Homer’s odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East

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Homer’s odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Trevor Trevor 7/25/07 4:10 PM
Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East
By Richard Poplak
July 25, 2007


Deep in the heart of Dubai's Media City — a glittering,
still-under-construction paean to all things, um, media — standing
alongside the Reuters building, one finds a tower graced with the
letters MBC. For most viewers in the Arab world, these three letters
are synonymous with television. MBC 1 is the most-watched satellite
station across the Gulf and the Levant, followed closely by MBC 2 and
MBC Action. MBC 1 programs a heady mixture of proprietary Arabic drama
(like the controversial new soapie Aswar), a plethora of Arabic talk
shows and subtitled American standbys like Friends (easily the most
popular show in the Arab world). But in early 2005, the powers that be
within the glass tower began developing a television product that they
believed would be a surefire ratings smash. MBC decided to Arabize The
Simpsons, morphing it into Al Shamshoon. Thus: Meet Omar Shamshoon,
his wife, Mona, and their son, Badr. And welcome to Springfield.

Badih Fattouh, the head of acquisitions and drama commissioner for MBC
1, and the man responsible for green-lighting Al Shamshoon, is precise
about the definition of Arabization. "You must understand that we did
not simply dub, but we Arabized the concept, and we toned it down a
bit. We toned [down] the language — we Arabized it in the cultural

What Fattouh couldn't entirely answer in his pleasantly sleek corner
office was: Why bother? Can Homer Simpson and his family successfully
pack up the station wagon, leave Springfield and head into the Arab
world without losing their comedic and satirical essence?

This is a meaningful question when you consider The Simpsons' status
as a North America pop-cultural touchstone — borne out by the
anticipation of the release of The Simpsons Movie on July 27— and the
fact that it may be the most sophisticated piece of satire of our
generation. The show functions as an extremely successful cultural
product within the universe it skewers: it makes fun of people who buy
branded T-shirts and coffee mugs, while selling millions of branded
T-shirts and coffee mugs to those very same people. Despite these very
North American, post-post-modern attributes, Fattouh believed the show
could fly. "We had great hopes," he says, moving pencils around on his

The stakes were high. The show was set to debut on Oct. 4, the first
night of Ramadan 2005, after al-Ifatr (breakfast) at 7 p.m., the prime
time of all prime-time slots. Almost the entire coveted Saudi Arabian
market — 22 million people with nothing to do but watch television —
would be tuned in, as would much of the rest of the region. (Ramadan
is equivalent to sweeps season in the U.S., and advertisers pay top
dollar for spots on shows they believe will be successful.) Although
Fattouh and MBC will give no figures, the licence fees from 20th
Century Fox could not have been cheap. Given the show's status, to
produce it appropriately would require enlisting some of the best
writing talent in the Arab world, as well as three major Egyptian
movie stars. Cairo, and to a lesser extent Beirut, have for decades
been the Arab world's Hollywood; all the creative minds in the
Arabization process of The Simpsons were Egyptian. Mohamed Henedi, a
comedic force and household name, was hand-picked by MBC to play
Homer, sorry, Omar Shamshoon. (Shamshoon is a traditional Arabic name,
with connotations of strong, powerful men.)

MBC decided against Arabizing the early seasons and started with the
classics (Season 4 and on). They started with iconic episodes like
Sideshow Bob versus Bart, the three-eyed fish and the strike at the
nuclear power plant. It almost goes without saying, however, that an
episode like Season 4's Homer the Heretic — in which Homer forgoes
church, is visited by God and starts his own religion — did not make
the grade. Nor did references to Krusty the Klown's father, Rabbi
Krustofski. (An ex-Disney employee in Lebanon told me that if a TV
station can help it, they'll excise references to Judaism from shows
meant for the pan-Arab market.)

There were other changes, not all of them well-received. "They've
ruined it! Oh yes they have, sob. ... Why? Why, why oh why?!!!!" wrote
a blogger, Noors, living in Oman. It soon became clear that something
had gone horribly wrong.

Fattouh shifts in his plush office chair and says: "The show was not a
big success. Otherwise, of course, we would have continued to do
another season. I would say it was fairly received, but average. This
made us reconsider." That's putting it mildly. MBC's core viewers were
baffled. From most accounts, the show was incoherent; the problems
were most prevalent in the all-important Saudi Arabian market. Saudis
struggling to digest their first meal in 12 hours wondered,
understandably, why they were watching cartoons, which is not
considered an adult pursuit in their country. Most probably clicked
over to MBC 2 or one of the ubiquitous channels playing Qur'anic

Those who know the original The Simpsons were horrified. "I don't
understand the sheiks at MBC," Al Shamshoon's writer, Amr Hosny tells
me. (Hosny is not using a pejorative: MBC is actually owned by Saudi
sheiks.) He is the go-to guy for adaptation scriptwriting in the Arab
world; his version of Pixar's A Bug's Life is apparently superlative.
"When we started, I had to go back and study [the show], and I
understood that this was a very American piece of pop culture — and I
felt that it would never be done this way. I had to make some idea
that would be an objective correlative for the Arabic people. So I got
the idea to make a fictitious town called Little Arab Town, and it
would give us a good reason why these people are American, but also
Arab. The sheiks refused." Instead, Springfield remained, and there
was no coherent explanation given as to why a full Arab community
exists within the middle of Middle America.

