Last week the Dubai Press Club held the first in a series of Ramadan majlis discussions, with the session revolving around the animation industry in the UAE. This nascent industry has only existed for five years and gained popularity with animation clips that were only a few seconds long of Sha'biyat Al Cartoon characters, which Emiratis sent to each other via mobile phones using bluetooth technology.
In 15-minute episodes, Sha’biyat tackles life in one of Dubai’s former shanty towns; in Gulf Arabic, shabiya refers to low-income housing. Another popular Emirati cartoon is Freej, its four burqa-clad older ladies having become icons in the psyche of young and old generations in the Gulf. This presence in popular culture wasn’t always the case however.
In the 1980s as I was growing up in the Emirates, most of our cartoons were Japanese anime that were dubbed with beautiful classical Arabic. Much of my generation learnt classical Arabic from shows such as Adnan Wa Lina, one of the inspirations for Haider Mohammed, the creator of the Sha’biyat series who worked for 13 years as a caricature artist in Al Bayan and Emarat Alyoum newspapers.
These shows tackled basic human issues such as survival and righteousness. Sadly, today many cartoons have become soulless commercial initiatives that are broadcast in crass local dialects. One concerned parent that I am aware of said he refused to let his children watch Timon and Pumbaa in Arabic because of the characters’ crude dialect spoken in the otherwise beautiful Egyptian accent. Animal noises didn’t fit into his vision for his children’s language education.
Because of the success of Emirati cartoons, the UAE has been transformed in the past few years from a net importer of regional culture to a cultural exporter.
I realised this when a good friend of mine called me from Saudi Arabia last year as the Freej mania was at its height. He asked me what certain words mean: “Sultan,” he said, “my son keeps asking me for a kandoura, is that a sweet?”
In the Gulf, although our cultures are very similar, there are certain words that differ depending on which region a person hails from. The Saudis call the white dress that Gulf nationals wear a thowb in Riyadh and towb in Jeddah, the Kuwaitis say dishdasha and the Emiratis kandoura. In the past it was typically only Emiratis that understood all three words, with no chance of walking into a tailor in Riyadh and asking for a kandoura. This was because the dominant culture was never Emirati.
For instance, singers from the UAE would sing in Riyadh’s dialect and children’s cartoons were set in the streets of Kuwait with actors speaking with Kuwaiti accents. Outside the Gulf, the dialogue in most Arabic movies was, and still is, mostly Egyptian accented, and singers chanting in Lebanese was the norm. There was no room for Emirati culture.
What changed? A new generation of Emirati men and women have emerged, like Mohammed Saeed Hareb of Freej, Haider Mohammed, of Sha’biyat and Najla al Shahhi of Khusa Busa, the latest animated cartoon produced in the UAE.
The second reason was the emergence of a cartoon called Qita’a Thalata’sh, or Block 13, from Kuwait. It is a comedic animated series first broadcast in 2000 on Kuwait TV that revolves around four young boys living in a fictional neighbourhood in Kuwait and their relationship with their teachers, bus driver and friends in school.
Block 13 is in many ways similar to the American adult-orientated cartoon series South Park. Of the three cartoons produced in the UAE, it is Sha’biyat that most resembles South Park as it tackles adult themes such as flirting, racism and the stereotyping of certain cultures – content that young children should not be exposed to. Like South Park, these shows should be marketed as the product that they are: Emirati animated comedies that are orientated towards adults.
There were two very different answers to the question raised at the Dubai Press Club majlis about the effects that cartoons had on the UAE identity. Haider Mohammed said the objective of Sha’biyat was to produce a successful comedic cartoon, not protect Emirati identity. Mohammed Saeed Hareb answered that protecting Emirati culture was the paramount objective for him in creating Freej, and noted how much research he conducted to reintroduce old Emirati poetry and phrases that are slowly falling out of fashion and give the show an Emirati spirit.
In the end, any artistic endeavour undertaken today will capture the character of this period of time in the UAE’s development, whether that is a conscious objective or not. Haider Mohammed may be focused on creating a successful show, but he is also contributing to a subculture of Emirati animation. It’s almost uncharted territory where creativity is free to flourish without constraints.
As the former US president Bill Clinton once told a group of us at a Young Arab Leaders meeting, “the best way to preserve your culture is to share it with others”. And whether it is intentional or not, that is exactly what these pioneers of Emirati animation are doing.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 6th September 2009