Profile: Mohammed Saeed Harib
Granny-loving creator of the UAE’s first animated series.
There are no Arab superheroes. This fact dawned on Mohammed Saeed Harib six years ago while classmates around him at North Eastern University in Boston, USA were diligently scribbling their versions of animated heroes. ‘Americans have Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, you name it, but during my art degree I realised all our heroes are either dead or mythical’ he says. A few doodles in a sketchpad and years of hard work later and the UAE’s first animated series and its band of unlikely role models have come to life – well, almost.
Born and raised in Dubai, the 27-year-old says that he spent years watching cartoons that had no relevance to his or his friends’ lives. ‘The US produces some amazingly funny cartoons which I love, but there are in-jokes which we just don’t get,’ he says. ‘I grew up watching Japanese Manga animations where all the characters ate sushi – but it was years before I even discovered what sushi was,’ he says enthusiastically in a strong UAE accent tinged with evidence of four years’ American education. ‘It was my dream to create a cartoon which Arabs of my generation and generations to come feel they can relate to and that’s what Freej will hopefully achieve.’
Freej (meaning ‘neighbourhood’ in Arabic) is the story of four elderly women living in an old and secluded neighbourhood (‘like Bastakia’) with modern-day Dubai springing up all around them. And while a group of gossiping old crinklies might seem like an odd choice of characters for a cutting-edge 3D animation, Harib defends his choice by saying: ‘In Arab culture a grandmother is the heart of the family. Old ladies have the potential to be humorous, wise and quirky,’ he says. ‘Your grandmother is the only person who can advise and insult you in the same sentence and they will always exist in society.’ As well as basing elements of the four womens’ characters on his own and his friends’ grandmothers he also took inspiration from an unlikely source. ‘I love The Golden Girls,’ he says. ‘The sarcasm in the show is fantastic and I really wanted to build on that – and again make it more relevant to Arabs.’
‘All my characters will be eating Arabic food (like halwa and harees), they will wear traditional clothes and will live like a local family found anywhere across the GCC. We are proud of Dubai and so want to include its iconic landmarks too,’ Harib says. ‘You will see our characters going shopping in huge malls and you may even get to see them visiting a seven star hotel,’ he hints. The series will also be voiced-over entirely in Arabic, but there are plans to add English subtitles at a later date, as part of Harib’s ambitious aim to educate viewers around the world about Arabic culture.
Sadly it will be some time before viewers of any language will get to see the series planned to be shown on Dubai TV during Ramadan 2006 or 2007. ‘I don’t want to rush this, this is my dream project, my baby,’ Harib says defiantly. While the opening episode has taken more than three months to create in the UTV studios in Mumbai, there are still 14 more episodes left to produce. With a team of almost 100 volunteers from local colleges and universities in the UAE, Harib has tried to involve as many local people as possible in the project. ‘I would loved to have made Freej in the UAE, but it was just not financially viable,’ he says.
‘I am creative, I studied art, I couldn’t even work an Excel spreadsheet and I never thought my doodles would be taken so seriously,’ he says slightly unconvincingly. But it is obvious that he has set his sights high: ‘Freej is a brand. In years to come you might go on a Freej ride in Global Village, you might pop into the Freej store at the mall or buy Freej food from the supermarket.’ Coming from a man born and raised in a city that has convinced us that anything can be achieved, it seems all too likely that Harib’s unlikely cast of characters will become a success. American superheroes had better watch their back, the Arab grannies are coming… Michelle Byrne.
For more information go to www.freej.ae.