Paul McLoughlin interviewing me on Arabish
Paul McLoughlin interviewing me on Arabish
Two weeks ago, I had tea with Hala Abdelmalak in the Archive at Safa Park (you’re missing out if you haven’t been). She visited Dubai for a few days after many years. Hala is—as her web address conveniently states—thedesigncritic.com. She graduated with an MFA in Design Criticism from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and is currently based in New York. Hala has previously lived, worked, and taught for several years in Dubai. We spoke endlessly about our love for the Big Apple, but also about the local Art and Design scene in the UAE.
I have been writing on local issues with regards to Art and Design, and specifically Graphic Design. I shared some of them with Hala, who convinced me to finally publish them onto my blog. The essays are meant to critique Graphic Design in the region with the hope of starting a dialogue to better understand the discipline. My first article is on Graphic Design education in the UAE.
Firstly, I would like to illustrate the importance of Art and Design education in general. There seems to be some kind of fear in education from things art related. Art and Design are great contributors to innovative thinking. They play a significant role in the advancement of the creative economy. It is absolutely crucial to educate on the importance of Art and Design. China, for example, prioritized Art education to cultivate innovation. And, stemtosteam.org was set forth to educate governments, public sectors, and media on the importance of adding Art to the educational curricula. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM, is a movement set to add Art to the formula that makes up STEM—forming STEAM. STEAM comprises of a council made up of artists, designers, educators, and business leaders to facilitate a comprehensive approach to incorporate Art and Design into the American federal STEM programs.
The undermining of Art and Design education continues to hinder, not only innovation, but also higher education in these disciplines. At the American University of Sharjah (AUS) for example, some of the programs offered at the College of Architecture, Art and Design are a Bachelor of Science and not a Bachelor of Fine Arts, though it should be the contrary. This alone, renders art specializations as insignificant and not important enough. Art and Design education is an obvious necessity that needs to be taught early on, and embedded into the curricula of our national schools. Students must appreciate Art and Design. They need to be able to speak its language to build a better creative economy and innovative community in the UAE.
This leads me to my next point, which is my special area of interest—Graphic Design education. A bachelor degree in Graphic Design does not actually exist as an individualized area of specialization. Graphic Design is—most of the time—part of some other discipline in the broader study of visual arts and media studies. The programs offered have very little emphasis on important aspects that make up Graphic Design, such as typography. When typography is offered at all, I realized that it is taught to juniors and seniors when it should be taught to sophomores. The American University in Dubai (AUD) and AUS both do well with offering typography classes. However, they do not offer Arabic typography. Arab students, therefore, lack the expertise in this area. Graduating students understanding of Graphic Design become limited, and their skills are not well rounded.
The existing Art and Design curriculums offered in universities need to be tailored for this region. Currently, most of the programs being taught are borrowed programs taught entirely in English with no emphasis on Arabic Art and Design.
AUD did much better in catering for Arab designers when the Visual Communications department was headed by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares. They had excellent Arab graphic designers and typographers such as Tarek Atrissi, Nadine Chahine, and Lara Assouad Khoury. This is not the case anymore.
In addition to tailoring Graphic Design education for the region, there needs to be an emphasis on theoretical and critical discourse in graphic design. This is almost nonexistent. My class at AUS “The Design Profession”, is a mixture of 3 different majors—Design Management, Visual Communications, and Multimedia Design, so to focus on just Graphic Design is not appropriate for this specific class. However, I introduce my students to broader issues and topics of design and design thinking. I create a discourse to try to better understand design today—what it entails, and what it can offer. Most of my students—3rd year students—seem to think that to get a job means you have to work at an advertising agency. This mentality needs to be changed, because to be a designer is more than just to provide technical expertise.
What we understand as graphic design today is very different than what it meant 20 years ago. Today, Graphic Design is more than just print. It is constantly being redefined as new technologies emerge. It has expanded into interaction design, user interface design and user experience, film and motion. Our universities are capable but are not adapting with the fast evolving needs of the market. Universities need to challenge students, and provide classes that emphasize on theoretical thinking, and build up on their technical skills.
