How Arab innovators like ‘pictogram’ creator Rajie Suleiman have contributed to American life

These "pictograms" designed by Rajie Suleiman, better known as Roger Cook, are especially helpful in airports and other environments where people may not be familiar with the local language. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 June 2024

How Arab innovators like ‘pictogram’ creator Rajie Suleiman have contributed to American life

  • The Palestinian-American graphic designer, professionally known as Roger Cook, left a profound legacy with his ubiquitous icons
  • Arab-American inventions in everything from food and drink to medicine and technology have dramatically improved the American lifestyle

CHICAGO: Despite an apparent surge in anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiments in the US driven by the war in Gaza, Americans live in an environment heavily influenced by the innovations of Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians.

Indeed, Arab-American inventions in everything from food and drink to medicine and technology have dramatically improved the American lifestyle. And yet the community seldom gets the recognition it is due.

One striking example involves the work of Palestinian-American graphic designer Rajie Suleiman, professionally known as Roger Cook, who died in February 2021 at the age of 90 having left a profound legacy.

Rajie Suleiman, also known as Roger Cook. (Supplied)

Cook was a graphic designer who created the ubiquitous “pictograms” that ease the everyday lives of Americans across industries, professions, transport, amenities, and public safety.

Among them are the icons of a man and a woman used to identify public restrooms, symbols for non-smoking areas, public telephones, emergency medical services, parking, no entry signs, and for public transportation including airports and transit stops.

Because they are so ubiquitous, the pictograms Cook designed are often overlooked, yet they serve as efficient identifiers in nearly every aspect of American life — concise graphic depictions that convey meaning across languages, cultures and levels of literacy.

Cook and his business partner Don Shanosky won a government contract in 1974 to design a series of pictograms of small, easily identifiable images that could efficiently inform and direct the public to the services they require.

Roger Cook's works are memorialized in a display at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (Supplied)

The Manhattan-based graphic designers created 34 pictograms that conveyed meaning through their resemblance to physical objects, according to Cook’s obituary in the New York Times.

These images are especially helpful in airports and other environments where people may not be familiar with the local language. Indeed, they have become known as a “universal language of wayfinding.”

Beyond municipal spaces, pictograms have been adopted by IBM, Container Corporation of America, Montgomery Ward, Bristol Myers Squibb, Volvo, Subaru, AT&T, the New York Times, Bell Atlantic and BASF, among other major companies. 

For their “outstanding achievement in design for the government of the United States,” Cook and Shanosky received an award from then President Ronald Reagan.

Roger Cook (right) accepts an award from President Ronald Reagan on Jan. 30, 1985, as Elizabeth Dole, the Secretary of Transportation, looks on. (Courtesy of the family)

“We held firm to the principle that design communicates to its maximum efficacy without frills, contrivances and other extraneous material that if the core idea is a good one, it will shout loudest when it is not overshadowed by ornamentation,” Cook wrote in his 2017 book, “A vision for my father.”

Somewhat ironically, the designer himself underwent a process of cross-cultural simplification when his name was changed from Rajie Suleiman to the anglicized moniker Roger Cook.

Cook’s paternal grandfather’s surname was Suleiman. However, according to Cook’s obituary, his grandfather “was given the nickname Kucuk, the Turkish word for small, by Turkish occupiers because of his small stature.

“Later, when the British occupied Palestine, they turned that into Cook.”

Many years later, his grandson also had a new name foisted upon him. Rajie’s elementary school teachers found his name too difficult to pronounce, and so chose to Americanize it to Roger. Thus, Rajie Suleiman became Roger Cook.

Roger Cook's sculptures featured items he had collected at flea markets and elsewhere.
(Courtesy of the family)

Despite this imposed identity, Cook and his family never lost sight of their Arab-Palestinian heritage. Cook told the New York Times in a 2004 interview that his own father had died at the age of 94 while listening to the radio in the hope of hearing news of peace in Palestine.

His father’s passion for Palestine and the many family trips they made to the region during Cook’s childhood later inspired him to expand his graphic representations, creating images that reflected the tragedy of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948. 

Many of his photos, paintings, and graphics are publicly displayed at the Palestine Museum in Woodbridge, Connecticut, and are currently memorialized in a display at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

“His Symbol Signs’ graphic design work was created in collaboration with his business partner Don Shanosky for the Department of Transportation to standardize way-finding symbols used in public spaces,” Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan, the museum’s collections curator, told Arab News.

“While they didn’t invent pictographs as a mechanism, they were the firm chosen to create this system that has been widely used and replicated.

“As graphic designers, they understood the need for signs that could be recognized without the need for text. The majority of the symbols created in the ‘70s are still in use today, which is a testament to their universality.”

