When Samira Amarir and her husband Adil Amesrouh arrived at the factory in Shantou, on China's east coast, they were met with applause, a standing ovation and a performance of the French and UAE national anthems.
"It was just me and my husband," Amarir says. "We said, 'Come on, guys, it is just us. I mean we are like you. We are just doing something for our daughter and that's it'."
It all began with a simple wish. Amarir wanted to make it easy for her daughter, Jennah, then 4, to learn verses from the Quran. When she couldn't find anything, she designed a toy for her, "Jennah the Quran teacher", and travelled to China to get it produced.
Noticing its popularity among friends in the town of Chantilly, France, Amarir convinced her husband to turn the doll into a business and to move to Dubai to sell it. Amesrouh quickly agreed.
“The underlying issue is basically that the way we learn the Quran is still very archaic,” he says. “The way that we do it is basically still the way that kids have been doing it for the last 1,000 years. Kids are very connected today and we have not necessarily engaged our kids in the way we want them to be learning.”
The French couple’s work has paid off. The modestly-dressed doll is similar to a Barbie doll and recites verses from the Quran so that children can learn them quickly and easily. Jennah was released in toy stores in the Emirates earlier this year and has already sold out.
Amarir designed the doll four years ago using online software. Happy with the virtual design, the couple flew to Hong Kong for a toy fair to meet manufacturers. Most were from the same region in China and, before long, they returned on a second trip to tour factories, eventually choosing one that specialised in small, Barbie-sized dolls.
Amarir made more than four trips to China and interviewed dozens of women to find the right voice for the doll.
Jennah recites four verses that are easy for children to learn. "They're short and very impactful in their meaning," Amesrouh says. "Those are the ones that kids learn in school at a very early stage."
When the doll arrived, their daughter was delighted. "She started to play with it like a normal doll, fixing her hair, changing her outfits," Amarir says. "Then, after a few days she started to recite the first sura [chapter]. For us it was such a milestone because it was the aim of everything."
Yet Amarir still wasn’t satisfied. She wanted a doll that looked like her daughter. She had the skin tone darkened and the make-up removed.
“I mean, we are Arab. I don’t want her to believe that wearing a scarf or having darker skin is something not normal. I really wanted her to relate and identify with it.”
The doll is the same height as Barbie, so they can share clothes, but her belly is rounder and her chest smaller.
When the couple’s friends came to the house with their children, they loved the doll. Noticing the demand, the family moved to Dubai to market the doll commercially.
"Now he's used to my crazy ideas but no, he was not surprised because it made sense," Amarir says. "We said that if we want to really give a chance to the product we have to move, we have to relocate. So we sold our house, our cars, everything."
They arrived in Dubai two years ago. The first order of 10,000 dolls arrived at local branches of toy stores such as Toy’R’Us four months ago and they have had requests from retailers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. A second shipment is imminent.
“Dubai is advanced in terms of connections, in terms of business access,” says Amarir. “It’s so easy here. We arrived at the end of July. In September, we had our company, we had our visa and we started working officially for the doll within one month. I don’t believe that this is possible anywhere else.
"I believed in the product and Adil believed in it as well ... he's crazy because he followed me. Dubai is an amazing hub and here we are."