I know many educators at universities across the country, and I have to say, many of them are excellent teachers. However, some aren’t necessarily good graphic designers, and many of them do not know the discipline well enough to teach it. The instructors are often educated in the Arts and not in Graphic Design per se. As a result, the teaching approach becomes broad rather than specific, and the curriculum gets shaped towards fine arts, while theoretical design topics are often disregarded. In addition, technical design skills are not on par with reputable design schools. Our universities need to hire qualified Arab designers and should offer serious Graphic Design curriculums that fosters the local creative scene.
Most of the skilled Arab graphic designers and typographers who are based in the UAE are educated abroad, and none of them seem to be teaching at local universities. They are often brought in for lectures or short workshops but, that is not enough. Designers are capable of practicing commercial graphic design while simultaneously teaching full-time. In fact, this is considered the norm in most design schools abroad.
We have a lot of work to do, but we are capable of doing so. We need to start by implementing Art and Design education in schools. And, in parallel, universities should tailor their programs for this region while at the same time develop courses that expand on students technical and theoretical expertise.
A year ago, I graduated with an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. My thesis—a year and a half long exhaustive process of research and design—was an investigation into the mainstream Emirati culture. My findings resulted in acknowledging an emerging hybrid culture, Arabish—a hybrid of Arabic and English speaking cultures in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
My topic was chosen as a natural response to the dramatic cultural change I witnessed growing up in the UAE. And, as an Emirati, I am constantly trying to understand what constitutes the Emirati identity. My thesis was never meant to be conclusive, and is therefore ongoing. My book Arabish: The Cultural Transformation of the UAE was created to document my findings thus far and was never meant to be presented as a final piece.
Since my graduation, I have received a great deal of interest in the topic. I have participated in several panel discussions and have given talks in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and Beirut on Arabish and my role as a graphic designer. It was a great learning experience that inspired me to continue to develop and investigate the topic.
I have received several e-mails from people who wanted to read my writings about the topic and about graphic design in general. Therefore, I have decided to revive my blog and post some of my thoughts related to art, design, culture, and education.
For my very first post, I wanted to share the introductory essay found in my thesis book. In it I explain the reasons I chose the Emirati culture as a topic of interest for my thesis in graphic design.
With the influx of foreign cultures and economic globalization, the UAE is undergoing a major identity transformation. While many feel the threat of this transformation on the Emirati identity, some use it as an inevitable process to be embraced.
I believe that the UAE is not losing its identity, it is creating a vivid new one. This new identity is Arabish. Arabish, initially known as a hybrid form of text messaging—where Latin characters are used to replace Arabic pronunciation—is now more than just that. It is a way of speaking and a way of life, especially for the mainstream Emirati youth.
As a designer, I address this emerging Arabish culture from a personal and global perspective. Graphic design is a powerful method of research and communication. I use it as a means to comment on hybrid cultural elements—dress, language, and urban landscape. It is my vehicle, helping me and others better understand the UAE identity and its emerging Arabish culture.
The UAE’s net migration rate was estimated at 21.71 migrants per 1,000 population, making it the world’s highest in 2010.1 In May 30, 2010, The National newspaper in the UAE released an article stating that “The population of the UAE has reached 8.19 million and is continuing to grow at a rapid rate despite the global downturn…” 2 However, Emirati citizens make up only around 20 percent of the total population.3
The influx of foreign cultures and economic globalization has transformed the UAE’s cultural landscape. “Concerns over Emirati identity have grown in the past few years as the influence of other cultures and languages has increased alongside the growth of the expatriate population. Officials and social experts alike have identified cultural and economic globalization as a major threat to Emirati identity.” 4
Growing up in a time of rapid transformation, I experienced a cultural confusion. I studied at the Sharjah American International School, the American University of Sharjah, then at the Rhode Island School of Design. I am constantly being pulled back and forth between my Emirati and Islamic traditions, and my American way of life and education. I—like many other fellow Emirati citizens—was in denial of the new identity the UAE is creating for itself. I was threatened by it and afraid to accept the cultural transformation taking place. Today, I view this transformation as an inevitable process to be embraced. I believe that the UAE is not loosing its identity, it is creating a vivid new one. This new identity is Arabish (Arabic and English).
