The animated series Shaabiat Al Cartoon has attracted a lot of fans, and with good reason
Rising vegetable prices, tribal allegiances and polygamy are themes not often encountered in the average episode of The Simpsons, but they make great comic fodder in Shaabiat Al Cartoon, the UAE's leading animated sitcom.
The series has become a national Ramadan staple, with households and iftar tents eagerly following the nightly misadventures of Shambee, a grumpy Emirati trying to make good in Dubai's bustling society.
The popularity of the programme, screened nightly on Dubai's youth-oriented Sama Dubai channel, has overtaken big-budget drama serials to become one of the most-watched Emirati productions since its television debut in 2006.
"And we are on track for another big audience this year," beams series creator and lead illustrator, Haidar Mohammed.
The concept started back in 2003, when it was first released as vignettes downloadable to mobile phones - a revolutionary approach at the time.
"We only had three characters and 20 seconds," he recalls. "But it became so popular with the boys and girls here and in the Gulf that we were asked by the team at Sama Dubai to turn it into a television show.
"Normally it happens the other way around, where snippets of a television show can be downloaded on your phone. But we were the only local show to jump from mobile phones to the television screen."
The move to the bigger screen necessitated a creative overhaul, with the addition of a slew of minor characters and the hiring of a creative team of 50 illustrators, writers and voice-over actors.
But it also finally gave Mohammed the scope to broaden his puns and hit bigger social targets.
Shaabiat, a word that means "rural neighbourhood" in Arabic, follows the lives of a group of families and individuals living in a small Dubai neighbourhood. There are 24 characters from countries throughout Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Each episode focuses on different individuals and their quirky troubles.
At the centre of the series, acting as anchors, however, are the characters Shambee and Bo Mhayer. The duo follow the tradition of all great comedy partners: they are from different sides of life but need one another to make sense of the world.
Shambee could be the Emirati equivalent of the TV show Married With Children's classic crank Al Bundy (who was played by US actor Ed O'Neill). Middle-class and disenchanted by his marital life, he is perpetually in search of respect but often falls short of winning it due to his dim-witted ways.
Bo Mhayer is a true Bedouin: his rugged views are formed by the tough lessons of the desert, leaving him both confused by and slightly distrustful of Dubai.
Through both characters, the series manages to examine some of the contentious issues bubbling beneath Emirati society.
In one episode, Shambee believes the reason he fails to elicit respect from his peers is due to his Iranian-sounding family name, so he decides to change it legally to a proud Emirati moniker.
However, with his Iranian inflection and inability to convince Bedouin elders of his Emirati credentials - including a hilariously bad attempt at Bedouin poetry - his plan goes awry.
In another episode, Bo Mhayer is taken to task for raising the dowry for his daughter's marriage, which includes instructing one poor suitor to change his hairstyle.
Eventually, Bo Mhayer and the suitor sort out their differences over a game of football on PlayStation.
Mohammed wanted a character like Shambee to lead the cast because he truly reflects Dubai's cosmopolitan society.
"Shambee is originally from Iran but he was one of the early families who moved to Dubai, as early as 40 or 50 years ago," he says. "There are many families like this from different parts such as India, Africa and Arabs who settled here a long time ago.
"This is why Dubai is so different than all the emirates, because it's an open city; its chest is open to every one and you can find so many different people in a neighbourhood."
It is this awareness of Dubai's melting pot that is responsible for the show's major draw: its vibrant scripts fusing local and regional dialect and English.
For instance, Shambee would attempt to cajole a neighbour using "kho", the Farsi term for brother. However, in another episode, he would dismiss a chatty interlocutor with a terse "Shut up!"
The young, western-educated Emirati Amoun often adds English terms in her speech - "lipstick" and "foundation".
This inclusive sense separates Shaabiat from Freej, another animated Emirati series that offers ultra-local references and dialect. It also singlehandedly resulted in a ratings spike for Sama Dubai, according to the station manager Ahmad Al Mansouri.
"[The characters'] personalities reveal various social categories in Dubai," he says. "Shaabiat Al Cartoon also fascinated sponsors from several sectors and consequently contributed in the noticeable achievement of the channel."
Tarek Yehia, a Lebanese-American fan from Dubai, explains Shaabiat's hilarity can be shared by a variety of cultures - even if they miss some of the references and dialogue.
"For example, my wife watches the show with me and I will be cracking up on the floor while she would be smiling," he says. "She may not know all the words, but she also enjoys it enough to join me in watching it."
Abu Dhabi resident Rubaya Alsuwaidi puts the show's popularity among Emiratis down to its ability to delve into issues discussed inside real households.
"Everything about it - the characters, the stories - all happen in our lives," he says. "It is all true, nothing is hidden and we can all relate to the stories about families and what they go through. It also talks about politics and government, but in funny ways you don't expect."
For amateur actor Ahmed El Derby, the man behind the voice of Bo Mhayer, it was the social outlook of the show, in addition to the laughs, that drove him to call Mohammed in 2008 to ask if he could contribute. It accurately reflects Emirati culture and daily life, he says.
"I was a big fan first before I joined the show. So I understood how much it is loved by the people. I knew straight away the show became popular because people look at it as their show and their stories."
Before co-founding Fanar Production in 2008, which produces two other animated series including Shaabiat, Mohammed worked as a caricature artist with the daily newspapers Al Bayan and Emirates Today.
His illustrations, which satirise contemporary local issues, earned him awards and resulted in four published compilations.
The daily newsroom deadlines requiring the melding of ideas with images served to prepare him for the demands of finding different social angles for each of Shaabiat's episodes.
The programme has also been viewed as an ideal platform for local government to educate viewers on new policy initiatives. On August 19, the producers teamed up with Abu Dhabi's Masdar project for an episode discussing sustainability.
Mohammed expected backlash to the programme, and he got it.
"There were some people who watched the show [who] told us to stop revealing truths and don't embarrass us in public," he says.
"But we told them no, the job of caricatures and cartoon is to look at negatives first before the positive. Because the positives are rarely hidden and people can easily find them. Our job is to search for the issues kept hidden and bring them out in the public. And that's not just for the locals; we also talk about the problems of people from abroad who live here as well."
But Mohammed says the show would never provoke for its own sake. He understands a light-hearted outlook is key to its wide appeal.
"We really do offer something different," he says. "A lot of other local shows and dramas are all about crisis and people crying. Just for those 20 or so minutes we want to give people a chance to smile."
Shaabiat Al Cartoon is shown daily during Ramadan at 7.30pm on Sama Dubai, followed by Freej at 8pm
Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM