Preserving Urdu’s Identity in a Digital Age

Image courtesy interviewee

Urdu is a century-old language and is said to be spoken by more than 532 million people around the world. In addition to them being a user-base large enough to be catered separately, it is also the right of Urdu speaking people to be able to communicate in their native language on digital platforms.

To enable this, almost all devices and platforms have gradually developed means to facilitate Urdu language and its users. However, the font which these devices were using, and still do, is not the standard font of Urdu language. Instead of Nastaleeq font, the digital platforms generally use Naskh font which is difficult to read.

Realizing this, Mudassir Azeemi, a US-based Interaction Designer, wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2014 and requested him to include the native Nastaleeq font on iOS platforms.The Nastaleeq font was initially included in iOS 9 Beta and eventually when the official version of iOS 11 was released for the public, Urdu was shining in its true glory.

Mudassir Azeemi is credited with introducing Nastaleeq font for iOS users. The font change, he believes, would have a significant impact on the language’s identity in digital medium.

How it all started
Azeemi had initially developed his own iPhone app called Urdu Writer. He says the app set the standard of writing Urdu language on the digital platform, and later “inspired Apple to introduce its own system-level keyboard”. This development eased the use of Urdu keyboard in iOS interface, improved the on-screen visual appearance of Urdu and helped preserve the popular Urdu typeface on the digital platform.

“We had not included Nastaleeq font in our own app for the reason that no matter what font we implement in our app, on system level it will keep displaying the text in Naskh font,” he explains. Azeemi says the Naskh font, which was earlier used for Urdu on iOS, was horrible in terms of readability and usability — “it put cognitive load while reading.” This is the reason why Urdu books are mostly published in Nastaleeq typeface, as it makes reading a lot easier. “Consider of Nastaleeq font as our Times New Roman typeface,” says the software developer. Azeemi credits his mentor Arshad Khan for persuading him into developing the application. “First he [Arshad Khan] motivated me to come up with the Urdu Writer app, so he could avoid writing in Roman Urdu. However, he was still having difficulty reading Urdu in Naskh Font.”

However, it was the article by Ali Eteraz titled ‘The Death of the Urdu Script’ which helped Azeemi fast-track his desire make a more aesthetically pleasing typeface for the world.  “Although Eteraz portrayed a bleak picture of Urdu script in digital world, I was still hopeful about the language’s future; so we met and discussed that the issue could only be solved with system-level inclusion of Nastaleeq font.”

It was then that Azeemi wrote a letter directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook, and the rest is, as they say, history. Following his conversation with the Apple CEO, Azeemi presented him with competitive analysis of different types of Urdu fonts available. And after the beta version having Nastaleeq typeface was released for developers, Azeemi also provided them the feedback through the developers feedback channel. When asked does he plan on making his Urdu Writer app available on Android platform, since its already available on iOS, Azeemi said, “It was available [on iOS], but not anymore.”

“There are already plenty of Urdu keyboards available. I think it will be a fruitless effort to introduce Urdu Writer on any platform, because we now have system-level keyboard on iOS and at least on Google Pixel.”

Preserving Urdu
Azeemi says Urdu is the language invented by Sufis. “It originated from Khari Boli and subsequently transformed into Hindavi and then to Urdu. Now it is the national language of Pakistan,” he adds. Technology’s widespread prevalence ensures the preservation of languages and script embedded with it, that is why it was important to implement the mostly used font of Urdu language on digital platforms.

The inclusion of Nastaleeq font in iOS and its cross-platform availability has had an impact on the number of Urdu content viewers and readers. More viewers mean an increase in opportunities of making revenue from Urdu content on iOS platform. “Consider it a step forward towards making an Urdu-only App Store for iOS,” says Azeemi. Azeemi opined that Pakistanis were more influenced by India in their initial tech-adoption approach, and the lack of tech support for Urdu language on emerging technology platforms also had a role to play in our inclination towards the Roman script. The Roman script was initially convened in India as Roman Hindi and Microsoft actually added that keyboard later in their Windows 8 phone devices.

“Had we approached Microsoft and Nokia in the early 2000’s, asking them to introduce Urdu keyboard in their phones, Apple would have incorporated it in iOS 1 launched in 2007, instead of including it in iOS 9,” says Azeemi.

Since its launch, infact, most people have responded positively to the inclusion of Nastaleeq font in iOS. “They are in awe and love it,” he says, adding that there are still some who want to revert to using the Naskh typeface.

The groundwork is pretty much set; it’s now upto the developer community to roll out the apps and software which will determine how much the typeface is loved and the impact it has on the adoption of the script.

What’s in it for you?

When Azeemi first developed the Urdu Writer app, it was available for free download. Later, he experimented and decided to place a price tag on it. “At that time we were having 120 downloads per day, so we thought let’s make it cost $1 for a week and see if people still download it,” says Azeemi.

But the effort to monetize the app couldn’t bear fruit. “Guess what? Only five people downloaded our app in the next week, we were only able to earn $5 in 7 days. So we reverted to being free, and again the downloads reached 120-150 per day,” he says.

He continues, “I didn’t earn a single dollar from my effort for Nastaleeq font; it only got me recognition and that’s enough. At least now my name will become a part of history and I will be credited with preserving Urdu in its original form on the world most advanced digital devices.”

Azeemi shares that the biggest challenge in this journey has been the long wait. When Apple first got back to him [in 2014], they said they will include the Nastaleeq typeface ‘soon, and in future version’. “Then all I was left with was waiting for their ‘soon’ to arrive. Meanwhile, I kept writing them emails and sending letters to Tim Cook as a reminder,” he says. “It was to my surprise that not only did they remember, but Apple adopted my suggested technique and logic, which was to map the Urdu unicode on Nastaleeq font, instead of Naskh font,” he says.

With the advent of technology, it has become evident that the future medium of communication is digital. Anything which fails to realize and adapt to this change will gradually fade away and dry out.

Any effort to preserve Urdu language on digital channels and medium is definitely praiseworthy, and speaks volume about the farsightedness, visionary approach and the commitment given to cultural values.


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