The term Arabish—also known as Arabizi from Arabi and Englizi—was coined in the mid 90‘s when Arabic pronunciation was used with Latin written characters as a method of communication. Because ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) was the only language used in SMS and internet platforms, Arabic speakers had to adopt Latin graphemes to be able to communicate. However, it became difficult to deliver the right pronunciation for some Arabic letters in English. Numerals were used to replace Arabic phonetics not found in the Latin alphabet. Although many other non-Latin scripts users communicated in ASCII using Latin characters—like Japanese, Chinese, and Greek—Arabic users continue to use Arabish as a way to communicate even on UNICODE devices.
Arabish has become more than just typing in English and Arabic. It is a way of life for the mainstream Emirati youth. Language, dress, and urban landscape are the three main categories that witness this cultural transformation into Arabish. Arabic is the official language of the UAE, and English is the lingua franca of the country; making the majority of Emiratis multilingual. Because of economic globalization, English has become a vital language to success in the UAE. “…The UAE government believes that a poor grasp of English is one of the main employment barriers for UAE nationals…” 5 Hence, the language of instruction for most of the higher education institutions in the UAE is English.
Emirati fashion is evolving even faster than language. It is a hybrid of Western and traditional Emirati. Women wear Western clothes along with a black abaya—a black cloak worn over every day clothes to conceal the definition of a woman’s body and to preserve her modesty—and men wear the kandora (also called a dishdasha or a thawb) with Western accessories, such as caps and fancy sandals. Emiratis have found ways to stylize their traditional costume while keeping up with international trends.
The urban landscape of the UAE witnessed an unprecedented transformation. Within just a few years, empty plots of land were built into the best, biggest, and tallest. Dubai—one of the seven emirates of the UAE—has been dubbed as the place where dreams were built on sand. In 2006, Gulfnews published an article stating that according to the organizers of the Conmex construction machinery exhibition, about 24 percent of the world’s construction cranes were operating in Dubai alone—about 30,000 of the world’s 125,000 construction cranes. “So when Emiratis wonder who they are, the answer is all around them. As Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, noted in his National Day address, identity is a framework that ‘shapes our attitude towards our surroundings and defines the direction’. The character of the UAE is rooted in its Arab history, its Islamic culture, its institutions, its geography. These things give the country a distinctive identity—but one that is impossible to define precisely.” 6
My work is a cultural portrait of the UAE. It addresses the hybrid cultural elements of dress, language, and urban landscape. As a graphic designer, I become more than just a neutral observant of culture. I address the emerging Arabish culture of the UAE from a personal and global perspective. As an Emirati I am obliged to respond to the cultural transformation taking place. And, as both a graphic designer and an Emirati, I carry the responsibility to become more than just a cultural producer. I feel the need to document, and to comment upon change. To speak to and with others about the new emerging culture of the UAE.
3. “Welcome to Abu Dhabi - History & Population.” Visit Abu Dhabi. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.
4. Habboush, Mahmoud. “FNC urges action on identity.” The National. 3 June. 2009. Web. 15 March. 2011. <http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/fnc-urges-action-on-identity>.
6. Al Yafai, Faisal. “Shared Values Will Forge Our Identity.” The National. 6 Dec. 2008. Web. 19 Jan. 2011. <http://www.thenational.ae/news/shared-values-will-forge-our-identity>.
Arabish Thesis Book.
The 2011 RISD Graphic Design MFA Thesis Show
A. on Thursday, May 19, 2011
B. at 6 pm
A. at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Exhibition Hall C
1. through June 4, 2011
B. at theurloftheshow.com
The 2011 RISD Graphic Design MFA Thesis Show is a group exhibition of selected thesis work from the RISD Graphic Design MFA Class of 2011. The show is published in a catalogue which will be displayed and distributed at the annual RISD Graduate Exhibition and online at theurloftheshow.com. The show is the catalogue, which is also the show.
A. Graphic Design MFA Class of 2011, Rhode Island School of Design, 169 Weybosset Street, 5th Floor, Providence RI 02903