All Flights Cancelled, sculptural assemblage, 2006 by Rajie Cook. (Supplied)

Sullivan said the items in the museum display were donated by Cook’s family two years ago. The display will be a “semi-temporary” exhibit, with plans for it to travel to other institutions in the years ahead.

“We are excited to have his work in our collections and be able to share his story with our visitors,” said Sullivan.

“He was a prolific artist, especially in the last 20 years of his life, with a significant focus on Palestine. He used his art to bring more awareness to the cruelty of the occupation, as well as honoring his own heritage.”

Of course, Arab-Americans have contributed far more than mere signage. Many iconic brands were started as small businesses run by Arab-Americans, among them Haggar, Philz Coffee, Kinko’s, BioSilk hair products, and Joy Ice Cream Cones, to name but a few.

The development of television transmission and liquid-crystal display screens was spearheaded by Lebanese-American Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbagh for General Electric.

Other Arab Americans who have dramatically improved global lifestyle include pop-top tab designer Nick Khoury; coronary bypass surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey; TV technology developer Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbagh; and iPod and iPhone design leader Tony Fadell. (Getty Images/ Supplied)

In medicine, surgical techniques in heart surgery were pioneered by Dr. Michael DeBakey, the son of Lebanese immigrants, who developed coronary bypass surgery in 1963 that has saved millions of lives.

The popular waffle ice cream cone is claimed by no fewer than four Arab-Americans — Ernest Hamwi, Nick Kabbaz, Abe Doumar and Leon B. Holwey.

Working at Apple Computers under Steve Jobs, himself an Arab-American orphan adopted as a baby, fellow Arab-American Tony Fadell oversaw the 2001 design of the iPod and the iPhone.

And Nick Khoury, a Palestinian-American born in Jifna, led the team at the Continental Can Company in the 1950s that designed and developed the pop top tab that allowed Americans to shift from glass bottled drinks to easy-open aluminum cans.

At a time when conflict is raging in the Middle East, stoking fear, anger and mistrust among communities across the globe, it is easy to forget the many positive contributions made by those who trace their origins to the region.

By acknowledging the many ways in which Arab-Americans like Rajie Suleiman have bettered public life, perhaps a recognition of common humanity will prevail, offering a potential way-finder to peace.


France’s Macron discusses Israel-Hamas war with Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain

Updated 9 sec ago

France’s Macron discusses Israel-Hamas war with Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron spoke on Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa to discuss the conflict between Israel and Hamas, said Macron’s office.

France is a United Nations Security Council permanent member and the country has both large Jewish and Muslim populations. Also, hostages holding French citizenship were killed in the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 last year.
Qatar has also played an increasingly important role as a mediator — in January, Qatar and France brokered a deal with Israel and Hamas to deliver urgent medication to Israeli hostages.

“The President condemned recent Israeli air strikes that have targeted UN schools as well as displaced citizens in the Al-Maghazi refugee camp which have left a large number of civilian victims,” Macron’s office said in a statement.
“He also reaffirmed France’s insistence that Hamas immediately release the hostages,” it added.

The conflict risks escalating and worsening on the border with Lebanon, where France wields some influence as Lebanon’s former colonial power. Israel has carried out near-daily air strikes in Syria and Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israeli border communities and its ensuing military offensive in Gaza. (Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Labour Party’s lobbyists for Israel press British government to restore UK funding of UNRWA

Updated 13 min 50 sec ago

Labour Party’s lobbyists for Israel press British government to restore UK funding of UNRWA

  • UK, US are the only countries not to have restored funding

LONDON: The British government has been pressed by lobby group Labour Friends of Israel to restore the UK’s funding of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, it was revealed on Tuesday.

In a briefing to MPs, the group said: “In the short term, the humanitarian situation in Gaza means the UK government should restore funding to UNRWA.”

It added that restored funding should be dependent on stricter vetting of the organization’s staff and an overhaul of its educational materials.

Several countries dropped funding for the organization after Israeli authorities alleged a dozen UNRWA staff members had been involved in a Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, in which about 1,200 people were killed, with an internal UN investigation still ongoing.

The UK and the US are the only countries not to have restored funding.

A group of Labour Party MPs also announced on Tuesday that it will table an amendment to the upcoming King’s Speech — which precedes the state opening of UK Parliament and outlines its policy goals for the year ahead — in addition to the call for UNRWA funding to be restored, The Guardian reported.

Labour MP Zarah Sultana tabled the amendment. Within it, the government would be pressed to end arms sales to Israel. The new Labour government would also face pressure to drop a legal challenge brought at the International Criminal Court by the previous Conservative administration challenging an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese has previously said she was “deeply concerned” by reports that the legal challenge would not be dropped by the new Labour government, and further accused the UK of “derailing and delaying” justice for Palestinians by not doing so.

