.

“It was like a class in an­thro­pol­ogy,” she says. “I had to ex­plain to them that not every­one wears a hi­jab re­ally tight and not all Arabs cover their head. It was a fun ex­per­i­ment.”

It took the team six months to de­velop the app. Af­ter hold­ing nu­mer­ous fo­cus-group dis­cus­sions with men, women and chil­dren, they came up with more than 60 quirky im­ages. “I sat down in proper men’s ma­jlises, went to ladies’ sa­lons in Bahrain, Dubai and Saudi Ara­bia and even asked grand­par­ents and kids how I could rep­re­sent them,” says Ra­sool.

That’s how the ideas for im­ages of a Khaleeji man smok­ing shisha and a woman throw­ing a slip­per came about.

“Every­one we asked said if you don’t men­tion the slip­per whack, don’t do it,” she says with a laugh. “A lot of women said they wanted to be rep­re­sented bet­ter. They said why couldn’t they be shown blow­ing a kiss or flirt­ing.”

Varkey says the key­board will con­tinue to evolve, with the ad­di­tion of more emo­jis and cel­e­bra­tory packs.

“We have also launched a sep- arate stick­ers app for Ap­ple’s iMes­sage,” says the Ja­panese co-founder. “You can drag and stick them any­where on the screen, change the size, edit your pho­tos and put speech bubbles on them, as well.”

The pair are also set to launch an Aug­mented Re­al­ity game, Wain Waleed, in Dubai next month, which fea­tures the char­ac­ters from their key­board.

The rise in pop­u­lar­ity of emo­jis in re­cent years has been phe­nom­e­nal, with op­er­at­ing- sys­tem cre­ators and so­cial-me­dia plat­forms con­stantly de­vel­op­ing and adding new emo­jis to their tech­ni­cal of­fer­ings.

Ap­ple’s iOS 10 emo­jis now in- clude women play­ing sports and in a va­ri­ety of pro­fes­sions, for ex­am­ple. Last year, Face­book added 1,500 new emo­jis to Mes­sen­ger to bet­ter re­flect gen­der roles and skin tones.

Emi­rati film­maker and vis­ual sto­ry­teller Has­san Kiyany says emo­jis have evolved into an in­de­pen­dent lan­guage, which is be­ing sup­ported and aug­mented by cus­tomised apps such as Halla Walla.

“In the past, dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion used to be emails and mes­sen­ger, where we were shar­ing text that did not re­flect emo­tions,” says Kiyany, founder of Kiyani Me­dia in Dubai.

“Emo­jis show­case a range of emo­tions and make it easy to ex­press your feel­ings. They’ve be­come a dif­fer­ent lan­guage al­to­gether, some­thing that we have un­con­sciously learnt by be­ing on our smart­phones and so­cial me­dia all the time.”

He says lo­cal­i­sa­tion of apps adds to this global lan­guage.

“Uni­code it­self is grow­ing so fast, in terms of adding emo­jis and bring­ing equal­ity by rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous so­ci­eties,” he says.

“And then you have app de­vel­op­ers, who make cus­tomised stick­ers to make it more per­sonal. It is a fun and cool way to en­hance com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Kiyany uses apps such as JibJab, which al­low users to per­son­alise im­ages with fil­ters, graph­ics and meme-style text, to make com­mu­ni­ca­tion more en­ter­tain­ing.

“I love to ex­press my­self vis­ually, so I tend to down­load all such apps,” he says.

“I find that most peo­ple like it. In­stead of writ­ing out your feel­ings, you put a sticker with a heart shape on the im­age of your loved one or send them an emoji that rep­re­sents that in­stead.”

Halla Walla is avail­able now and costs Dh7 to down­load. Visit

Pawan Singh / The Na­tional

Eriko Varkey, left, and Yas­mine Ra­sool, founders of Yerv, the com­pany be­hind emoji key­board app Halla Walla which of­fers fun al­ter­na­tives to text when us­ing chat apps.

Pawan Singh / The Na­tional

The Khaleeji app shows a range of emo­jis in­clud­ing a kan­dura-clad man and a woman in a loose hi­jab.

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