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These Two Women Are Trying To Finally Give Arabs Some Decent Emojis

If you're sick of the taco emoji, you can have your shawarma.

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Arabs from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the world's most prolific social media users, but there are barely any Arab-centric emojis.

There are plenty for other areas of the world (who actually uses the guy in the beefeater hat?) but there’s nothing that really says Middle East.

Two Dubai-based tech entrepreneurs decided to change that.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

Yasmine Rasool, who is Bahraini, and Eriko Varkey, originally from Japan, have both been living in Dubai for eight years. They came up with the Halla Walla emoji app and stickers, hoping to represent what everyday life is really like for young Arabs in the Gulf.

"Every time I was in New York or London, everyone would be like, ‘So, you’re Arab?’" Rasool said. "And even Eriko, having been an expat in the Middle East, would get a lot of questions about what it’s like over here. So Halla Walla started as a cultural experiment to try to explain to people the richness of the Arab world."

The standard Unicode emojis have become a lot more diverse in recent years. People can choose different skin tones, and we're finally getting a woman wearing a hijab sometime this year.

The hijab emoji was approved by Unicode following a campaign led by Rayouf Alhumedhi, a 15-year-old originally from Saudi Arabia.

But Rasool and Varkey wanted to go even further.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

"One of the first things people think of when they think of the Arab world is the hijab," Rasool said. "We wanted to capture how diverse our society is. From Saudi Arabia to Qatar to Kuwait to Bahrain, there are all kinds of differences. This region might be small but we’ve got bold personalities."

"Here, you can be covered and be very fashionable," Varkey said. "You can be dressed in traditional clothes [kandura or abaya] but still wear a funky cap; you can not wear a hijab but still be very conservative."

Rasool and Varkey said it was important to them to show the rest of the world a side of Arab culture that often gets misrepresented and misunderstood.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

"Everyone sees our culture as being very heavy and serious — they think it’s all, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t say that, you can’t show that much skin,’" Rasool said. "We wanted to show a light-hearted side. No Arabs I know are that serious — we’re all big jokesters."

That’s why the emoji keyboard contains a lot of references to inside jokes that will be familiar to Arabs across the world.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

"The slipper one is iconic," Rasool said with a laugh. "Every Arab kid knows that when you see your mom with a slipper, you’ve just gotta run! Our illustrators didn’t really get it at first, so we showed them the video that showed an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at [George W.] Bush."

…and there are lots of throwback references to nostalgic food.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

Biryani and chai karak are represented, as well as Oman Chips — a lunchbox favorite among Arabs in the Persian Gulf.

"We wanted to capture the essence of the Arab family, of the Arab lifestyle," Varkey said. "Arab families are loud and happy and uplifting, and it’s all about spending Fridays together and sharing food."

…and text bubbles for popular sayings.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

Anyone who lives in the Gulf will tell you that "Inshallah," "Yalla," and "Habibi" make up at least 10% of all communication, no matter your native language.

"We also wanted to show that flirting is actually a part of our culture in the Middle East," Rasool said.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

"It’s a part of all cultures, but a lot of people don’t seem to realize Arabs flirt too," she said. "One of my favorites of the emojis is the covered woman blowing a kiss, because it makes me think of my cousins. All my cousins have been covered [worn hijab] since they were about 9, but they still know how to have fun."

The app, which costs AED 7.29 in the UAE app store, and £1.99 in the UK, works a bit like Kim Kardashian’s Kimojis.

Halla Walla / Via hallawalla.com

There’s a keyboard, which can be used on iMessage or WhatsApp, but the emojis must be pasted in to the text box. And there’s also a sticker pack, which you can use to decorate your iMessages.

Contact Hannah Bass at mhd.bass@gmail.com.

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