Eight-year-old Abdel Mohsen Medwahi lived for Pokemon. Pokemon trading cards. Pokemon comic books. Pokemon clothing. Pokemon toys. Everything and anything Pokemon.
So it stunned his father, Omar, when the boy solemnly reported the troubling news he had just heard from friends: " 'Pokemon' means 'There is no God in the universe.' "
As a faithful Muslim in Saudi Arabia, a devoutly Muslim country, Omar Medwahi decided to check up on the seemingly harmless make-believe creatures. He called the local Pokemon distributor, who reassured him that Pokemon was short for "pocket monster" and had no religious connotation.
And that would have been the end of it in the Medwahi household. But the rumor took hold, and spread, until Saudi Arabia's top religious authority issued an outright ban, saying Pokemon promotes anti-Islamic behavior--and is suspiciously Jewish. Pokemon was stripped from store shelves, cartons arriving at local ports were turned away, orders were canceled, and schools set up collection points to turn in clothing decorated with Pokemon figures.
Saudi Arabia's response may seem extreme, but its outrage is hardly unique. Pokemon has become a target of religious leaders throughout the Arab world who charge that the game promotes theories of evolution, encourages gambling and, at its core, is part of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at turning children away from Islam.
Despite denials of an anti-Islam bias from Nintendo, the Japanese manufacturer of the cards and electronic games, Muslim leaders in Oman, Qatar, Dubai, Jordan and Egypt have also said Pokemon is religiously unacceptable. Japanese embassies throughout the region have received inquiries from parents and officials who had heard that Pokemon was Japanese for "I am a Jew."
That the issue has erupted into a firestorm in the Arab world tells much about the climate in the region, where tensions between Arabs and Jews are at least as bad as they have ever been, where traditional Arab governments are increasingly worried about cultural assimilation with the West and where rumor is often more powerful than reality.
The Pokemon issue has its roots in the same frustrations experienced by parents everywhere. Children became obsessed with the game, taking the trading cards to school, staying glued to the television program, pestering parents to purchase Pokemon items. But religious faith is so central to everyday life here that social issues automatically become filtered through the religious establishment.
And while there are many who shrug off the conspiracy theories as ludicrous, in this climate of heightened tensions, no one has stood up and said so.
Instead, it is the hard-liners--some with certain political and religious agendas--who have defined the tenor of the public debate.
'A Jewish Plan to Corrupt the Mind'
"It has been proven that this toy is part of a Jewish plan to corrupt the mind of our young generation because it alludes to blasphemous thinking, it mocks our God and our moral values and is therefore extremely dangerous for our youth," said Sheik Abdel Monem abu Zent, a hard-liner and former member of parliament in Jordan who has helped stir up discontent, although he acknowledges that he is not familiar with the game.
Mohammed abu Laila, an academic and preacher based at Al Azhar University, the prestigious seat of Islamic learning in Cairo, said the community's core objection to the game is that it denigrates God. "From the parents' point of view, this game is abusive to Allah," he said. "The characters are insulting to God or spreading atheist ideas or nonreligious ideas."
But he said that while he has no proof of its validity, he has heard, and many parents believe, that characters' names are code words for anti-Islamic terms--such as "Be a Jew."
The decibel level of the Pokemon debate has raised concerns within the Jewish community in the United States.
"When you start saying, 'The Jews are manipulating children's minds, getting them to gamble, feeding them all kinds of unacceptable behavior,' that is scary. And when it comes wrapped in fatwas, as God's truth, this is God's word, then it becomes a lot scarier," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "It starts in one place, and all of a sudden it has a life."
Pokemon's life began innocently enough in Japan in 1995 as a video game, with few people predicting its success. There are 150 brightly colored characters in the original Pokemon, each a mini-monster with the potential to transform into a more powerful creature. When the game traveled to the United States, Nintendo spun off trading cards, which set off a frenzy among children eager to collect all of the characters in all their forms.
By the time its popularity peaked in the U.S. in 1999, Pokemon was a multimedia phenomenon, with movies and television shows, clothing and toy lines, producing sales in the billions of dollars.
