Arabic animated sitcoms hiding secret critics

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The young Syrian-Hungarian researcher Omar Adam Sayfo has what some may consider the ideal job: he spends his days watching animated sitcoms. This immersion in a cartoon world means Sayfo can explain why the Saudi Simpsons failed and the Kuwaiti South Park succeeded. And how the makers of these series can sometimes slip sensitive material past the local censors.

Jannie Schipper

In 2005, the Saudis tried a remake of the Simpsons. Father Homer became Omar and Bart became Badr. “But the basis of the original series is the family’s relation to the American culture,” says Sayfo. “In the Saudi version, Omar had to drink coke instead of beer and didn’t eat pork. Nor could he speak about local politics or sex. Taking all that out, there was nothing funny left.”

Every country its own Freej
An earlier local adaptation of South Park (2000) had been successful in Kuwait, but the first real success story was Freej in 2006. This animated sitcom from Dubai attracted a huge regional audience, which encouraged producers in the Gulf and Egypt to produce their own cartoon series, adapted to their local issues and culture.

Most of the new series are in local dialects. “After Al Jazeera and other regional stations linked the entire Arabic region together, there was a new desire to preserve the local identity,” says Sayfo. “Freej had become a local icon, so other producers wanted to shape their own local heroes, with an Omani, or Kuwaiti, or Egyptian identity.”

No religious issues
What is allowed in the Arabic sitcoms differs from country to country. “Some images of women that you see in old Egyptian series are impossible in the Gulf states,” Sayfo explains. Another sensitive issue is religion. “In Freej, there was an episode where old lady Umm Khamas thinks that she will die. To guarantee her place in paradise, she announces herself to be a ‘shaikha’, (religious leader) and women start coming to her for advice. When it turns out that the doctor made a mistake and she is not going to die at all, everything returns to normal. This episode provoked a lot of criticism in Dubai and was not repeated.”

Aref and the opportunist Omani minister

But even if certain subjects are off limits, Sayfo found a lot of hidden social and political comment in the animations. “Take the series Youm wa Youm from Oman,” says Sayfo. “The main character is a guy called Aref, who lives in a village. One day he meets with a government minister. But before the meeting he goes to the barber and injures his nose. To cover the wound, he puts something sticky on his nose. When he meets the minister and greets him in the traditional Omani way, nose against nose, they get stuck together. They stay like this for six hours.

Of course the minister uses the opportunity to call all TV-stations and newspapers and let them take pictures of the ‘longest meeting ever with a citizen’ to increase his popularity. When they finally manage to split up, the minister has benefited but nothing has changed for Aref – his problems are still the same.”

Hidden messages and naive censors
Another example is the Egyptian series Basant wa Diasty. Sayfo describes an episode aired in 2007, when president Hosni Mubarak was still in full power. The central character Basant takes up politics: “Once in parliament, Basant takes a decision which allows him to become the owner of candy production companies for children. He raises the prices, which causes problems for his village. His story is the story of Ahmed ‘Azz, who was one of the business men in Mubarak’s era. He did exactly the same with building materials, which caused price rises for materials and real estate.”

“Many of these series talk about serious issues, but no one notices it,” says Sayfo. “Somehow censors still tend to look at cartoons as if they are something for children and not for adults. So they do not expect them to contain political and social criticism, and they pay less attention to it.”