Feature After the runaway success of Freej, comics featuring Arab characters are flourishing.
In the spotlight
Perhaps you love the snappy and feisty wit of Um Khammas, the pushy and troublemaking grandma in Freej. Or maybe your favourite is Um Saeed, the leader of Freej's quartet of burqa-wearing oldsters, because of her wise answers to life's questions. By now, most people living in the UAE have heard of Freej, the country's first 3D animated series, based on the lives of these four rather traditional little old ladies living in an isolated quarter of Dubai. As construction booms all around them, the grandmas must learn how to deal with rapidly encroaching changes to their neighbourhood and their way of life. Freej debuted during Ramadan three years ago and has been consistently rated as the UAE's most popular television show ever since. After two years of planning and millions of dirhams, Lammtara Productions, the creative force behind Freej, and its founder, Mohammed Harib, are taking the grannies to the stage in Freej Folklore, a theatrical show that uses both live performers and the latest animation technology. If Freej is the brainchild of Harib, a 30-year-old animator who thought up the show while studying animation at university in Boston, then Freej Folklore is his piece de resistance. After researching hit Broadway shows such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, Harib realised the sophistication of today's theatrical spectacles and decided that the time was right to grow Freej out of the screen. "I was against taking my characters to the theatre in the beginning, because I have been approached by many other directors who want to milk the brand and use characters and costumes and make a kids' show, but I felt that this did not do justice to the brand," says Harib, whose empire, including a Dubailand theme park set to open in 2013, is now worth approximately Dh3billion. "We really thought about how we can make a change to Arabic theatre because the Arab audience is so used to tacky productions or very humble productions in theatre. So we turned around and said, 'We have a cultural show. Let's present it in the best way possible like we do with Freej'." Though the 80-minute show features a crew of over 300, including dancers, animal trainers and musicians, the key question of Freej Folklore - how to incorporate the show's animated grandmas - wasn't answered until fairly recently. A friend showed Harib a clip of Madonna and the hip-hop group De La Soul performing with the animated supergroup Gorillaz at the 2006 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. The segment used virtual audiovisual technology to combine holographic images of Madonna and Gorillaz as De La Soul performed live on stage. "I was blown away by the idea of mixing live characters with cartoons," says Harib. "Although the technology was only used for a little video clip, not for a full hour-and-a-half show, we took the risk and I don't have to make people wear costumes of the characters." Freej Folklore follows the four grandmothers - represented holographically onstage - on a journey with the Tree of Wisdom, a live character who teaches them and the audience about Arabian Gulf history and Muslim contributions to civilisation. Harib calls the Freej characters ambassadors for the show, which touches on legends such as Aladdin and Ali Baba, contributions of Muslim scientists to astronomy and medicine, and UAE culture, heritage, dance and music. "So all in all, in it is a very healthy dosage of culture for one night!" he says. Though animated series featuring Arab characters were late to appear in the region, there seems to be continuous creative output these days after the runaway success of Freej. There are comics such as The 99 from Kuwait, soon be an animated television series, which bases its characters' powers on the 99 attributes of Allah and has heroes such as the Afflicter (al Darr) and the Opener (al Fattah). Another popular cartoon series from the region is, Sha'abiyat al Kartoon, an Adult Swim-style show that approaches Gulf culture with a collection of random characters who do including getting in fights and running in with the police. Sha'abiyat al Kartoon became a hit among its older target audience when it appeared during Ramadan two years ago. There are also newer characters that have just debuted and are slowly crowding the once Freej-dominated market. Now Modehesh, Jum Jum and Hamdoon want their turn in the spotlight. You may not have heard of these characters before, but you've probably seen them. Their distinctive images are emblazoned on everything from car decals to backpacks, though they are not yet on TV or in comic books. Modhesh, with his big yellow face and spring coil body, is the jack-in-the-box mascot for Dubai Summer Surprises (known as DSS). He was born in 2002 as part of the advertising scheme for the mall-centric seasonal events festival. About three years ago, Ghanim Ahmed al Ghanim, the managing director of Glory Horizons Trading Company who calls himself "the godfather of Modhesh", started thinking outside the jack-in-the-box, in this case. "I said, 'Why don't we take the character out of DSS and enjoy the success of the character?'," he says. "Go up to a local kid and go ask him the famous characters out of them - Modhesh will be one of them. They know Modhesh because they see him in the summer all the time." Modhesh, whose name means "amazing" in Arabic, is known locally through stage shows at malls. There are no splashy TV series to speak of. During the 65 days of Dubai Summer Surprises, an enormous Modhesh mascot and its human friends visit different malls in the city to perform an interactive show. In this show, Modhesh imparts sunny wisdom to the masses by engaging children with moral fables and then asking them what they have learned from the story. Al Ghanim adds that Modhesh is an emblem of