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