Big in Dubai: A Revolutionary New Hebrew-Arabic Script

Visitors to the Israeli pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai are greeted by an enormous sculpture made up of letters written in Aravrit, a mash-up of the two Semitic languages, and bearing a hopeful message

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The sculpture in the Israeli pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai bears the name of the pavilion: El Hamahar (“Towards Tomorrow”).
The sculpture in the Israeli pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai bears the name of the pavilion: "Towards Tomorrow” in both Hebrew and Arabic.Credit: Kashif Ramirez / The Israeli Expo pavilion
Oded Ben Yehuda
Oded Ben Yehuda
Oded Ben Yehuda
Oded Ben Yehuda

After a year’s delay due to the pandemic, Expo 2020 Dubai opened this month. When the Israeli pavilion was unveiled two years ago, lacking walls or barriers, it created a sensation. The design by the architect David Knafo and AVS, winners of the much sought-after contract, is meant to convey openness and acceptance, a 2020 version of “Abraham’s tent.”

Two weeks ago, at the exposition’s dedication ceremony, the distinguished guests to the Israel pavilion found a surprise. The entry ramp (designed to emulate the desert sand dunes in the Holy Land and the Middle East) led to a unique typographic sculpture.

The sculpture, 13 meters long and five meters tall, with an aluminum skeleton, a plexiglass coating and LED lighting, bears the name of the pavilion: El Hamahar (“Toward Tomorrow”). Just as surprising as the size was the script, which combines Hebrew and Arabic letters, so that it can be read simultaneously in the two languages.

The font's designer Liron Lavi Turkenich. 'I realized that I had no idea what was written in Arabic.'Credit: Rami Shllush

The sign uses a unique writing system dubbed Aravrit: a combination of aravit and ivrit,” i.e., Arabic and Hebrew. It is the work of font designer Liron Lavi Turkenich, 36, who graduated from the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, and holds a master’s from England’s University of Reading.

Aravrit started out as a final project at Shenkar. Now a decade later, it’s starring in the heart of Dubai.

The sculpture, 13 meters long and five meters tall.Credit: Liron Lavi Turkenich

“This project actually stemmed from despair,” says Lavi Turkenich. She is referring to the rejection of additional ideas of hers, all of them centering around an examination of the limits of a letter’s legibility, and the challenge of distilling the smallest distinguishable essence of a letter. But an ordinary train trip from her home in Haifa to the Shenkar campus in Ramat Gan led to what would become her lifetime project (so far).

“I was sitting in a four-seat compartment, in which there’s a pair of seats facing each other, and I was curious to read what they were reading upside-down opposite me, and then I also saw the sign at the exit from the city, which is written in three languages, and I realized that I had no idea what was written in Arabic – that really hit me. I’m accustomed to bragging about being a resident of Haifa, but in effect I don’t read or pay attention to a third [of the content] of the signs in my city.

“The idea was to connect the two languages, and I didn’t know how,” says Lavi Turkenich. “I saw that the world of experimental fonts is illegible, and I wanted to be pragmatic rather than ‘artistic,’ so that my family could see the project and not only understand it, but read it too.”

The ideology of fonts

One formative figure in her story was 19th-century ophthalmologist Dr. Louis Emile Javel, who discovered that one can read entire sentences written in Latin letters based only on the top parts of the letters: they have all the identifying marks.

The typographical sculpture 'Towards Tomorrow' at the Dubai Expo 2020.Credit: Liron Lavi Turkenich

“I wanted to see if that works in Hebrew too. It doesn’t,” she says. “But then I tried with the bottom of the letters and it worked. I went on to experiment with Arabic, and I discovered that there it works with the top part – and that was the solution. A Hebrew speaker looks at the bottom and an Arabic speaker at the top, and so we can both manage to read at the same time.”

Why does she call Aravrit a “writing system” rather than a “font”? “Many people at first wanted it to be a font – in other words, a real font that can be typed, but I realized that had I introduced Aravrit into such software – I would have had to compromise on legibility,” she explains. “I design letters, and in this case I’m like a sculptor. Based on the structural skeleton of the letters, I can take sans serif, fat, thin or serif fonts, and resolder them into a new hybrid body. Those who painted on the walls of caves thousands of years ago also designed letters. A font is a specific letter shape, and I created a system.”

You spoke about Haifa, about connecting identities. Can writing contain an ideological value?

Models wear T-shirts with the word "Hug" written in Aravrit.Credit: Tamar Green

“Aravrit is an analysis of the environment in which we live. Language and writing are culture, and you can’t ignore a culture that isn’t yours, or a minority with a language that differs from yours. Dealing with letters is very convenient and accessible to people, we’re all surrounded by letters all the time. It’s not an unrealistic medium. I want to see how languages of minorities can be combined with one another. I deal first with language and legibility, and in my opinion the focus and contribution of Aravrit lie in communication between people, rather than in font design. A programmer in Vienna once wrote to me that I’m making a change via fonts. Design is my tool.”

The success Lavi Turkenich found in Dubai is little surprise. Since finishing her studies, until the COVID-19 lockdowns she had divided her time between Haifa and world capitals, working with giants such as Adobe, Microsoft, Intel, Google, and Type Together, and was widely covered in the popular press and in design magazines such as Monocle and Design Boom. She also launched an Aravrit jewelry collection and a set of ceramic dishes (with designer Ronit Yam). Presently she is working on a logo for a Jewish-Emirati cookbook, and on a project for the United Arab Emirates national airline, Etihad Airways.

In the end, the font you created is quite political.

“But it’s my own politics. There’s no agenda of right or left here. It’s hard to argue with its message, and to leave it free from the agendas of parties or politics, but the idea is that we have to look here inside our home. It seems bizarre to me that there’s no connection to the Arabic language, or to the people and the culture in which I find myself.

“For example, I noticed that there’s no Arabic on the signs in Ramat Hasharon. Today there are moments when I find my older daughter looking at a sign and saying ‘That’s Hebrew and that’s Arabic’ – that’s something I didn’t know how to say at her age. Incidentally, people have asked for my collaboration across the entire political scene, from the [anti-Netanyahu] protesters on Balfour Street, and even for Bibi’s last campaign.”

Seriously, right-wing organizations contacted you?

“Of course. Aravrit presents an agenda of unity, and there are many settlers who like that because they’re living this unity, and I find that very encouraging. I don’t want to talk about occupation, but about unity. It’s not a party project. Aravrit is a spotlight on our daily lives here, and it’s first and foremost a work tool.”

Aravrit jewelry: This one says "Dream."Credit: Liron Erel

What’s Aravrit’s next destination? A permanent billboard in Israel like Hollywood?

“I would like to get to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s a kind of dream. I would be happy for someone to adopt ‘El Mahar.’ An outdoor sculpture demands attention just as a language creates attention.”

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