Despite being one of the most powerful and difficult languages in the world, Arabic has slowly been losing its impact on youth in the region.
The fact that Arabs are slowly disconnecting from their mother tongue is an issue that is attributed to several factors and a problem that certainly needs to be addressed.
London-based Lebanese graphic designer and calligrapher Soulaf Khalifeh wants to bridge the gap and reconnect youngsters with the Arabic language. The designer is the force behind an online crowdfunding campaign titled "Bring Arabic Back Home." The title of the campaign is self-explanatory, but there is much more to it than what the name suggests.
"Arabic is not a minority language at the brink of extinction; there are millions who speak it. We’re simply not making enough effort to preserve it, especially in the digital space," Khalifeh told StepFeed.
We spoke to the artist recently to understand more what Arabic means to Khalifeh and how her identity and roots are influencing her work.
On how it all started
Khalifeh's appreciation for Arabic calligraphy began while she was studying graphic design at the American University of Beirut years back.
"The Arabic script is so versatile that the more you hone your calligraphy skills the richer your perspective and approach as a designer become as a whole. And as there was a limited selection of Arabic fonts that authentically represented the script’s versatility, I tried to use calligraphy in literally every project I worked on," she told StepFeed.
For the past five years, the artist has been working as an Arabic type designer. She creates custom, retail, and open-source Arabic fonts and one of her works has been featured in Google Fonts' library.
To Khalifeh, Arabic typography is a field that needs to be expanded.
"Arabic typography is a nascent field. Typography needs typefaces and there was a limited selection of Arabic typefaces with the introduction of the printing press and then desktop publishing. Before digital fonts, it was mostly calligraphers and sign painters that produced most of what is now representative of Arabic typography," she said explaining the development of the field.
On the vision behind the campaign
What really pushed Khalifeh to launch the "Bring Arabic Back Home" campaign was the realization that the gap between young Arabs and their language was widening, rather than diminishing. She wants to bridge that gap, but it hasn't been easy.
Faced by the difficulties entrepreneurs encounter when building an online business in the region, the artist stumbled across some obstacles after launching the Arabic calligraphy e-store. This eventually prompted her to look at the bigger picture and realize where the issue truly lies.
"As I was looking for answers, my vision grew beyond building an online store. I realized that there’s a bigger underlying problem in the Arab creative industry: on the one hand, good-quality design is not easily accessible or affordable; on the other, designers and artists have limited access to distribution channels and platforms to promote their work or make their services available to customers," she said.
Khalifeh then decided to pursue a master's degree in business administration (MBA) to help her learn how to structure her venture. She launched a crowdfunding campaign soon after to help fund her education, but it has since developed into something much bigger.
"I didn’t want the campaign to be only about funding my studies or selling calligraphy merchandise. I wanted to highlight the problems I saw in the sector as a whole and I wanted calligraphy to take center stage."
The crowdfunding campaign's giveaways include creatively printed Arabic calligraphy on t-shirts and original hangable artwork.
On Khalifeh's bond with the Arabic language
The artist's campaign has been a massive success, raising over £16,000 ($19,737) in just six weeks. She believes the main reason behind that is the fact that her message was one people could relate to.
"I used the campaign as a space to express my passion for Arabic calligraphy and my pride of my Arab identity, and to share my story and work with people from all around the world. I think people contributed not only because of what I was offering, but also because my message resonated with them and they wanted to support what I’m trying to achieve — otherwise I don’t think I would have reached 16K. In fact, I don’t think an online store could have done so in six weeks," she stated.
Arabic is more than just a language to Khalifeh. She describes it as a way through which she can "genuinely express" herself both "as a person using the language and as a designer using the art form."
"No matter how many languages we speak, we always have a special connection to our native tongue and I’m fortunate to have calligraphy as a tool to express that connection," she stressed.
On why many are losing touch with Arabic
Khalifeh believes there are various reasons young Arabs are disconnecting with their native language. In her opinion, the language "has come to be perceived as second-tier or traditional at best."
These perceptions stem from cultural, economic and technological factors.
"From a cultural point of view, I feel that many Arabs are unconsciously distancing themselves from the language because of negative stereotypes in the Western world. My campaign focuses on the cultural element by inviting Arabs to paint their own image of Arabic," she said.
On the economic front, she believes many young Arabs choose to focus on other foreign languages for the sake of their careers. Many young Arabs seek opportunities in international companies which pushes them to "put more effort in excelling in other languages, mostly English while neglecting Arabic."
"Not to mention that the top universities in the Arab world use English as their main language of education," she explained.
Technologically speaking, the digital world hasn't been all welcoming to the Arabic language and content.
"Arabic is the 5th most spoken language in the world and yet less than 1% of online content is written in Arabic. There's a huge discrepancy here which points out to a deeper problem between the production and consumption of Arabic content online," Khalifeh said.
On reconnecting Arabs with their mother tongue
Leaving one's home country does not mean leaving their culture, language, and identity behind. Unfortunately, many Arabs tend to forget this. Khalifeh believes it is vital that the Arab diaspora stay connected to their mother tongue for various reasons. It is, after all, what keeps the diaspora intact.
"The question I ask in my campaign 'What does Arabic mean to you?' is one that frequently comes up in discussions I have with my Arab friends here in London. Despite our heated and diverging answers, it is our language that brought us together and kicked off the debate in the first place, and that means something," she said.
The calligrapher said it would be devastating for the ever-expanding Arab diaspora to lose touch with their language.
"If we lose the language, we lose a big part of who we are. And there are probably more Arabs abroad than there are in Arab countries — so that’s a big loss," she said.
On the campaign's future
Khalifeh's crowdfunding campaign was meant to close on Sept. 18, but it's been extended all thanks to the positive responses.
The campaign - which is now set to close on Oct. 6 - has also led the designer's Arab calligraphy products to gain popularity. Khalifeh has been getting many requests for more designs.
"I was pleased to receive requests for more designs, especially for the Yo2Bernie t-shirt, which is a good example to show how we use our language and wordplay to express something we care about. So to keep the momentum going, I decided to turn the campaign’s official website bringarabicbackhome.com to an online store for print-on-demand t-shirts — all the Yo2Bernie fans will be happy to hear that the t-shirt will be back on sale," she said.
As for the future of her online presence, Khalifeh shared the exciting news that she's going to be officially launching an online store in November. She hopes it will lead to collaborations with designers who will hopefully agree to offer their merchandise on her platform. Later down the line, the designer said she looks forward to using her year of studies and her post-MBA job "to test out different models for the development and distribution of creative digital content online."
She also sees herself exploring "how Arabic can use the digital space as a space for expression, continuity and creativity."
On Khalifeh's message to Arab youth
In her final statement, Khalifeh urged young Arabs to be proud of Arabic "as a language and as an identity."
"Take action in expressing and representing what Arabic means to you," she said.
The artist also called on Arab creatives and artists everywhere to reach out and collaborate with her on future projects.
"I value collaboration and I believe it’s the most effective way to make a noticeable change. So, if there’s anyone else who shares my passion, concerns or vision I would love to hear from you," she added.