But for all its success in the U.S., Nintendo had not marketed Pokemon in the Arab world until about a year ago, said Beth Llewelyn, director of public relations for Nintendo of America, based in Seattle.
Llewelyn said Nintendo's video games had never been marketed in the Arab world, so there was no natural path for introducing Pokemon. Eventually, Nintendo issued licenses to vendors interested in the product, and it took off. But Pokemon's success became a headache for many parents in the region.
"My son is a very devout collector of the Pokemon cards, and he used to drive us all crazy," said Randa Hassan, a schoolteacher in Amman, the Jordanian capital. "It was the talk of society for quite a long time. Everyone was talking about it."
"Pokemon Virus" was the headline of an article that appeared in March in Modern Family, a magazine published in the United Arab Emirates. The article painted Pokemon as a dangerous waste of time and an expensive drag on parents.
"It is the burden of this age which has hit tens of millions of children worldwide," the article said. "As with other Third World children, our children have found in Pokemon an opportunity to lose themselves in it. They neglected their studies, prevented their parents from getting close to the television to change the channel which was broadcasting a Pokemon series."
About a month ago, the agitation against Pokemon took on a different cast. Parents, teachers, clerics and others said that a small, unsigned flier began showing up in schools in Saudi Arabia and other countries charging that Pokemon denigrated God--although there are many different accounts of what the flier actually said.
"The leaflet, written in poor Arabic, claimed that Pikachu, the most popular and powerful character, meant 'I am Jewish' in Japanese," said Abdel Rahman Mtowah, editor of the Saudi-based Al Sharq al Awsat newspaper.
In a fatwa, or religious edict, Saudi Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik urged "all Muslims to beware of this game and prevent their children from playing it so as to protect their religion and manners." He added that most of the cards "figure six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel."
A few weeks later, in early April, a fatwa was issued in Dubai saying that Pokemon "clearly contains gambling" and that the game "is based on the theory of evolution, a Jewish-Darwinist theory, that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles."
The issue boiled over in Jordan this month as well. In a statement in an Amman newspaper, the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church denied allegations that Pokemon and other character names were rooted in the ancient Syriac language and were insulting to Islam. Church officials had become alarmed when they received an anonymous fax making the allegations.
In Egypt, a recent article in the weekly newspaper Al Osbou said in part: "Some schools distributed leaflets to students including information that was taken from a local newspaper that assures that Pokemon is a Jewish company and that the names of Pokemon characters all are blasphemous."
Several Products Have Seen Controversy
There have been many instances of products, or companies, falling prey to rumor campaigns. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority tried to tag the Teletubby character Tinky Winky as gay because it is purple--the gay pride color--carries a bag and has an antenna shaped like a triangle--the gay pride symbol. For years, Procter & Gamble has battled the rumor that its 132-year-old trademark, which shows the Man in the Moon and 13 stars representing the original colonies, is a symbol of Satanism and devil worship.
Pokemon itself is not new to controversy. In 1999, Nintendo discontinued a card bearing an image similar to a swastika after the Anti-Defamation League complained. It also has been criticized in Mexico by a Christian church, which called it "demonic." In Malaysia, clerics reportedly are studying the religious aspects of the video game, and many schools in the United States have banned Pokemon from classrooms.
But in the Middle East, it is more than the viability of a product that is at stake; such charges serve to widen the chasm between Arab and Jew.
"You know the situation, the chaos and problems between the Palestinians and the Jews," said Abu Laila, the academic and preacher based at Al Azhar in Cairo. "The situation is so sensitive."
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Pokemon: An Empire at a Glance
The name: Pokemon, short for "pocket monster," is the
name given to the many creatures found in a series
of Nintendo video games as well as related trading cards and cartoons.
The characters: There are 250 types of Pokemon, and each has a name, such as Pikachu or Charmander.
The impact: It is estimated that the Pokemon craze, which reached its peak in the U.S. in 1999, has given rise to a $1-billion industry.
Ranwa Yehia of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.