Halla Walla, on a mission to represent Arab culture through emojis

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It took two months of intense research for Yasmin Rasool and Eriko Varkey to bring the stories of Shaikha, Lula, Waleed and Ahmed to life.

They interviewed focus groups of expats and natives from the Gulf for hours, recording stories of their childhood and cultural experiences of living in the region. Then in February 2017 the duo was finally ready to introduce the family of four to the world. The result was Halla Walla, an Arab emoji and sticker app, available for download on iOS and Android.

Put a ring on it. (Image via Halla Walla)

“They are real people I grew up with,” said Rasool, who is half Bahraini, of the four emojis. “These are not just the characters…it’s a whole lifestyle. We want to make stories out of [them].”

And stories they are. While Shaikha confesses to keeping up with the Kardashians, Ahmed spends his weekends “cruising with a large group of shababs to the desert”. Waleed loves sheesha and Lulu is a food blogger who likes to brag about the latest food joints. Halla Walla, which translates as ‘what’s up’, in the region, also has stickers of colloquial terms like ‘habibti’ or ‘yalla’, and of sentimental snacks like Chips Oman and Sun Top.

Rasool and Varkey met in Dubai. During that time they also launched Yerv, the creative agency behind
Waasta, a visual directory of creatives worldwide. Yerv also launched Halla Walla, and Wain Waleed, an augmented reality game where players look for the Halla Walla emojis in exchange for points and prizes.  Today, the cofounders live between Dubai, London and New York with their team sprawled across the three continents.  

Varkey, who is Japanese, said the cofounders also turned to their individual backgrounds for material.

Halla Walla girls. 

“[In Japan], we've grown up in a culture where we know the international trends, but we’ve always had a good way of being able to express ourselves through things that were developed there,” Varkey said, giving examples of Line.me and other unique messaging platforms that localized communication.

“Here, there were stickers or emojis that would depict one kind of personality but something that really encompassed the whole culture wasn’t really there,” she continued. “It was puzzling to us…. we wanted something that was more relatable.”

That desire for relatability also inspired Rayouf Alhumedhi, a sophomore at Vienna International School,  to send a
proposal for a headscarf emoji to the Unicode Consortium, the board overseeing global standards for keyboard symbols and text. Until then, Alhumedhi would put an arrow between the turban emoji and a girl emoji to represent a hijab and consequently, herself.

The proposal received a lot of media coverage as well as the support of Reddit cofounder Alex Ohanian. Jennifer Lee, a member of Unicode Technical committee, spotted the proposal and tipped off her friend, Ohanian. In response, Ohanian organized a ‘sub’ Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) on the topic.

“Some were completely on board and were supportive of the idea, and others detested it,” Alhumedhi told Wamda over email. “The latter thought it was trivial and that it will be a means of spreading Islamic radicalism, which left me extremely baffled.” Alhumedhi worked closely with Lee to develop the proposal and told Wamda that the hijab emoji is scheduled for release in mid June.

While there have been messaging representations of Arabic culture, Rasool, Varkey and Alhumedi are a on a growing list of creators developing Arabic digital content. Appmahal recently launched Silas - a localized version of Whatsapp. There’s also Khaloji and Arabimoji.

Man + sheep = 'celebratory' emoji.

“People want to represent themselves now. A lot of people are standing their ground to owning themselves…I think that’s what it’s come to,” Rasool said.

Emojis, gifs, and stickers are also easy to consume and share said Mahmoud Jrere, cofounder of
Gif7alak, a Palestine-based gif making platform.

“Gifs are very snackable, short and people understand that very fast,” he said. Similar to Halla Walla and the headscarf emoji, Jrere launched Gif7alak  because he too could not find Arabic actor, movies or  tv shows while looking through other gif platforms. Now in its beta phase, the platform has more than 300 daily users.

“[ForArabs], Gif7alak should be the place to go to find something that is relevant to them…that’s the simple idea…just having the content that it is missing in the region,” he said.

Because of the lack of representation, Varkey and Rasool also see Halla Walla as an educational solution for learning about Arab culture. To both, the cause is personal. Whenever Rasool would travel around the world, she’d always get asked one question: “how are you Arab?” Varkey, meanwhile, has lived in the region for years.

 

“Our kind of explanation has been to open people’s eyes a little more,” she said. “ [We’d tell them] ‘you don’t understand, we are cool people, we actually have a lot to offer and have a very rich culture….do you know how different every [Arab country] is?’

“The sticker really helps introduce cultures to each other,” Rasool added. “My cousins are all covered and very religious, but they flirt, joke and laugh… a lot of these stickers are used by them.”

To future content creators, Rasool, who studied fine art and psychology, emphasized quality over quantity and to never compromise on technology, design and branding.  “[The companies] always cut costs in development… why would you want more glitches,” she said. “If you're going to spend, spend it right or just don’t do it.”

In the next few months, Halla Walla plans to add more features to their family four, include more prizes for Wain Waleed and continue to help grow Arab digital content. In fact, Rasool and Varkey are working with other emoji developers and collaborating with companies like Red Bull to increase universal representation of Arab culture.

“The more of us the better, the more people that represent us the better,” Rasool said. Competition is actually good. If [the competition] does good, we do good. So, let it grow.

Feature image via Halla Walla.

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