As in the rest of the world, in the Middle East in recent decades, children have grown up watching cartoons imported from abroad, especially from the United States and Japan. In some cases, some elements have been included in the translation and adaptation to make the stories and characters closer and conform to Arab traditions and customs. But since the first half of the twentieth century some cartoons have been produced locally and have been used as an educational and even propaganda tool to spread the ideals and values of the moment in society. Middle East Eye offers a roundup of the most famous animated productions of recent decades, whose characters have accompanied the childhood of millions of children.
The oldest Arab cartoon is Mish Mish Effendi, the Egyptian Mickey Mouse. This character with the bow tie and fez on his head, accompanied by a beloved Betty Boop style, debuted in a four-minute episode in February 1936. He was created by the Frenkel brothers – David, Herschel and Shlomo – who had moved away. to Egypt (first Alexandria and then Cairo) from Jaffa, Palestine, in 1914, after the Ottoman administration expelled Russian Jews it feared might become spies. Given his great success, Mish Mish Effendi was used for propaganda purposes by the Egyptian interior ministry, which in 1938 commissioned an episode in which the protagonist goes to war with his donkey. Then there were films and commercials, until the decline, which coincided with the move of the Frenkel brothers to France, due to the anti-Semitic wave in Egypt that followed the creation of Israel in 1948.
Under Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the children grew up with El Amirah wel nahr(The Princess and the River), the Disney-style adaptation of a Mesopotamian fable, which aimed to reinforce the mythology and identity of ancient Babylon and, while it was there, anti-Iranian sentiments as well . First aired in 1982, the cartoon tells the story of three princesses who, after the death of their father, embark on an adventure to regain the throne and defeat the evil ruler of the neighboring country, not surprisingly called Eiran.
In the years between 1998 and 2007 the most famous Egyptian hero is Bakkar, a Nubian boy (a population that descends from the first inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, of the central Nile valley) who with his little goat Rashida promotes a narrative of unity, harmony and moderation to counter the Islamist tendencies in society. The theme song, created by the famous Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir, has become a classic of Egyptian music. The cartoon’s episodes aired in a 3D version during Ramadan in 2021.
The protagonists of Freej
The first Arab animated sitcom dates back to 2006, when it aired for the first time in the United Arab Emirates Freej, which in the local dialect refers to a traditional neighborhood. The protagonists are four women who represent the diversity of Dubai society before the oil boom and symbolize a mix between projection towards the future and the promotion of traditional values and identity. Umm Saeed has a Bedouin accent, Umm Allawi of Persian origins, Umm Khammas is from East Africa and Umm Salloum, overweight and faded, is the embodiment of Emirati elders.
After the success of Freej, more than thirty animated sitcoms have been produced throughout the region. One of the most established and long-lived is Yawmiyat Bu Qatada wa Bu Nabeel (The daily life of Bu Qatada and Bu Nabeel), produced in Kuwait between 2006 and 2014. The three protagonists – Bu Qatada, Bu Nabeel and Bu Meshal – reflect the stereotypes of Kuwait society: one obsessed with sharia, the another symbol of assimilation and loss of cultural heritage and the third captivated by US consumerism.
Since the mid-nineties, Egyptian television has invested in the production of animated series with a religious theme. Between these Qisas al Anbiya (From the Stories of the Prophets), 1999, e Stories from the Koranaired in the first decade of the 2000s, in which each season revolves around a theme, promoting an Islam of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.
Finally, the souls also arrived in the Middle East. In 2017 Jeem tv, in Qatar, broadcast the first Arab anime series, Badr, produced by the Bein Media Group, owned by Al Jazeera. It tells the adventures of a boy in a pearl fishing town in the Gulf before the discovery of oil, mixing fantasy with a traditional narrative and promoting local identity.