SHARJAH // Growing up in the UAE’s multicultural and multilingual society, Salem Al Qassimi would often hear and read English as much as he did his native Arabic.
The 30-year-old Emirati was always fascinated with the common, everyday links that have evolved between the two languages and the effect this has on his bilingual generation.
During his studies at Rhode Island School of Design in 2009 he compiled a book exploring the online language Arabish, a form of text script that uses Latin letters and numbers to communicate.
Originally used in internet relay chat rooms in the 1990s when it was not possible to write in Arabic script, Arabish was devised by people wishing to converse in Arabic, who had to spell out words using English and French phonetics, and substitute numbers where no alternative character was available.
“One of the things I wanted to investigate during my studies was bilingual typographies and writing systems and how they work together,” Mr Al Qassimi said. “But eventually it evolved into questioning why the Emirati culture is becoming the way it is and who I am as an Emirati.”
Mr Al Qassimi, who was born and raised in Sharjah and founded the design studio Fikra – or “Idea” in English – in 2006, is no stranger to Arabish.
“I use it a lot, it is perfect for communicating quickly for text messages and everyone is very used to it now. Now it is becoming mainstream – that is how we text.”
He has created logos and adverts for dozens of local clients that incorporate Arabic and English words – a fitting metaphor for a society that uses English as the language of business, and Arabic as the official spoken language.
“A lot of the younger generation are more comfortable typing in English than they are in Arabic. And a lot of the mobile devices are released in English first then in Arabic later. But I think that in general there is a hybrid culture in the UAE and I am very interested in investigating why that is through the lens of graphic design – trying to investigate design-specific topics like typography and the potential of having hybrid script.”
He said he has faced a lot of criticism from the older generation who believe he is losing touch with his heritage – but Mr Al Qassimi said this is far from the case.
“There are a lot of different influences in the UAE and we need to be open to that. I look at culture but I think that the culture is very adaptable and change is inevitable. I think it is for the better. If it doesn’t change then I think there is a problem there. But I think the values should be Islamic and those are the things we need to value. That is what is important, we keep the religious values.”
Mr Al Qassimi also lectures at the American University of Sharjah, where he was once a student, passing on his individual take on the evolving design culture in the UAE.
Some of his work can be seen at www.fikradesigns.com and on his personal website, salqass.com
Name: Salem Al Qassimi
Marital status: Married
Job: Founder of Fikra Design Studio and lecturer in design at the American University of Sharjah
Education: Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design