How a Dubai-based mumpreneur is making Arabic learning fun for children

Lujain Abulfaraj’s unique initiative employs toys to popularise the language among the young

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By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Thu 16 Jun 2022, 6:45 PM

It was nearly a decade ago, but Lujain Abulfaraj still distinctly remembers the pain when she first realised that her two children could not converse with her beloved maternal grandmother in Arabic. During our interview via Zoom, she recalls how it worried her so much that it kept her awake at night. “I worried that our cultural teachings won’t be passed down to them,” she says. “Also, whenever I feel down or confused about life, I open the Holy Quran and find comfort and nourishment for my soul. So I began to wonder whether I was taking that away from my kids.”

The Dubai-based designer-entrepreneur started searching for tools like Arabic books, cartoons and toys that could help her teach her kids the language in a fun way, quite unlike school, but couldn’t find anything suitable or interesting. “As a designer, I felt maybe I could do something about it,” she says. So Lujain launched her company Akwan (meaning ‘universes’) in 2020 that hosts a website that sells a curated selection of Arabic books, organises pop-up events and works on special projects like videos for organisations like Emirates NBD, all aimed at raising awareness and teaching kids Arabic in a fun, engaging way.

This year, she designed and launched Takween — a toy composed of magnetic geometric shapes that form Arabic alphabets — which was, reportedly, the third project to be successfully crowdfunded on Dubai Next, ‘the first official governmental online crowdfunding platform for startups in the UAE’.

Embracing one’s roots

Lujain was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in an Arabic-speaking household where she was surrounded by books (courtesy of her Arabic-speaking father, who worked in publishing) and was exposed to her roots, faith and culture very early on. As a Montessori trained teacher, Lujain says her mother’s approach to education was fun and playful. “I try to bring that playfulness into my work and the way I want to introduce Arabic to kids,” she says, while also fondly recalling her visits to her great grandfather’s house in Makkah, which faced the Holy Mosque, and how he regaled her with stories about their ancestors.

Lujain sees a bit of herself in her grandmother, who was a maverick and a force to be reckoned with — widowed at 20, she refused to follow tradition and move back in with her family. Instead, she provided for her three children by designing and stitching clothes without a pause — so much so that her hands began to shake after a point. “She had an impeccable sense of style and fashion. If she was in Paris, she would probably have been Coco Chanel,” smiles Lujain. “She always used to talk to me about the importance of being an independent woman.”

Discovering design

Lujain moved to Kuwait at age 8 — which was also when she learned English for the first time — and then to Sharjah to study design at university, where she took up Arabic typography and calligraphy courses, and won design competitions. Post-college, she got busy launching design-centric projects — in 2012, she co-founded WTD magazine, a niche publication covering architecture and design. In 2016, she co-founded her studio Twothirds Design Bureau with designer Sara Al Arif.

Her children were born in 2012 and 2015 and Lujain, like all earnest young mothers, read books — albeit English ones — about raising kids. “I applied all the advice in the same language I read them in,” she says. “I didn’t notice it as it happened, but as the kids got older, I noticed that they weren’t speaking Arabic. My Arabic is not that great, but there was still a huge difference between our proficiency levels in the language.”

“But later, I realised that it wasn’t just my kids and that it was an actual problem across the Arab society,” she continues. “Our kids attend international schools and consume English content. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t learn English — I’d love for my kids to learn English, French, Mandarin and as many languages as possible, but it’s so essential for them to know their language. And I know that many people feel the same way, especially since many Arabs migrate to Europe and the US.”

Introducing Arabic to kids

Lujain wanted to work on a project that would address the issue and fix it. While researching and getting in touch with people, she realised that it was a serious problem faced by Arab parents across the globe. “We joined Facebook groups and spoke to parents and educators about their struggles in teaching Arabic and what sort of resources and support they would like to have. They also shared their journeys and how they tackle it in their own way.”

“We also sat and interviewed people who spoke to us about the shame they face because their kids don’t know Arabic. Or, how others shame their kids for not knowing the language,” she continues. “We realised that all this is a part of a bigger narrative about embracing people and accepting that there are many different levels of Arabic.”

Under Akwan, she launched pop-up events at the Dubai Design Week and Saudi Design Week in 2019. At the event, she fashioned life-sized playgrounds made of the Arabic alphabet. “You could climb up a letter and slide down another. I designed it to accommodate adults too, and not just kids,” she says. The idea was to invite people to have fun with the language, while also calling professionals across different industries to collaborate and contribute to this giant effort to focus on the language.

Lujain also wanted to launch Takween, an idea that was nearly six years in the making, in 2020 but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. “I was also very self-conscious and wondered, ‘What if no one buys them? What if my house gets filled with boxes of unwanted toys?’. So I did more research and when we had a working prototype, I went to Arabic classrooms in schools and got the teachers’ and students’ feedback. We tweaked the design a couple of times.”

In September 2021, she launched two crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and Dubai Next. “I wanted to make sure that there was a market for it,” she explains. “The campaign was successfully funded at 383% and 134% respectively. I was astonished — we’d met our goal in less than three hours! I was crying — I thought no one would be interested and that it would take much longer for us to hit our target!”

In the first week of March this year, the team shipped the pre-orders and by the second week, they were ready to take new orders. “Less than two months later, and with Allah’s blessings, we almost sold out the first edition of Takween,” she says. “It proves that people care about Arabic and want beautifully designed products befitting our beautiful language.”

A chunk of her customers are Arabs from the GCC, although she does occasionally get orders from the US and Europe as well. A few of them are expats as well. “There are also non-Arab Muslims in countries like Singapore and Malaysia. Currently, we’re developing Takween Words Set, which works as an extension kit and allows children to form Arabic words. It’s a bit trickier to create because Arabic letters look very different depending on where they sit in a word.”

“This is just the beginning — there’s so much more I want to do,” she continues. “I don’t think the toy is enough because I want something that will encourage children to love Arabic throughout their lives. It feels so good when someone sends me a picture of their kid, saying they want to sit and play with Arabic letters. This shows they’re forming a loving and healthy relationship with the language.”

Lujain describes her desire to solve the problem as a ‘yearning’. “It feels like a calling,” she smiles.

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