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French Version

Reworking 'The Simpsons' for the Arab world

Made in America, assembled in Egypt, 'Al-Shamshoons' is a culturally adapted version of the hit cartoon

As with any family moving to the Arab world from the West, "The Simpsons" quickly discovered they'd need to make some adaptations to their lives if they were to connect with the natives. First, they would change their names - the family now called Al-Shamshoons; the father, once Homer, now goes by Omar; his mischievous son Bart, now Badr.

There would be fundamental changes to their lifestyles as well. Omar, once a fan of tossing back a few beers with friends, now goes to the club or the ahwa (coffee shop) and sips on sodas and juice. The list goes on. Donuts have been replaced by kakh (Arabic cookies); bacon is done away with altogether as it is against Islam; and the kids, once a rowdy bunch of conniving delinquents, are still just as cunning but mind their manners with their parents a bit more.

Brought to life by creator Matt Groening and the FOX network, "The Simpsons," over the last decade, would take the United States and later the world by storm. The show, in a way, prompted an animation revolution - with idiosyncratic expressions such as "Doh!" recently added to the English dictionary.

In sharp contrast to cartoons already airing at the time, "The Simpsons" targeted teenagers, with its sophisticated, often controversial and risque antics. Until recently, Arab satellite network MBC aired a subtitled version of the hit cartoon sitcom. Just before Ramadan, the network won exclusive rights to air an Arabic-dubbed version of the show, slightly adapting story lines to suit Arab audiences.

"MBC is looking to find programs suitable for young adults and teenagers," says Michel Costandi, MBC's business development director in Dubai. "We've always thought of new ideas that are entertaining - introducing new genres. The dubbed version of the program fit nicely with our objectives."

Dubbing western cartoons is by no means a new trend. Disney cartoons have been dubbed for years, though their storylines are generally better suited for younger audiences. Still as dysfunctional as their U.S. counterparts, MBC's creative team looked to maintain "Al-Shamshoons" plots nearly identical to that of the original, subtly changing references that may be deemed inappropriate.

"In the Arab world, life does not revolve around bars," Costandi points out.

"Sure we have a night life, but alcohol is not really part of the daily scene in Egypt, Lebanon or anywhere else. So, we do not stress on what Homer is drinking. If he is drinking beer in the original, in ours, we let him drink something else, or even we don't say what he is drinking."

"We do not have our own cartoons, unfortunately, that are as strong as the ones coming from the West," points out Shahira Khalil, editor in chief of Samir magazine and an expert in children's press. "Here, the idea is we can show things from other cultures, but the problem is that we fear our children will imitate. This is an Islamic culture - we do not encourage alcohol. It is not our culture."

Part of the success of "Al-Shamshoons" is the voices behind it. Among the major celebrities bringing life to "Al-Shamshoons" cast are actors Mohammad Heneidy, Hanan al-Turk and Rogina.

MBC executives chose to debut the Arabic version of the hit-series during the month of Ramadan as it guarantees them the highest number of viewers.

Currently, the network has only scheduled to run "Al-Shamshoons" daily through the month of Ramadan. However, Costandi says the apparent success of the dubbed program has encouraged executives to continue showing the program after the holy month. As with their decision to run Arabized-reality television shows and game shows modeled after American programs, MBC also intends to repeat the process with other Western programs that would be suitable for this age group.

The original Simpsons was famed for introducing younger audiences to controversial subjects, such as homosexuality and racism. Should MBC decide to continue airing the series, it will have to make some major decisions about the storylines it will keep and those it will do away with.

"With any good idea, we sit together in meetings and research and assess what we need at our network," Costandi adds. "Comedy was discussed - and youth audiences are important so that's how the idea came about. We had to put everything behind this to make it a success. That means talents, scheduling, the season, time slots - it's a big investment for us."

"Al-Shamshoons" is currently broadcast daily during the early-evening prime-time slot on MBC.

Beirut,11 01 2005
Vivian Salama
The Daily Star
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