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Mohammed Saeed Harib, More Intelligent Life

“I am married to the four grandmothers and that is as much as my religion will allow.”

The animator Mohammed Saeed Harib is the creator of Freej, the Middle East’s first 3D animation show. This month Series Four launches, in time for Ramadan. A region-wide, cross-generational hit, Freej (local dialect for “neighbourhood”) stars four 21st Century Dubai grandmothers in visored Bedouin masks: Um Saeed, the wise linchpin; Um Allawi, the intellectual; Um Saloom, the benign dimwit; Um Khammas who is, she admits, “Crude, as in oil.” To westerners, at least, its depiction of raucous, irreverent, comic Arab matriarchs is a revelation.

From an enclave of tottering windtower houses amid skewiff skyscrapers, the four tussle with problems new and old – westernised teens, noisy neighbours, a blogging neighbourhood gossip, pricey fish at the market. Insults fly – “You are even ugly in the dark”, “May God flip the on switch in your brain”.

Harib, 33, studied General Arts and Animation at North Eastern University, Boston, before returning home to Dubai and working in marketing at Dubai Media City. But the idea of Freej had already been sown, in Boston, and in 2003 Harib began three hard years of pitching to TV Channels and potential backers. In 2005 he established Lammtara Pictures and in 2006, Freej hit the screen. Harib spoke to More Intelligent Life by mobile, seeking out Lammtara’s pantry for some peace and quiet.

How did you create the grandmothers?

One of the classes at University was Intro To Animation. Our professor asked us to come up with a superhero, ‘I want a superhero that relates to you now, from your culture’. Before we had this oil infusion, our grandfathers used to go pearl diving, six-to-seven months. The female figures had to raise six to seven kids in a very harsh financial environment, a very harsh weather environment. She used to teach the kids, she used to work, so she was the superhero. On top of that she looked very unique thanks to the mask she was wearing. And hence my first character was born.

Which one was it?

Um Saeed, she was my first born, as they say. Um in Arabic means ‘The mother of’ and Saaed is my father, so it is a homage to my grandmother. The others are offshoots, kind of extremes of a grandmother.

What does your grandmother’s generation make of Freej?

They love it to bits. These grandmothers have seen the country evolve from some small village in a desert to this place where they have the tallest skyscraper in the world. So how do they adapt, how do they react with the new generation who is riding this wave? And we realise [in Freej] that through their simple way and their simple judgement, you can find the purest solution.

Is the culture that Freej’s grandmothers represent threatened?

Definitely. Not by outsiders as much as by us being negligent about our own identity. We are minority in our own country, so it is very important, as generations are brought up, to remember who we are, what makes us special.

Why has Freej been such a hit?

Number one, we lacked quality shows. Our quality of productions in Arabia was second to none when it came to badness. Number two, they were importing and dubbing non-Arabic shows, and we found out people wanted to see local, cultural shows. And my last thought would be, I am hoping that the show is good, actually.

How much of it is your work?

I created the main characters. I write the scripts with scriptwriters but I have to fix those scripts. I work with the actors. I work on the music. We have 500 people but I am pretty much captain of the boat. With the first season and second season, it was in my head, I was the only one who could express it. Now I have a very good team, they know the parameters. We say ‘Um Saloom would not say that’ or ‘OK, this fits her’. There is always reasoning for everything we do, even the buildings, they have to be skewed in a certain way.

Where did you find the four lead voices?

They are all my friends. I did a casting for over 60 people and none of them spoke to the woman that was in my head. It was a blessing in disguise. I had these friends who I used whenever we did script readings and they matched perfectly. They never acted before, they were your regular local person. So I thought, people will accept them, this is the first part you associate the voice with.

What were the artistic influences on you that created Freej?

I am an inspiration junkie. I get inspired by the stupidest thing, maybe a cheesy song or a big thing here or a monument somewhere. Dubai is an inspiration, the energy. When the show was first produced, you opened the newspaper and some business makes a project announcement, another mega building. So you are pushed to do something out of your norm, something that is a ‘Wow!’ factor.

Dubai is relatively liberal but do you feel constrained in what you can say about life in the city?

I am Dubaian, by default I have certain borders in me, it is like the chip in you. The TV Channels never force you, they never say ‘You can’t talk about this or about that’.

What wouldn’t you talk about?

Politics, religion, how do I say this, certain sexual themes. Basically the three main things you will find in any conservative culture.

And maybe, if you have that cultural background, you wouldn’t want to talk about them in a programme anyway?

Well you also have to look at the format of the programme. It is about four old grandmothers and if you want to talk about certain things, it’s not appealing to the sort of programme you are doing. My show is not a show which discusses current issues. I want something that lives, and to make it live forever you need to speak about themes which can withstand the passage of time.

You are a very business-minded animator, aren’t you?

I learnt the hard way. When I set out to do this show I was an artist, an aspiring person who loved to sketch. Then I had to put together business plans, feasibility studies. I had to speak to sharks, CEOs who wanted a bite of your company. We have a problem with Emiratis who don’t trust Emiratis. Many CEOs don’t see an Emirati talent as a talent worth spending money on. Hence I had a huge struggle to get financing. You go through this and you learn to become an entrepreneur.

What is next for you? More Freej?

Every year I tell myself ‘This is my last year’. But you have people who demand the show, we have an extensive merchandizing programme, you diversify your brand, it went into a stage show. You can’t just cut it off, like that. When I feel there is nothing I can give, I will stop and move on to something else.

How about home life? Have you found time to stop and get married?

Not yet! I am married to the four grandmothers and that is as much as my religion will allow.

August 2011

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