Grandmother to the rescue!

There’s a new bunch of super-heroes coming to international TV station Cartoon Network – in the form of four Emirati grandmothers. Vision finds out about the development of Emirati cartoon Freej, already a sensation in Dubai and now available to view on a screen near you

A new set of superheroes reigns in Dubai. Not in the guise of, for instance, sexy Wonder Woman, nor mysterious Batman, but instead four Emirati grandmothers in veils. Mohammed Saeed Harib’s hit animated series, Freej, is even graduating from its status as a national phenomenon and will soon be accessible to an international audience as part of a tie-in with international TV station Cartoon Network. The technology used may be highly sophisticated and the dialect spoken by the characters heavily Emirati, but the concept of Freej is simple and relatable to anyone with fond memories of their own grandmas’ quirks.

“Locally, we have a very male-oriented society and our cartoons growing up were always about grandfathers who went on long pearl diving trips, and the roughness of the seas, and all the sharks,” says 33-year-old Harib, wearing traditional dress and red-framed sunglasses, his hands making waves in the air. “But we never heard about the grandmother left behind for months at a time, caring for seven children in a barren land with no air conditioning. In a sense, she is the forgotten superhero.”

This is the thinking that eventually led to character sketches for Freej, which means ‘neighbourhood’ in the Gulf dialect. The show centres around four Emirati grandmothers living in a secluded neighbourhood, trying to make sense of the sudden advancements in the UAE’s lifestyle that reshape the young nation’s traditional culture. Over the span of just 40 years, Dubai transformed from a dry desert surrounded by fishing villages to a huge metropolis home to the world’s tallest tower. Nationals today comprise 20 per cent of the UAE’s population and the grandmother figure continues to form the backbone of each Emirati family unit.

“This is a woman who lived with a husband who was a simple pearl diver in a village 30 years ago; who now has a son who is the CEO of a major company in a big city,” Harib explains. “The show deals with what must be going on in her mind with all the changes, how she adapts while striving to preserve her culture.”

This grandmother figure is a personification of this culture in her dress, her attitude, her interactions with friends and her living situation. All four main characters in Freej wear colourful dresses, a veil to cover their hair, a metallic niqab covering the face except for the eyes, and have henna decorating their hands. Um Saeed is the central character and Um Allawi, Um Saloom and Um Khammas – where ‘Um’ means ‘mother of’ as a cultural sign to celebrate a son in the family – usually meet at her house for coffee and gossip.

“With cartoons, you should have complementary and contradictory traits among the characters,” says Harib in his animation studio in Dubai Media City. “If one is fat, the other is thin. When one is shy, the other is loud. Put together, an interesting dynamic comes up.”

Harib worked as a freelancer for two years before accepting a marketing position with Dubai Media City in 2001, just when Dubai Media City had launched. In 2003, he happened to leave sketches of Freej characters on his desk when he set off on holiday and returned to find a note from the CEO at the time, Abdel Hamid Jumaa, asking to meet.

“After describing the concept to him, he suggested taking this under Dubai Media City’s belt and exploring the market for animation in the Middle East,” recalls Harib. “My project was the guinea pig.”

After finding a company in Thailand to do a free 30-second demo of the cartoon, the executives were blown away by the possibilities. The Dh9m (US$2.5m) price tag for 30 episodes, however, halted the momentum.

“That’s three times more than what producing a soap opera would cost in full, including all the stars,” he explains. “Animation requires a huge team of at least 500 people, not to mention the technology needed.”

Still, he couldn’t let go of how it felt to see his characters come to life on screen. It took time and a variety of cost-cutting measures, but three years later in 2005 he secured a Dh3m (US$817,000) loan from the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders (SME) to start Lammtara Pictures. He managed to sign the young phone company Du, a rival to Etisalat, as a sponsor for Dh5.2m (US$1.4m) a year later, enabling him to repay the loan in full with funds left over. The savvy 24-year-old had not only handled his finances well, but was able to realise his dreams when Freej finally aired on September 21, 2006 on Dubai TV during Ramadan – the Middle East’s equivalent of sweeps season, when US TV networks roll out the big guns to boost viewing figures.

The show was an immediate financial and cultural success. Freej has consistently been ranked the number one Arabic show television, according to viewers or Ipsos Statistics, which monitors regional media viewership. Despite a two-year hiatus of the show when the financial crisis hit in 2008 due to high production costs, Lammtara Pictures was able to sustain its business by organising separate, large-scale events for clients, often working on shows with Dh30m (US$8.2m) budgets with the likes of the Dubai International Film Festival.

In August 2011, Harib’s team showcased the fourth season of Freej during Ramadan again. With the Cartoon Network deal in tow, the homegrown cartoon is now poised to go global and Harib is already being compared to Matt Groening of the Simpsons and Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame. “Regionally, Freej has been a phenomenal success across all entertainment platforms and is a benchmark example of a Middle East-based family comedy idea realised through animation,” says Alan Musa, Cartoon Network’s Vice President and General Manager for African and Middle East operations.

Today, a number of new locally based animation studio houses have set up to release the likes of Shaabiyat Al Cartoon in the UAE and Ben & Izzy in Jordan.

“The Middle East is witnessing an explosive surge in the animation sector that complements a parallel growth in the markets of China and India,” says Jamal Al Sharif, Managing Director of Dubai Media City. “Investments are likewise being made in building world-class digital media industries in the region.”

His research team estimates that toward the end of 2010, 37 per cent of the Arab population in the Middle East and North Africa region would have been below 14 years of age – that’s a target market of 100 million viewers. With shows like Freej also expanding to the international arena, the world is the new neighbourhood for these quirky grandmothers.