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How do you say 'D'oh!' in Arabic?

December 12, 2005|Ashraf Khalil and Jailan Zayan | Times Staff Writers

"You'd be surprised by the exposure to the Western media that our audience has," said Kostandi, the MBC spokesman.

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.

Still, "Al Shamshoon" may yet find its audience.

Playing on the TV screen at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, "Al Shamshoon" set off belly-laughs from one satisfied viewer: 9-year-old Farida Hassan. Quizzed about her favorite bits, she said shyly, "I don't understand anything, but it's funny."

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

For young Omar and Ali, it's a fun, silly cartoon about strange-looking people doing strange things to one another. Omar's favorite character: Badr, because "he's naughty." The parents, meanwhile, enjoy it on a completely different level. Both were born in Egypt, but Atia grew up in suburban Washington and Hamam in London. They dissect the translations, recall the originals and debate what jokes do or do not work in Arabic.

The two are fascinated by the dialogue translations, which are largely verbatim with subtle modifications throughout. Badr likes to shout "rewesh" (cool); Omar, in a flashback to his youth, listens to a classic song by Egyptian singer Ahmed Adawiya.

Atia, a journalist who runs the political and cultural news website, notes the significance of the characters speaking the distinctive Egyptian dialect instead of the more stilted formal Arabic normally heard in dubbed children's cartoons. Decades of dominance of Arabic movies and films has made Egyptian slang the lingua franca of the Middle East, and Atia feels its choice is the saving grace of "Al Shamshoon."

"It's the only Arabic colloquial language that's understood by everyone and has that casual, comfortable, potentially cynical feel that's needed for this show," he said.

But some aspects still seem destined to go over the head of anyone without a knowledge of American culture and media. One "Al Shamshoon" episode contained lengthy homages to "Twilight Zone: The Movie" and the legend of the Monkey's Paw. Another centered on baseball, with Mahrooey Bey recruiting major league stars such as Darryl Strawberry and Wade Boggs for the company team.

Atia suspects a hidden pattern in the choices of which episodes to translate -- a sort of subliminal America 101 course.

"They've chosen an episode about Thanksgiving, an episode about Halloween and even an episode about the writing of the Declaration of Independence," Atia said. "They seem to have chosen these episodes that really touch on Americana."

To which his wife responded: "I think they've eliminated the ones that feature Homer in a bar, and these are what's left."

But the show isn't a hit with all families. Atia remembers a recent evening with other young 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."

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