x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The main draw

As the loveable mascot Hamdoon is licensed to Adach and gets his own TV show, Abdulla al Sharhan talks about how his creation.

Abdulla al Sharhan, the creator of Hamdoon.
Abdulla al Sharhan, the creator of Hamdoon.

He's a small boy with an outsized khandoura and miraculous, free-floating eyebrows. His image has been a viral sensation, adorning websites and car windscreens across the UAE. And following yesterday's announcement, he's now under the exclusive licence of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

Hamdoon, the loveable mascot for traditional Emirati life, is on the Government payroll. And he's about to get his own TV show; an initial 15 episodes are planned to run next summer. Not bad for a character who was almost left to languish on his inventor's home page. Abdulla al Sharhan came up with the prototype of Hamdoon in 2005. Initially, his idea was simply to produce a character that could be used to brand merchandise for a Gulf audience.

"I drew it for a client," he says, "but I fell in love with it so I refused to give it to the client." Beyond that, however, he had no clear plans for the character. "I kept it in my portfolio. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. It was just laying there on my personal website." In fact, al Sharhan had been trying to get a comic based on a more international set of characters off the ground. Baraha focused on four children with, al Sharhan says, "a very universal appeal". But they didn't have the UAE-specific charm of Hamdoon, and the project was a flop.

"That was my issue at the time," al Sharhan says. "When we first published them I believed that no one could recognise them as Emirati or being done by an Emirati artist... I really got depressed at this. I thought I had failed in this field and, actually, I even gave up. Apparently this comic didn't arrive at the right time." Then a couple of things happened to change the landscape. First was the sudden success of Freej, the startlingly popular 3D cartoon about the adventures of four elderly Emirati ladies.

"Freej was the pioneer of this industry," al Sharhan says. "It paved the way for other creators to start working on such concepts. It was very innovative and very interesting." It offered some particular lessons to the budding cartoonist, too. "The characters are very well designed, very iconic," al Sharhan says. "This was one of the keys for success for Freej." The other thing that helped to shift al Sharhan's focus was that Hamdoon had become a hit of his own accord. "I found him getting popular in no time, among websites, other people's websites, then on cars," he says. Other creators might have bristled at the pirating of their work, but al Sharhan was sanguine. "At least people liked him," he says. What's more, the attention became a spur. "Now that people had fallen in love with him, I had to do something that was up to Hamdoon's reputation, so I should do something really good."

Al Sharhan went to the Khalifa Fund to develop Hamdoon as a marketable entity. "I was planning to put together a magazine," he says. "That was my wildest dream at the time. But since Hamdoon grew in a very big way without anybody anticipating that or expecting that, and with other animations coming out like Freej, that encouraged me that now the market is ready to accept such a thing, and to afford producing an animation." The Khalifa Fund agreed and helped refine the Hamdoon concept. But al Sharhan still needed a budget to make his show. That's when Adach entered the scene.

"What they were always telling us was that the objectives and goals that we had set for Hamdoon were kind of like a carbon copy of their own," al Sharhan says. "It's about showing our lifestyle, showing our culture, showing the Islamic and traditional and Arabic values of the UAE with the innocent eyes of a little Emirati kid called Hamdoon." It's easy to see what caught their attention. Hamdoon is a delightful invention. As a piece of character design, he's expressive and distinctive with the kind of graphical energy usually associated with Japanese manga. There's a reason for that: "In this region, during our childhoods the only things that we used to see were anime and manga, Japanese animation," al Sharhan says.

And if it shaped his own sensibility, it should have same the same for his peers. Al Sharhan is confident. "I know for a fact that the region here loves the anime style more than any other styles. So I guess it's one of the key factors when they fall in love with Hamdoon." The other thing the character has going for him is a story with patriotic appeal. The premise is that Hamdoon is a small boy who has been raised overseas. This means he gets to experience for the first time the Emirati culture that is his birthright. "It's the usual adventures that UAE kids have but with someone who hasn't ever done it before," says al Sharhan. "We believe that the audience will see with the same eyes as Hamdoon."

To extend the cartoon's cross-generational reach, several other characters have been developed for Hamdoon's TV incarnation. "There will be a bunch of kids," al Sharhan says. "There will be other adult characters to make sure that the series is viewed by adults too. There will be the grandpa and grandma, and the teenage aunt and teenage uncle of Hamdoon." Grown-ups may also be attracted by the fact that the popular Emirati actors Razeeqa Tarish and Bilal Abdulla signed on to voice the grandparents.

For al Sharhan, however, it is the generational gulf between the show's main characters that ought to be the main draw. "It's like the Dennis the Menace thing where he's always making jokes with his grandpa," he says. "It's the same thing: the great differences in their ages and the great differences when he's coming and living with them, this is what we believe will make it interesting." And will Hamdoon be naughty like Dennis the Menace? "In a different way," says al Sharhan. "He's curious but sometimes in trouble, and he thinks he can achieve anything." He's no tearaway, however. "Knowing his own character, discovering the UAE's culture and rediscovering everything, questioning everything - this is his real passion."

Abdulla al Qubaisi, Adach's director of communications, obviously sees him as a good example. "To tell you the truth, we chose Hamdoon because Abdulla al Sharhan and his team from Ajyaal had very nice objectives that were related to our own: promoting the culture, the heritage of the UAE and educating the generations," he says. "It goes hand in hand. It benefits both parties. Abdulla al Sharhan's creativity, we think, is worth supporting, to make his dream come true and make his character come to life." That, of course, is the hard part. All the same, it will be fascinating to make Hamdoon's acquaintance when his show emerges next summer.