Arabic was once the language of the world.
It was the language used by scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and poets like Rumi. It is still the liturgical language of over 1.8 billion Muslims, an official language of the United Nations, and the lingua franca of more than 300 million people who mostly live in north Africa and the middle east. Arabic is also widely used in art through calligraphy and is merged with the methods of graffiti counter-culture to produce beautiful “calligraffiti” artwork.
But over the last few decades, the place of Arabic has slowly been eroding from the public and private spaces. The language has mostly been associated with terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, while passengers have being kicked off planes for speaking it. Its place in modern schools and cosmopolitan societies has also been questioned, and its application in campuses often misunderstood—even by the educated.
Ghada Wali, a pioneering Egyptian designer, wants to change all that. Wali has developed an Arabic typeface that would help young learners or foreign speakers to playfully build each Arabic alphabet using Lego blocks. Through her project, dubbed “Let’s Play,” users would have access to a pocketbook that would help them make out the sound of the words and see the alphabetical words being built in their initial, medial and final forms.
Wali, speaking at TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania, said that she started working on the project in order to work on the technical, punctuation, and letter differences between Latin and Arabic languages. But the bilingual system, she said, was meant to break the fear surrounding Arabic and to pave the way for “more tolerant communities.”
“What’s more pure, innocent and fun as Lego?” Wali quipped. “It’s a universal time story. You play with them. You build with them.” Through her project, she said, she hoped to provide “endless possibilities” to those who want to learn Arabic.
This is not the first time that Wali has experimented with works related to typography. Last year, the award-winning designer developed the Hierolatin Typeface, which introduced hieroglyphics and Pharaonic iconography through Latin typography. Another project also analyzed the lettering styles in vintage Egyptian movie posters in order to document the evolution of the artwork and their typographic styles. On the tenth anniversary of the death of Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Wali redesigned the Arabic book covers of some his prominent novels.
Wali has also worked on projects aimed at addressing stereotypical, cultural, and religious misconceptions about Egyptians. Her project “Meen Homma?”—Arabic for “Who are they?”—went viral in the Arab world, and helped create awareness about issues related to gender roles, labeling, and racism.
Through it all, Ghada says she believes she can use graphic design to change the world. She especially sees her work around the Arabic language as a “building block” to “creating a better planet.” Working on the Lego project, she said, was “a form of visual meditation” and she hopes to see the idea adopted across other languages.
“My aim is to change the sphere of language, transform the educational experience in order to bring scripts and people closer together,” she said.