But for all its success in the U.S., Nintendo had not marketed Pokemon in the Arab world until about a year ago, said Beth Llewelyn, director of public relations for Nintendo of America, based in Seattle.
Llewelyn said Nintendo's video games had never been marketed in the Arab world, so there was no natural path for introducing Pokemon. Eventually, Nintendo issued licenses to vendors interested in the product, and it took off. But Pokemon's success became a headache for many parents in the region.
"My son is a very devout collector of the Pokemon cards, and he used to drive us all crazy," said Randa Hassan, a schoolteacher in Amman, the Jordanian capital. "It was the talk of society for quite a long time. Everyone was talking about it."
"Pokemon Virus" was the headline of an article that appeared in March in Modern Family, a magazine published in the United Arab Emirates. The article painted Pokemon as a dangerous waste of time and an expensive drag on parents.
"It is the burden of this age which has hit tens of millions of children worldwide," the article said. "As with other Third World children, our children have found in Pokemon an opportunity to lose themselves in it. They neglected their studies, prevented their parents from getting close to the television to change the channel which was broadcasting a Pokemon series."
About a month ago, the agitation against Pokemon took on a different cast. Parents, teachers, clerics and others said that a small, unsigned flier began showing up in schools in Saudi Arabia and other countries charging that Pokemon denigrated God--although there are many different accounts of what the flier actually said.
"The leaflet, written in poor Arabic, claimed that Pikachu, the most popular and powerful character, meant 'I am Jewish' in Japanese," said Abdel Rahman Mtowah, editor of the Saudi-based Al Sharq al Awsat newspaper.
In a fatwa, or religious edict, Saudi Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik urged "all Muslims to beware of this game and prevent their children from playing it so as to protect their religion and manners." He added that most of the cards "figure six-pointed stars, a symbol of international Zionism and the state of Israel."
A few weeks later, in early April, a fatwa was issued in Dubai saying that Pokemon "clearly contains gambling" and that the game "is based on the theory of evolution, a Jewish-Darwinist theory, that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles."
The issue boiled over in Jordan this month as well. In a statement in an Amman newspaper, the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church denied allegations that Pokemon and other character names were rooted in the ancient Syriac language and were insulting to Islam. Church officials had become alarmed when they received an anonymous fax making the allegations.
In Egypt, a recent article in the weekly newspaper Al Osbou said in part: "Some schools distributed leaflets to students including information that was taken from a local newspaper that assures that Pokemon is a Jewish company and that the names of Pokemon characters all are blasphemous."
Several Products Have Seen Controversy
There have been many instances of products, or companies, falling prey to rumor campaigns. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority tried to tag the Teletubby character Tinky Winky as gay because it is purple--the gay pride color--carries a bag and has an antenna shaped like a triangle--the gay pride symbol. For years, Procter & Gamble has battled the rumor that its 132-year-old trademark, which shows the Man in the Moon and 13 stars representing the original colonies, is a symbol of Satanism and devil worship.
Pokemon itself is not new to controversy. In 1999, Nintendo discontinued a card bearing an image similar to a swastika after the Anti-Defamation League complained. It also has been criticized in Mexico by a Christian church, which called it "demonic." In Malaysia, clerics reportedly are studying the religious aspects of the video game, and many schools in the United States have banned Pokemon from classrooms.
But in the Middle East, it is more than the viability of a product that is at stake; such charges serve to widen the chasm between Arab and Jew.
"You know the situation, the chaos and problems between the Palestinians and the Jews," said Abu Laila, the academic and preacher based at Al Azhar in Cairo. "The situation is so sensitive."
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Pokemon: An Empire at a Glance
The name: Pokemon, short for "pocket monster," is the
name given to the many creatures found in a series
of Nintendo video games as well as related trading cards and cartoons.
The characters: There are 250 types of Pokemon, and each has a name, such as Pikachu or Charmander.
The impact: It is estimated that the Pokemon craze, which reached its peak in the U.S. in 1999, has given rise to a $1-billion industry.
Ranwa Yehia of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.