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>.