Playing Halal (Islamization of Toys in Syria)

Since the ‘Islamic Barbie’ Fulla hit stores in 2003, a wave of Islamic toys has flooded the Syrian market. Is this a sign of rising conservatism or simply clever marketing?

Since she hit the market in 2003, the veiled Barbie doll Fulla has made international headlines. A product of the Dubai-based Syrian toy company New Boy, this best-seller was touted as Barbie’s ‘modest’ relative – a cousin who promotes Islamic virtues.

Fast-forward six years and Fulla no longer has to face the arduous task of setting the right example on her own. Today, the dark-haired Muslim icon competes in a growing market for Islamic toys, vying for a place among religious story books and interactive games which teach children how to pray. Islamised versions of best-selling American cartoons and Japanese anime also sell like hot cakes.

Censoring un-Islamic values

One such anime is the Japanese best-seller Dragon Ball Z, which has been edited and dubbed by Al-Zuhra, a Syrian sound recording studio. The original Japanese story revolves around seven mystical dragon balls which, when all brought together, summon the legendary dragon Shen Long. He grants the person who gathers the balls a wish and then disappears for a year, scattering the dragon balls across the world in the process. But while protagonists in the original version gather the luminous balls in order to get a boyfriend or live forever, in Al-Zuhra’s Islamised version their only wish is to build a school.

“The anime, or the Japanese style of animated cartoon, is known for its violent and sexually explicit content,” Iyad Hijizi, a technical supervisor at Al-Zuhra, said. “It’s not the kind of anime we want our children to see.”

As such, the company edits out any Japanese or American content that challenges Islamic values. The company does not have a budget to produce its own cartoons. Instead, it rewrites the plots to promote positive ideas such as strong family ties, education and honesty.

“We cut out all swear words, stills that show nudity, sexual acts or violence and parts that encourage smoking, drinking alcohol, living together before marriage or stealing,” Hijizi said.

Al-Zuhra also censors stereotypical views of Arabs in the foreign cartoons they work with.

“In some cartoons, Arabs are portrayed as primitive, evil people who eat with their hands and sell belly dancers,” Hijizi said. “We certainly don’t want to promote that.”

The rigour of Al-Zuhra’s editing standards varies, however, depending on the production company that commissions them.

“Companies from all over the Arab world commission Al-Zuhra to edit their cartoons,” Hijizi said. “Some of them are more conservative than others, but we avoid being too extreme.”

The company also “fights the Westernisation of Arab culture” by replacing foreign names with Arabic ones and swapping overseas locations with cities, towns and landmarks from the region. A team is also employed to dub the films into Modern Standard Arabic, instead of the colloquial dialects which are commonly used.

“We want the long hours children spend watching television not to be just entertaining, but also educational,” Hijizi said.

Not everyone’s a fan

The move to edit foreign cartoons is not appreciated by all. Aside from the question of international copyright, episodes can become a hotchpotch of incoherent images that have nothing to do with the story.

“In Dragon Ball Z they edited the plot to build a school, but you don’t see a school in the whole cartoon,” Muhammad Hamze, a Syrian cartoonist and animator who previously worked for Al-Zuhra, said. “This distracts children because what they see is different from what they hear.”

Hamze adds that the quality of the original Japanese animes is entirely lost after editing.

“I’m not against cartoons that reflect our Islamic culture and that children can relate to, but I’m against distorting such great animes,” he said. “If we want something Islamic, why not make it ourselves?”

By turning all names and locations into Arabic, others say the cultural value of foreign cartoons is lost.

“Through cartoons, children used to learn about different countries and cultures,” Diana el-Jeiroudi, co-founder of Proaction Film Company and director of Dolls: A Woman from Damascus, a film which explores Syrian women’s identity through the character of Fulla, said. “Arabising cartoons promotes insularity rather than Islam because it promotes one model of living, the Arabic one.”

Jeiroudi says that like Fulla, these cartoons are promoting an ideology rather than a set of religious values.
“There is a collective feeling among Arabs that they are under attack and can’t defend their identity,” she said. “These toys and cartoons are an attempt to defend and promote an ideology rather than Islam per se.”

Money talks

While the promotion of Islamic values is often touted by a new wave of children’s toys and entertainment brands, industry insiders say healthy profits are the main drivers behind the surge in products such as Fulla and the local variety of Dragon Ball Z.

“The editing of cartoons has nothing to do with Islamisation or education, it’s all about money,” Hamze said. “As Syrian cartoon companies don’t have the budgets to produce their own cartoons, they need a brand of their own that will attract viewers and what could be better than promoting Islamic cartoons with ‘safe’ content for children?”

It is also a lot cheaper to edit foreign cartoons than employ artists to develop local, culturally relevant material.

“Apart from the few production grants offered by the Secretariat of Damascus Arab Capital of Culture 2008 last year, there are no local funding opportunities,” Hamze said.

Orwa Nyrabia, co-founder of Proaction Film Company and co-producer of Dolls: A Woman from Damascus, said going Islamic simply makes good business sense. He points to the fact that Fulla was launched in Saudi Arabia only days after authorities banned Barbie for being “a symbol of decadence of the perverted West”.

“Saudi Arabia is the biggest purchasing power in the region and it only buys strictly Islamic products,” Nyrabia said. “It’s not a conspiracy or a plan to promote Islam, it’s just marketing.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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