Did you know that the dominant Arab television company, MBC, tried to redub the Simpsons into Arabic for the domestic Arab media market? And not a crude dub, either – they spent serious money on it:
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 â€” 22 million people with nothing to do but watch television â€” 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 showâ€™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 worldâ€™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.)
This is fascinating, and analogous in one sense ot redubbing Japanese anime for US audiences. However, as you might imagine, Islamic cultural values (as regards to alcohol and sex) and even Arab stereotypes and prejudices (anti-semitism, attitudes towards homosexuality) needed to be considered when changing the dialouge. As one might expect, this neutered some of the show’s humor:
an episode like Season 4â€™s Homer the Heretic â€” in which Homer forgoes church, is visited by God and starts his own religion â€” did not make the grade. Nor did references to Krusty the Klownâ€™s father, Rabbi Krustofski. (An ex-Disney employee in Lebanon told me that if a TV station can help it, theyâ€™ll excise references to Judaism from shows meant for the pan-Arab market.)
â€œThis guy Homer drinks beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told them that he will drink sheâ€™er â€” 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 â€˜juice.â€™â€ And so on. Through a steady process of cross-cultural attrition â€” no bacon sandwiches, no Moeâ€™s Tavern, church becomes masjid (mosque) â€” The Simpsons was whittled down to a shadow of itself. As for Smithersâ€™s feelings for Mr. Burns? â€œI naturally tried to underemphasize that,â€ says Hosny.
What I find really fascinating about this is that it was precisely this cultural neutering that drew the ire from the young demographic who had been eagerly awaiting the show. And the producers themselves lamented the changes, because they felt that the essential appeal of Homer was somehow lost in the translation:
â€œThey’ve ruined it! Oh yes they have, sob. … Why? Why, why oh why?!!!!â€ wrote a blogger, Noors, living in Oman. It soon became clear that something had gone horribly wrong.
It didnâ€™t have to be that way. â€œI loved it,â€ says Hosny of the show. â€œI 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. Itâ€™s very close to the Egyptian point of view. Heâ€™s a very simple and kind person; from some points of view you feel that heâ€™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 â€” itâ€™s not ipso facto â€” and this makes good art.â€
It’s a strange endeavor but I thik that the producers’ comments reveal that they really Got It about the Simpsons. It’s a show that has potential to cross cultural boundaries if you reduce it to bare elements, but you can’t just excise those elements, you need to fill the void. Removing Smither’s lust for Burns is fine, but what can you replace it with that will also give depth to Smithers and Burns beyond mere boss and lackey? For all their 2D medium, the Simpsons are three-dimensional, and it’s these little details that matter most in fleshing out Springfield to something we look at as Americans and recognize and react to.
Fundamentally, the opportunity lost here was not to remake the Arab world with our cultural values, but rather the reverse – to humanize the view of America therein:
Shows like The Simpsons, pieces of pop art that explicate the ironies of North American life, play an important role in bridging cultural confusion. â€œWhen people from this Third World see that the American Dream is not perfect,â€ says Hosny, â€œthat 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. Iâ€™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 itâ€™s important, vital, for them to see the cracks in the faÃ§ade.â€
No show did that better than the Simpsons, it must be acknowledged. I hope that where the Shamsoons failed, something else will eventually succeed. And maybe they can dub it into English for our benefit.