Amal Hawijeh, the face behind the voice of Captain Majid

For actors, some roles become a burden. But for Amal Hawijeh, voicing a footballer in a Japanese cartoon won her the hearts of a generation. Now her focus is on her native Syria and the many young lives blighted by war, Rym Ghazal reports.

Syrian voice actress Amal Hawijeh photographed with Captain Majid, a character she voiced, in her home in Ajman. Sarah Dea / The National
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It is the voice that every Arab child of the 1980s and early 90s grew up with, the voice of a heroic football player, Captain Majid, who transfixed a generation of children and made it their dream to be able to shoot and score like him.

To this day, a good player in the Middle East is told: “You are like Captain Majid.”

It was also the voice of many other characters, such as Mowgli in the Arabic dubbed Japanese animated version of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, a jungle call that was copied by anyone who watched it.

So it is a surprise to discover that the voice of famous animated male characters who inspired generations of Arabs is that of a woman.

“People rarely call me by my real name, they call me Captain Majid or Mowgli!” says Amal Hawijeh, who may be close to 50, but has kept her familiar soft and gentle childlike voice and contagious laugh.

The Syrian actress, writer and artist has been in many serious and award-winning productions, with a distinguished career in film, books and theatre, appearing in more than 20 plays around the Arab world. She has worked with famous directors such as Fawaz Al Sajer, Manuel Gigy, Mansour Al Salti and Nader Qassim. She starred in and co-wrote the documentary Amal, by Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al Ghanem, that won the Muhr Emirati main award at the 2011 Dubai Film Festival.

But it is for cartoons that she is recognised.

Just how much her voice is loved was illustrated in the reaction of the audience in her appearance as a guest speaker recently at the opening ceremony of the 2nd Sharjah International Children’s Film Festival.

“Oh my god! you bring back so many childhood memories,” said Afra Ahmed, an Emirati in her 30s, a sentiment expressed by most of the Emirati and Arab attendees, young and old. Fans took autographs and photos with her, tweeting about meeting “Captain Majid”.

Arabic-dubbed cartoons, particularly Japanese animated cartoons, once ruled the TV screens of homes in not just the UAE but much of the Arab world. Until the cartoons were taken off the screen in the late 1990s (they have returned recently as reruns on the SpaceToon channel) children would tune in, often with their parents, at 4pm every day. Along with Iftah Ya Simsim, the Arabic version of hit children's show Sesame Street that taught an entire Arab generation its alphabet and numbers during the 1980s, the dubbed cartoons were the product of the GCC Joint Production Program Institution, which was set up in 1976 to make television programmes for the region.

It hired Kuwaiti, Iraqi and Syrian actors to dub more than 50 Japanese series into Arabic, distributed to the rest of the Arab world including North Africa.

“It is quite ironic that the role I almost didn’t dub is the one I would be most famous for,” said Hawijeh, who received a degree in theatre in Damascus in 1984. She was about 30 when she was approached with the Captain Majid series.

“I didn’t feel I could put much feeling and emotions into a story about a boy and soccer. I like to get attached and have a connection with all my work. I asked them to find someone else but they insisted, and I am glad they did,” she said.

In those days, the equipment was very basic and children were not used for dubbing.

“It was unethical to hire children, as we would spend hours upon hours inside taping and retaping. It is not easy, as it takes real talent to be able to capture the hearts and ears of your audience, and people train for years to become voice actors,” she said.

When Captain Majid grew up in the series, Hawijeh found someone who she mentored and became a voice actor name in his own right, Marwan Farhat.

“People always think we look like the cartoons we dub, and get surprised when they meet us,” says Hawijeh, who is petite with brown eyes, short hair, and could very easily pass for a young Captain Majid.

Hawijeh, who can voice animals and bird sounds, also dubbed Al Sayaad Al Sagheer (The Little Fisherman), Snow White and many others. She also produces plays with child actors.

“It is just something you are born with, where your voice can transform and capture the heart and soul of another creature,” she said. She pauses then clucks like a chicken, remembering a bird that used to follow her around as a child. “I would spend my childhood in the countryside, and the animals and birds were my friends.”

She got her first break in her early 20s when she was asked to dub a Russian cartoon about a doll horse that wanted to be a real horse.

“Initially someone would translate for me what the horse says. Then I signalled to the producer it is OK, I got it. And I became this character and expressed the feelings and words I would imagine it would say making it real and believable,” she said. “It is not enough to have beautiful imagery and drawings, you need the right words that touch a viewer or listener.”

Other Arab celebrities saw their lives transformed because of animation. The popular Syrian singer Asala got her first break in cartoons, and sang the theme songs for the Hikayat Alameya (Universal Stories) series when she was just a teenager. The legendary Lebanese crooner Sammy Clark, despite being a successful singer in his own right, is forever known as the singing voice behind songs in Grendizer and Jazerat Al Kanz (Treasure Island). Grendizer is the story of a prince from another planet defending Earth against aliens, and to this day has a cult-like following.

“I stopped dubbing when I found the quality of the cartoons had gone down. No depth, no values, just senseless fighting and action,” said Hawijeh, who stopped voicing them around 2000.

One of the first dubbed series was Al Rajol Al Hadidi (Iron Man or Kyoryu Daisenso Aizenborg in Japanese), a 1979 production about a team of expert warriors battling evil dinosaurs as they attacked Japan.

Other favourites include Adnan wa Lina (Conan Future Boy) about a boy and girl's adventures in a world on the brink of extinction. It was the work of the animator Hayao Miyazaki, who went on to win an Oscar in 2003 for his film Spirited Away. Other popular cartoons were based on classic books like Heidi and Sindbad the Sailor.

After influencing so many, she continues to mentor the young and writes books for them filled with stories of love and humour. A fourth book is about to be published about a dreaming child and a crusty old person, which she hopes will help another group in great need of hope.

“I really want to help Syrian refugee children keep their inner innocence and dreams as they will need them,” she said, adding: “It is not going to be any easier on them anytime soon.”

She hasn’t been back to Syria since 2011, living between the UAE, Greece and other countries, but hopes to return and give back to a country that continues to struggle with conflict.

“When I make the famous Mowgli cry now, it is a cry for Syria and for every country that has to suffer because of the destruction caused by humans,” she says. “Mowgli cried for the jungle as he left it. I cry for my country and all the innocent lives that suffer every minute.”