Doh! It's Omar Shamshoon

December 14, 2005|By ASHRAF KHALIL AND JAILAN ZAYAN | ASHRAF KHALIL AND JAILAN ZAYAN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO -- Bald, chubby underachiever Omar Shamshoon works each day at the local nuclear power plant owned by vulturelike millionaire Mahrooey Bey. Every evening, Omar comes home to a family that includes his blue-haired wife, Mona, hyper-smart daughter, Beesa, and troublemaking son, Badr.

Along the way, wacky hijinks invariably ensue, involving the moronic police chief, the television clown and Omar's disturbingly perfect neighbor.

Sound familiar?

This may not: Omar doesn't drink beer.

Instead, he spends time with his buddies at a local coffee shop. At home, he pops open frosty cans of Duff brand juice.

Fans of The Simpsons in the Middle East reacted with skepticism when MBC, an Arabic satellite channel, announced it would begin showing culturally modified, Arabic-dubbed versions of the iconic animated show.

The Arabic dialogue laid over existing shows is actually fairly faithful to the original script. Nothing seems censored, but episodes such as those featuring Homer's gay roommate or the visit to the Duff brewery are unlikely to be chosen for translation.

And many of the more American inside jokes are simply glossed over.

Ned Flanders, the devout Christian neighbor, is now merely annoying - with no hint of religion. And needless to say, the relationship between Mr. Burns and his assistant, Smithers - make that Salmawy - has become strictly professional.

One month after the premiere of Al Shamshoon, voiced by some of Egypt's top actors, many are asking whether this particular cultural divide can ever truly be bridged.

Without an understanding of that cultural depth, what remains for the Arab audience is mere slapstick, said Marwan Nasher, managing director of AK Comics Inc., which produces a line of Arab superhero comic books.

"It's just a cartoon now," Nasher said. "I wasn't really impressed. You don't know if they're trying to show American culture or Arab culture. They've kind of lost the message."

Still, Tarek Atia and Inas Hamam have turned the nightly viewings into a family event, watching raptly with their sons, Omar, 7, and Ali, 4.

"When I first saw it ... I thought, there's no way they're going to pull this off. But now I think it might be funnier in Arabic," said Hamam, marketing manager for American University in Cairo.

Executives at Dubai-based MBC sounded a little bemused by the strong, sometimes outraged, reactions to their venture among hard-core fans. Spokesman Michel Kostandi acknowledged that they had underestimated the depth and passion of the fan base.

"We're fascinated ourselves to see how this works," he said, adding that the show's translators were "determined to keep the exact spirit and heart of The Simpsons."

The show was one of the flagships of MBC's Ramadan lineup. During the Islamic holy month, which fell mostly in October this year, television channels compete heavily for the attention of Arab families digesting huge meals after their all-day fast.

MBC spared no expense, promoting Al Shamshoon nonstop and recruiting A-list film stars to dub the voices. Egypt's top comedian, Mohamed Heneidy, provides the voice of Omar.

Western programming is hardly new to the Middle East. Even before the advent of satellite channels, shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, Falcon Crest and MacGyver were staples of state television.

Recent attempts to adapt Western programming for a Middle East audience have met with mixed results. Who Will Win a Million was a huge hit, but an Arabic version of Big Brother was canceled last year after just one week because of protests over male and female contestants sharing a house.

In Atia and Hamam's home in suburban Cairo, the whole family gathers every evening at 6:30 to watch the show.

But the show isn't a hit with all families. Atia remembers a recent evening with other Egyptian couples and their kids. The group had to be persuaded to watch it - with the adults saying that cartoons were for kids.

In the end, it bombed, he said: "Even the kids didn't watch it."

Ashraf Khalil and Jailan Zayan write for the Los Angeles Times.

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