"So there were other problems," says Hosny. "This guy Homer drinks
beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told them that
he will drink she'er — which is a [non-alcoholic] malt drink, and
close to beer in sound, so good for dubbing. But they refused this.
They said we must make it 'juice.'" And so on. Through a steady
process of cross-cultural attrition — no bacon sandwiches, no Moe's
Tavern, church becomes masjid (mosque) — The Simpsons was whittled
down to a shadow of itself. As for Smithers's feelings for Mr. Burns?
"I naturally tried to underemphasize that," says Hosny.

It didn't have to be that way. "I loved it," says Hosny of the show.
"I take off my chapeau: they are very good artists. And the writers
are unbelievable. I loved the character of Homer. There is something
very strange about this character. It's very close to the Egyptian
point of view. He's a very simple and kind person; from some points of
view you feel that he's incredibly stupid, and from some points of
view you feel he is wise. Sometimes I felt I was talking about an
Egyptian person.  Nothing is certain and taken for granted — it's not
ipso facto — and this makes good art."

Fattouh has other ideas. "You see, culturally, it didn't cross very
well. Maybe the sense of humour is too North American. Comedy is
especially a culturally sensitive matter. What you can define as funny
is an outcome of learnings, habits, doings, local behaviour — it is
the sum of so many factors. Drama is one thing, but with comedy, it is
black and white. Deep inside, either you laugh or you say, 'No, this
is not funny.' They did not think this was funny."

It's difficult not to think of this as a missed opportunity. Shows
like The Simpsons, pieces of pop art that explicate the ironies of
North American life, play an important role in bridging cultural
confusion. "When people from this Third World see that the American
Dream is not perfect," says Hosny, "that it is full of flaws, it can
give to them some hope, and says that if you want to dream, dream
here! And that over there, in Dreamland, they live in the same world
of mistakes and flaws. I'm sick of how people think that going to the
States means going to heaven. I understand that it still may be good
to them, but it's important, vital, for them to see the cracks in the

Four days after the end of Ramadan 2005, 34 episodes into its
52-episode run, Al Shamshoon was pulled from MBC 1. It is a lesson in
cross-cultural adaptation, and a warning of how delicate a powerful
piece of television art like The Simpsons actually is. But regardless
of how specifically North American it may be, The Simpsons does have
fans (like the blogger Noor) in cultures often very different from our
own. Those Muslim fans may not drink beer (although many do), but they
don't begrudge Homer his six-pack of Duff. As the man himself would
put it: "Mmmm. Sacrilicious."

Re: [TV Barn] Homer’s odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Jay Lewis 7/25/07 6:06 PM
Trevor Trevor wrote:
> Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East

For anyone else curious, I turn you over to our saviour...YouTube

QWIZX.com - A little bit of everything
I'd watch "Larry King Live" if it weren't for that Larry King guy.

Re: [TV Barn] Re: Homer’s odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Tom Wolper 7/26/07 12:32 PM
I lived in Israel in the early years of The Simpsons and I remember it
came to Israel TV in 1990 or 1991 in English with Hebrew and Arabic
subtitles. The Israel TV signal could be picked up by antenna in the
West bank and Gaza, in Jordan and Lebanon and possibly in Egypt and
Syria. It's also possible that episodes were recorded, copied, and
sold as pirate tapes throughout the Arab world (though I am
speculating on this). The educated elite of the Arab world travel for
business and/or school in Europe and North America and could see for
themselves what The Simpsons is all about. English speakers can also
buy the DVD sets.

In short, the MBC version of the show might have been unnecessary as
the people most likely to be interested in the show already knew it
and found the translated version lacking. After all, there were about
15 years between The Simpsons' first airing in the region and the MBC
translated version.

Tom W

Re: Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Mark J. 7/26/07 3:23 PM

On Jul 25, 8:06 pm, Jay Lewis <lew...@nbnet.nb.ca> wrote:
> Trevor Trevor wrote:
> > Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East
> For anyone else curious, I turn you over to our saviour...YouTube
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hkPmmmlRMY

Nice that they dubbed the title chorus.

Anyone know what those graphics were supposed to mean?  I thought they
were identifying the characters until Marge, Maggie and Lisa didn't
have a lower third.

And I assume the credits were not touched at all, so that MBC viewers
who understood English would believe that Castellaneta, Kavner,
Cartwright, Smith, Shearer and Azaria all speak perfect Arabic.

Re: Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Kelly Hughes 7/26/07 9:19 PM
I'm surprised they left Kavner's name up there, considering that
she's...uhh...you know....
Re: Homer's odyssey - Why The Simpsons flopped in the Middle East Kelly Hughes 7/27/07 8:32 AM
Haraam was the word I wanted