January 6, 2010 / 2:14 PM / 8 years ago

Sassy cartoon Gulf grannies out to charm the world

DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - Rising tower blocks, modern etiquette and the erosion of traditional values have so enraged four Dubai grannies that they plan to conquer the world.

Um Saeed, Um Saloom, Um Allawi and Um Khammas, the veiled, sassy grandmothers from the hit cartoon TV series “Freej” have won the hearts of viewers across the Gulf as they dole out advice, insults and do battle with the encroaching modern world.

Now the creator of the Gulf Arab region’s first animated TV series is in talks with international companies to take Freej globally and work on new animation projects for children.

Mohammed Harib, founder of UAE-based Lammtara Pictures that produces Freej -- which means neighborhood in the region’s dialect -- told Reuters he was in discussions with animation and broadcasting companies in the United States and Europe.

“We are in talks with several international companies to repackage the show and take it international, do proper dubbing, and collaborate on new animation projects for kids,” he said.

Harib said he hoped to sign an agreement in the first half of this year.

The Arabic show, released with English subtitles and dubbed in Italian, has gained wide popularity among local and expatriate communities across the region.

The 15-minute episodes, 15 shows each season, revolve around the lives of four old Emirati women living in a traditional neighborhood in modern Dubai. As their hometown goes through radical changes, the women try to come up with solutions to prevailing social issues in a satirical way.

Harib’s main characters are all dressed in colorful UAE outfits with half of their faces partly covered by the metallic veil called the Burqu.

Um Saeed is the wisest and most sarcastic; Um Saloom is the good-natured one who suffers from slight memory loss, while Um Allawi is the most sophisticated and a stock market geek. Lastly, Um Khammas is the hard-headed rebel of the bunch.

Despite their combined talents, the modern world can be a baffling place for the scheming grannies, who in one episode try to trick a woman into swapping houses after discovering that the government is offering generous compensation for houses destroyed during the construction of Dubai’s new metro.

They end up with a huge pile of debt instead.

“It’s a fish out of water story,” Harib said. “It celebrates culture, who we are, our dialect and music ... in a city boosting with capitalism.”

Harib said he will focus on TV broadcasting and was not considering creating a Freej movie at this point, citing the popularity of television in the Arab world as opposed to films.

Each Freej series costs 500,000 dirhams ($136,100) to produce, which makes it one of the most expensive Arab shows to be made, Harib said, adding that funding came from merchandising, sponsors and television advertisers.

With Season 4 to be aired in August, Harib is looking at elements to include from the city. He’s already included the Dubai metro and is mulling the idea of featuring the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa.

Growing up watching American cartoons that portrayed foreign cultures, Harib felt there was a need for an Arab animation with its own superheroes who were not Batman or Superman.

Dubai, one of seven members comprising the United Arab Emirates, has gone through dramatic changes over the past eight years both socially and economically, on the back of a real estate boom that ended in late 2008.

Many nationals of Dubai, famous for its man-made islands shaped like palms, an indoor ski slope in the desert and the world’s tallest building, feel alienated in their own city.

Like his fictional grannies, Harib wanted to combat some of the diluting effects of the modern world on Dubai culture.

“Some people said culture is boring but I wanted to repackage it and show that we do have our own culture and traditions.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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