Iran threat prompted increased protection of Trump, Saturday attack appears unrelated, officials say

Updated 16 July 2024

Iran threat prompted increased protection of Trump, Saturday attack appears unrelated, officials say

  • Biden administration reached out to senior officials at the Secret Service to make them aware of alleged plot

WASHINGTON DC: A threat from Iran prompted the US Secret Service to boost protection around Donald Trump before Saturday’s attempted assassination of the former president, though it appears unrelated to the rally attack, according to two US officials.

Upon learning of the threat, the Biden administration reached out to senior officials at the Secret Service to make them aware, the officials said, adding it was shared with the lead agent on Trump’s protection detail and the Trump campaign.

That prompted the agency to surge resources and assets.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.

The additional resources did not prevent Saturday’s attack at a Trump rally in Pennsylvania that left Trump injured to the ear, killed one rallygoer and severely injured two more when a 20-year-old with an AR-style rifle opened fire from a nearby rooftop.

“As we have said many times, we have been tracking Iranian threats against former Trump administration officials for years, dating back to the last administration,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “These threats arise from Iran’s desire to seek revenge for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. We consider this a national and homeland security matter of the highest priority.”

Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani, who led the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, in 2020.

“At this time, law enforcement has reported that their investigation has not identified ties between the shooter and any accomplice or co-conspirator, foreign or domestic,” Watson added.

Federal law enforcement officials were also warning of possible copycat attacks or election-related retaliation after the attempt on Trump’s life, as a visibly stronger security detail surrounded President Joe Biden, and independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. received Secret Service protection.

Presidents — and presidential candidates — are always the subject of threats, but rhetoric online following the Saturday attack at a rally in Pennsylvania has been particularly concerning, “given that individuals in some online communities have threatened, encouraged, or referenced acts of violence in response to the attempted assassination,” according to a joint intelligence bulletin by Homeland Security and FBI and obtained by The Associated Press.

Russia, US accuse each other at UN Security Council meeting of sabotaging world order

Updated 16 July 2024

Russia, US accuse each other at UN Security Council meeting of sabotaging world order

  • Russian foreign minister says US ‘has long, through the words of its presidents, declared its own exceptionalism’ and ‘demands unquestioning obedience’ from allies
  • US condemns Russia for hosting a meeting to discuss the ideals of the UN while ‘actively engaged in a war of aggression against its neighbor’

