Inspired by a strong passion for art, culture and technology and guided by creativity and cultural differences, two young tech entrepreneurs have embarked on a mission to enrich Arabic digital content using emojis that depict life in a “misperceived” Arab world.
Based in the United Arab Emirates, Bahraini Yasmine Rasool, 31, and Eriko Varkey, 30, from Japan, decided the digital world needs emojis similar to those used in various chatting applications but with an Arab twist.
“Since living between New York, London and Dubai, we always had to explain Arab background and culture and what it is like to live and grow up in the Middle East. We wanted to change the misperception of Arabs in the West, especially now with all that is happening in the world,” Rasool said in an e-mail exchange.
“We wanted to illustrate the beauty of our expressions, our emotions and our communication. Hence, Halla Walla was born.”
Stressing the gap in social messaging platforms representing the modern Middle Eastern voice, Rasool said: “From our loud families, endless cousins, gatherings and shared meals, to signature phrases, fashion statements, football, shisha and late night shawarma runs — our lives are brimming with inside jokes and over-the-top emotions that needed a platform to be expressed.”
“Whether you have Arab or Gulf roots or have found yourself living in the Middle East immersed in the culture, this application can make life much easier,” she added.
The application, which they named Halla Walla, is derived from daily life in the Arab world, past, present and future. It celebrates Arabian Gulf nationals and the nuances of the Khaleeji society with a range of emojis, including a robe-clad man with hearts for eyes and a winking woman in a loose “hijab”.
“Halla Walla pursues the many glimpses of Khaleeji culture and translates them into relatable characters and nostalgic sentiments used as stickers and gifs but it is relevant to those living in the Gulf and the Middle East in general, who are both familiar with the culture’s traditions and unique way of communication,” Rasool explained.
She said the app is for anyone who is hooked on chatting.
“Our audience is whoever uses any form of chat platforms,” she said. “What better way to get your message across than by image? Pictures have endless amounts of levels so when in doubt, draw and if you can’t, find an emoji to capture your emotion.”
Halla Walla has crossed the 10,000-download threshold in just three months. The app’s emojis cover a host of feelings and emotions by Arab characters from the feeling of being angry, sad and happy to being in love and all are depicted by Arab-looking characters. There is also a special section for objects and traditions such as belly dancers, flying carpets, henna and hookah.
“We started Halla Walla with the intention of making people smile and laugh,” Varkey said.
“We were so overwhelmed with the positive reviews and realised that creating something so relevant to the Arab culture was necessary. It’s not a small thing to try to capture the whole Arab culture and we had a lot of criticism, which we honestly love since it allows us to improve.”
Feedback included appreciation of the entertaining nature of the emojis and how well represented the characters are, as well as complaints and demands for more food emojis.
“We couldn’t be happier about the appreciation that our project is getting from people around the world. However, pleasing everyone was not even on the books,” Varkey said.
The 2016 Emoji Report stated that emoji use extends well beyond basic communication and relationship development. They have become a lingua franca for humour and entertainment, as seen in games, movies and TV and politics.
The rise in popularity of emojis has been phenomenal, with operating-system creators and social-media platforms constantly adding new emojis to their technical offerings.
Apple’s iOS 10 emojis include women playing sports and in a variety of professions. Last year, Facebook added 1,500 new emojis to Messenger to better reflect gender roles and skin tones.
Walla Halla’s two entrepreneurs are set to launch an augmented reality game, Wain Waleed, in Dubai that features the characters from their keyboard.
Travelling globally to share their ideas, they said opportunities do materialise for those who work hard.
“We don’t know what the future holds but we are very much committed to our project at the moment and we urge everyone who has an idea to work on it,” Rasool said.
Halla Walla is available to download at www.hallawalla.com and costs 7 UAE dirhams (about $2).
Roufan Nahhas, based in Jordan, has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.