If you've ever visited the Middle East, you know that when American TV programs are shown on Arab TV, culturally sensitive content is often altered or removed. Turns out some hows aren't so easy to "Arabize."
In late 1991, the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) went on the air for the first time. It was the Arab world's first privately owned, independent satellite TV network, and the first to offer 24 hours of Arabic language television programming free of charge to anyone with a satellite dish.
Other networks soon sprung up, creating a huge demand for content to fill the airwaves. In the years that followed, countless American TV shows -everything from Friends to The Late Show with David Letterman to Two and a Half Man to McGyver to Dr. Phil and Oprah- found their way onto these channels, either dubbed into Arabic or broadcast with Arabic subtitles, and with culturally offensive subject matter toned down or removed entirely.
Shows that appealed to younger audiences were especially popular. In some countries as much as 60 percent of the population was under 20 years of age, and the numbers remain high today. So it was probably inevitable that sooner or later, one of the Arab networks would set its sights on The Simpsons, one of the most successful shows in American TV history, and try to bring it to the Middle East. In 2005, MBC did just that.
HOMER OF ARABIA
No expense was spared to prepare The Simpsons for the Arab market. The Arab world's best TV writers were hired to translate episodes into Arabic, and A-list actors and actresses were hired to provide new voices for the characters. To make the show seem less "foreign," Homer Simpson was renamed Omar Shamshoon, and the show itself was renamed Al Shamshoon -"The Shamshoons." (Marge Simpson became Mona Shamshoon, Bart became Badr, and Lisa became Beesa.) Each episode that was selected for translation into Arabic was carefully reviewed to remove anything that might be offensive to Muslims. For example, where Homer Simpson drinks Duff beer (Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol), Omar Shamshoon drinks Duff fruit juice. Homer eats hot dogs (which commonly contain pork, also forbidden) and donuts (which are unfamiliar to most Arabs), but Omar eats Egyptian beef sausage links and khak cookies, which, like donuts, are often made with a hole in the middle.
Not every episode made the cut: Those with strong religious themes were out, as were the ones where the characters spent lots of time drinking beer in Moe's Tavern. In episodes featuring shorter church and tavern scenes, they're referred to as a "mosque" and a "coffeehouse." And Ned Flanders? He became just an annoyingly perfect neighbor, not an annoyingly perfect Christian neighbor.
As for all the Simpsons-centric dialog, like "Don't have a cow, man!" and "Hi-diddley-ho, neighbors!" ...well, the writers just translated as best they could. ("D'oh!" was translated as "D'oh!")
NEITHER HERE NOR THERE
The final product was a confusing mishmash of cultural references, something not really American, not really Arab (Marge Simpson and the other female characters don't wear veils, for example) ...and definitely not The Simpsons. It wasn't very funny, either, and with all the translations, revisions, and deletions, the storylines could be maddeningly difficult to follow.
The premier episode of Al Shamshoon aired in October 2005, on the first night of the holy month of Ramadan -the biggest TV viewing night of the year. Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan, and after the fast is broken with an evening meal, millions of the faithful settle in for a night of watching TV. Though 52 episodes were scheduled to air that month, -with MBC looking forward to "Arabizing" all 17 seasons of The Simpsons in years to come- the series was pulled after only 34 shows. Why? Because not many people tuned in to watch it. Al Shamshoon turned out to be just too strange a show for many viewers, especially in a part of the world where cartoons were still seen as entertainment for children.
But what really killed Al Shamshoon may have been the very thing that brought it into being in the first place: Satellite TV channels. Arabs with satellite TV dishes can pull in non-Arab stations, and some of those broadcast The Simpsons in all its original, unadulterated glory. (The show is also available on DVD.) Many of the people who tuned in to watch Al Shamshoon were fans of The Simpsons who just wanted to see how badly MBC would botch the job, and after having a few laughs at the network's expense, they went back to watching the real thing.
For Arab critics of Al Shamshoon, one of the most frustrating things about the show was knowing that if MBC had just taken a fraction of the money it spent on Al Shamshoon and hired Arab animators to create an entirely new, entirely Arab show from scratch, they might have come up with something funny and engaging that Arabs could understand and call their own.
Even as Al Shamshoon was falling flat on its face in 2005, work had already begun on just such a show. Freej ("Neighborhood"), a comedy about four grandmothers living in a quiet neighborhood of Dubai, a booming metropolis in the United Arab Emirates, was already in production. Freej was the brainchild of a twenty-something UAE national named Mohammed Saeed Harib, whose first exposure to animated shows came in the late 1990s when he was a student at Boston's Northeastern University and his dormmates downloaded bootleg episodes of South Park and other shows to watch on their computers. Harib came up with Um Saeed, the first of his four grandmother characters, while he was still living in the dorm. By 2003, he'd developed a concept for an entire show, which he sold to the satellite channel Sama Dubai.
One year after Al Shashoon bit the dust, the first episode of Freej aired in the same coveted time slot -the first night of Ramadan. Unlike Al Shamshoon, Freej, the Arab world's first 3D animated series, was a hit from the very start. By the time the second season of Freej aired the following year, half of all television viewers in the UAE were tuning in to watch the show. Stay tuned; you may be watching one of these days, too. In 2009, Harib entered into talks with American media companies to bring his show to the United States. (Until then, you can look for clips on YouTube.)
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