NEW YORK CITY: The very foundations of the international legal order, strategic stability and the UN-centric system of global politics are being put to the test, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs said on Tuesday.
It will be “impossible” to resolve the conflicts that are multiplying around the world without getting to their root causes and restoring faith in the ability of nations to join forces in pursuit of the common good and justice for all, he added.
Sergey Lavrov accused the US and its allies of impeding international cooperation and efforts to build “a more just world.”
He added: “They’re taking entire countries and regions as hostages (and) distracting from the necessary joint efforts to regulate conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and other regions, in reducing global inequality, eliminating terrorism, drug trafficking and famine.”
As he chaired a signature meeting of the Security Council, of which Russia holds the rotating presidency this month, Lavrov said: “Not all states represented in this room recognize the key principle of the UN charter of the sovereign equality of all states.
“The United States has long, through the words of its presidents, declared its own exceptionalism. This also ties to Washington’s attitude toward its allies, from whom it demands unquestioning obedience, even to the detriment of their national interests.
“Rule America: That is the essence of the notorious rule-based order, which is a direct threat to multilateralism and international law.”
The high-level open debate, attended by more than 50 states including the Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, was titled “Multilateral cooperation in the interest of a more just, democratic and sustainable world order.”
Lavrov accused Western countries of interpreting the UN Charter in a “perverse and selective manner depending on what instructions are handed down from the White House.”
He added: “The sabotage of resolutions on the Middle East can be discussed endlessly. Everyone remembers the statement of the US permanent representative regarding the fact that Resolution 2728 of March 25, demanding an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, was not legally binding.
“In other words, these American rules are more important than Article 25 of the UN Charter.”
Quoting George Orwell’s allegorical novel “Animal Farm,” Lavrov said: “‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’ If you fulfill and obey the will of the hegemon, you’re permitted to do anything you wish. But if you dare defend your national interests, you will be declared a pariah and sanctioned.
“Washington’s hegemonic policy has not changed for decades. Every Euro-Atlantic security arrangement, without exception, has been based on ensuring US dominance. This has included the subjugation of Europe and the containment of Russia.”
Lavrov accused NATO of subjugating the EU, and blamed the crisis in Ukraine — and what he described as the “coup d’etat” of 2014, referencing the protests in the country a decade ago that
culminated in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych after he rejected closer integration with the EU — on the “reckless expansion” of the military alliance.
He urged “all those genuinely interested in overcoming the Ukrainian crisis to take into account in their proposals the key issue of the rights of Russians and other national minorities. Silencing it devalues peace initiatives.”
Lavrov said that the West’s “illegal sanctions, multiple protection measures (and) restrictions in access to leading technologies are contrary to true multilateralism, and create serious obstacles to achieving the (UN’s) 2030 agenda” for sustainable development.
He accused Washington of “jettisoning” developing countries, the attributes of a free market economy, fair competition, the inviolability of the practice of private property, the presumption of innocence, and the free movement of people, goods and capital.
“Geopolitics have buried the once-sacred laws of the market for the West,” Lavrov added.
He called for reform of the multilateral system, including changes to the structure of the Security Council, in which he said “there’s a clear overrepresentation of the countries of the collective West,” to eliminate geographic imbalances and enhance the representation of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Lavrov also advocated changes to the staffing policy of the UN Secretariat, the organization’s executive branch, “to eliminate the overrepresentation of nationals of the West.” The UN secretary-general’s “staff must adhere strictly to the principles of impartiality and neutrality,” he added.
The US representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, responded by saying she thought she was “in the wrong room, because this seemed to be a session whining about the United States and the West and I hardly heard the word multilateralism mentioned.”
She accused Russia of eroding confidence in global institutions, and violating the core tenets of the UN Charter, including territorial integrity, respect for human rights, and international cooperation.
She criticized Moscow for hosting a meeting to discuss the ideals of the UN while “actively engaged in a war of aggression against its neighbor. A war that has weaponized food, worsening food insecurity not only for Ukrainians but for tens of millions of hungry people around the world.
“A war that has killed thousands of innocent people, including dozens just last week at a pediatric hospital in Kyiv. A war that has facilitated the unlawful transfer of thousands upon thousands of people from their homes, including children. And a war that has caused Moscow to resort to nuclear brinkmanship and to violate international sanctions obligations.”
Thomas-Greenfield conceded that the UN is not perfect, as it “reflects a deeply imperfect world, one filled with conflict and contradiction. We need an effective United Nations to tackle the kind of borderless challenges that affect us all.”
She said her country is committed to “modernizing and strengthening” the UN to better reflect the priorities of all member states, including developing countries. This commitment, she added, includes working with multilateral development banks to address the economic barriers to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the championing of efforts to reform the Security Council itself, to ensure it incorporates geographically diverse perspectives, including permanent representation of the Global South.
She pledged US commitment to international treaties and conventions, including international humanitarian law and World Trade Organization rules “not, as my Russian counterpart might argue, to keep other nations down but rather to help them build up to ensure that everyone plays
by the rules, and that the rules are fair to everyone, including the developing nations that have for far too long been used and abused by Russia.”

Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

Updated 16 July 2024

Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

  • The Eswatini High Court sentenced Mabuza to 25 years in jail and Dube to 18 years

JOHANNESBURG: Amnesty International on Tuesday condemned jail sentences handed to two pro-democracy lawmakers in Eswatini as an attempt to suppress peaceful dissent and called for the men to be unconditionally released.
The US embassy in the small southern African kingdom also raised concerns about the sentences announced Monday, three years after Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube were arrested on charges of murder and “terrorism.”
The Eswatini High Court sentenced Mabuza to 25 years in jail and Dube to 18 years. Both had pleaded innocent to all charges ahead of their conviction in 2023.
They were arrested in July 2021 during pro-democracy protests that were violently quashed by police, leaving dozens dead.
“Eswatini authorities must immediately quash the unjust and baseless convictions and sentences of the former members of parliament,” said Amnesty deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa, Vongai Chikwanda.
“Their convictions and sentences stem solely from the peaceful exercise of their human rights,” Chikwanda said in a statement, labelling the jailing a “blatant attempt to suppress peaceful dissent.”
The former MPs had advocated for pro-democracy reforms in the kingdom of around 1.2 million people, most of whom live in poverty. King Mswati III, in power since 1986, can veto any legislation, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and is constitutionally above the law.
The US embassy also raised concerns about the sentences handed to the former MPs, saying in a statement: “There has been widespread reporting that their detentions are arbitrary, based on groundless charges of murder and terrorism.”
The pair “were targeted for bravery calling for political and human rights reform in the country,” it said, urging the government not to use courts to “suppress dissenting views.”
In its reaction, the government said the US statement was an “affront” and the embassy should “respect the due process of the law.”
“Casting aspersions on the independence of our judiciary after delivery of judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction is an affront to the rule of law,” spokesman Alpheous Nxumalo said in a statement.