Emirati values and culture. He says parents like the character because it forgoes the violence that can accompany children's entertainment today. "In the stage show, he always delivers messages to them. For example, what to do in the morning, what to do when you go to sleep, how you have to take care in the bus, how you shouldn't cross the road alone," he says. "Parents today, they don't want the characters fighting. We don't want our kids to be misled by characters that don't give them any values." Al Ghanim's reasoning echoes that of Abdulla al Sharhan, the creator of the character Hamdoon, whose image is seen in sticker form on the back of cars all the time. Hamdoon is an Emirati boy who wears a khandoura that's just a little too big for him and a plain ghutra. His eyebrows are miraculously visible on top of the scarf wrapped around his lollipop-like head. Al Sharhan began illustrating the plucky (but not mischievous) little fella in 2005, when he noticed that people wanted something to relate to, both emotionally and in terms of dress, customs and values. Almost overnight, he began seeing Hamdoon's image all over town, without al Sharhan's permission. "This is something that Hamdoon will teach people; it's actually one of our objectives to teach them about copyrights and about these things," says al Sharhan without acrimony. "I don't blame them, because actually I was one of them. I mean, these things, unfortunately, haven't been taught in school, so it's a normal practice." Instead of trying to regain control over Hamdoon's image, al Sharhan decided to heighten the character's public profile by going to the Khalifa Fund, a grant programme for small and medium-sized Emirati business enterprises. "The basic idea we had was to introduce a mascot for merchandising items," says al Sharhan. "But they advised us to start big and asked us to have at least something as huge as Hamdoon's initial success. They said to start a TV series, too, and we had to come up with a concept, with a story, that matched this popular character that exists." This led to the animated series Hello, Hamdoon, which follows young Hamdoon, his grandparents and his siblings through their daily lives. It is scheduled to premier on UAE National Day, Dec 2 2009. Only a lucky few have seen the series preview, which debuted in October at the Dubai Character and Licensing Fair. The show's first episode, only six minutes of which were played, was a reverie of Emirati life at its most wholesome. It features Hamdoon daydreaming and playing while his family gently gives him guidance. It is in Arabic, but al Sharhan says that he wants to release it in other countries once the show's success has been proven. In a formal press statement, Hello, Hamdoon is called "the first cartoon series ever to highlight patriotic identity for the UAE". This might be overshooting the mark a bit, but there is no denying that Hamdoon is a relatable character. Though the series is aimed at children, al Sharhan says that he decided to include the older characters such as Hamdoon's grandparents to add to the adult appeal. "The model of the series is more like a full family, which consists of the grandma, the grandpa, the teenagers," he says. "Everyone in this family will talk to viewers of the same age group." Then there is Jum Jum, the blue-eyed, orange fur-covered dromedary camel created by Anas al Madani, the Vice President of INDEX Holding company. Jum Jum began as a mascot for the company, which runs the Dubai International Character and Licensing Fair, and became a creative possibility while al Madani and his company travelled internationally to promote the expo. Now Jum Jum has taken on a life of his own. "After talking to people, we've seen lots of interest in Jum Jum here and also overseas," says al Madani, who adds that the success of local characters like the Freej grandmothers inspired him to push his vision further. Jum Jum is now part of Jum Jum World, an animated series that al Madani is developing based on animals that live in the desert. "Most of the set will be in the desert so it will show people real desert life, taught by people who know the desert, and we will try to take the desert culture outside," says al Madani. "There have been a number of characters who are tweaked towards Arab culture. We're not only targeting the local market with this animation. We've selected the names carefully so that anyone can pronounce them, and we're testing if people like them in many parts of the world like Asia, America, in Europe." Al Madani says the series won't be ready - in the UAE or otherwise - for at least a year, if not longer, but merchandise featuring the desert-dwelling cast could start appearing in stores soon. The characters will include a Habara bird (an endangered UAE species) who is always looking for a mate to keep from becoming extinct, and Heddy the hedgehog, who dreams of playing football but is hampered by his spikes and short legs. "Each character brings a story from the culture," al Madani says. "We want people to learn in a fun way through these characters who are trying to explain a culture, trying to have fun the desert way." Though it would seem that Freej's septuagenarian cast have nothing in common with al Mandani's Jum Jum gang, both represent the spirit of the UAE's burgeoning cartoon industry, which manages to think big no matter what the limitations. Eight of the 19 Freej Folklore shows will be dubbed in English, and Harib says that the production doesn't have many of the UAE-specific inside jokes that are a prominent feature of his series. "We wanted to mesmerise you more than confuse you, so we made sure that you will enjoy the show, the dance numbers and you will relate to everything you see, since at the end of the day, it's an entertainment show," he says. "But everybody around the world grew up watching cartoons except my people, so my people are my priority."