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How do you say ‘D’oh!’ in Arabic?

Times Staff Writers

Bald, chubby underachiever Omar Shamshoon works each day at the local nuclear power plant owned by vulture-like millionaire Mahrooey Bey (Mr. Burned). Every evening, Omar comes home to a family that includes his blue-haired wife, Mona, hyper-smart daughter, Beesa, and troublemaking son, Badr.

Along the way, wacky high jinks invariably ensue, involving the moronic police chief, Maarmish (Crunchy) the television clown and Omar’s disturbingly perfect neighbor.

Sound familiar?

This, however, may not: Omar doesn’t drink beer. That is not a misprint.

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Instead, he spends time with his buddies at a local coffee shop. At home, he pops open frosty cans of Duff brand juice.

“The Simpsons” fans in the Middle East reacted with skepticism when MBC, an Arabic satellite channel, announced it would begin showing culturally modified, Arabic-dubbed versions of the iconic animated show.

The Arabic dialogue laid over existing shows is actually fairly faithful to the original script. Nothing seems censored, but episodes such as those featuring Homer’s gay roommate or the visit to the Duff brewery are unlikely to be chosen for translation.

And many of the more American inside jokes are simply glossed over.

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Ned Flanders, the devout Christian neighbor, is now merely annoying -- with no hint of religion. And needless to say, the relationship between Mr. Burns and his assistant, Smithers -- make that Salmawy -- has become strictly professional.

One month after the premiere of “Al Shamshoon,” voiced by some of Egypt’s top actors, many are asking whether this particular cultural divide can ever truly be bridged.

“They managed to make one of the funniest shows ever into something that is terribly unfunny, and one of the smartest shows around into something incredibly dumb,” ranted an Egyptian blogger who goes by the name Sandmonkey and who wants the show canceled. “Us Simpson lovers can’t take this abomination any longer.”

Others take a kinder view. Tarek Atia and Inas Hamam have turned the nightly viewings into a family event, watching raptly with their sons, Omar, 7, and Ali, 4.

“When I first saw it ... I thought, there’s no way they’re going to pull this off. But now I think it might be funnier in Arabic,” said Hamam, marketing manager for American University in Cairo.

Executives at Dubai-based MBC sounded a little bemused by the strong, sometimes outraged, reactions to their venture among hard-core fans. Spokesman Michel Kostandi acknowledged that they had underestimated the depth and passion of the fan base.

“We’re fascinated ourselves to see how this works,” he said, adding that the show’s translators were “determined to keep the exact spirit and heart of ‘The Simpsons.’ ”

Well, not quite: There’s that little matter of Homer’s favorite pastime.

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“What’s Homer without beer?” Sandmonkey told The Times, preferring to be identified by his blogger name. “This is a fundamental issue!”

The show was one of the flagships of MBC’s Ramadan lineup. During the Islamic holy month, which fell mostly in October this year, television channels compete heavily for the attention of Arab families digesting huge meals after their all-day fast.

MBC spared no expense, promoting “Al Shamshoon” nonstop and recruiting A-list film stars to dub the voices. Egypt’s top comedian, Mohamed Heneidy, provides the voice of Omar.

For local fans of the original “Simpsons,” it’s a wasted effort. The show’s real appeal, they say, depends on the multilayered dialogue, the often biting takes on American society and politics.

Without an understanding of that cultural depth, what remains for the audience here is mere slapstick, said Marwan Nasher, managing director of AK Comics Inc., which produces a line of Arab superhero comic books.

“It’s just a cartoon now,” Nasher said. “I wasn’t really impressed. You don’t know if they’re trying to show American culture or Arab culture. They’ve kind of lost the message.”

Hind Radwan, a cartoon director and editor who oversees dubbings of Disney cartoons into Arabic, echoes this view. “In the U.S., when making cartoons, there is a lot of thought about the children’s psychology and what is or isn’t culturally appropriate for them. Here we just take those cartoons and translate them; it ends up confusing the child’s identity,” she said.

Radwan said it was a question of simple economics. In Egypt, cartoon production lacks the prestige it has in other parts of the world and therefore receives little money and attention, so importing cartoons for dubbing is simply easier.

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“One minute of dubbing is much cheaper than one minute of production,” she said.

Western programming is hardly new to the Middle East. Even before the advent of satellite channels, shows such as “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Falcon Crest” and “MacGyver” were staples of state television.

The explosion of Arab satellite television brought dedicated channels showing subtitled Western movies, cop shows and sitcoms -- including the original “Simpsons.”

“You’d be surprised by the exposure to the Western media that our audience has,” said Kostandi, the MBC spokesman.

Recent attempts to adapt Western programming for a Middle East audience have met with mixed results. “Who Will Win a Million” was a huge hit, but an Arabic version of “Big Brother” was canceled last year after just one week because of protests over male and female contestants sharing a house.

Still, “Al Shamshoon” may yet find its audience.

Playing on the TV screen at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, “Al Shamshoon” set off belly-laughs from one satisfied viewer: 9-year-old Farida Hassan. Quizzed about her favorite bits, she said shyly, “I don’t understand anything, but it’s funny.”

In Atia and Hamam’s home in suburban Cairo, the whole family gathers every evening at 6:30 to watch the show.

For young Omar and Ali, it’s a fun, silly cartoon about strange-looking people doing strange things to one another. Omar’s favorite character: Badr, because “he’s naughty.” The parents, meanwhile, enjoy it on a completely different level. Both were born in Egypt, but Atia grew up in suburban Washington and Hamam in London. They dissect the translations, recall the originals and debate what jokes do or do not work in Arabic.

The two are fascinated by the dialogue translations, which are largely verbatim with subtle modifications throughout. Badr likes to shout “rewesh” (cool); Omar, in a flashback to his youth, listens to a classic song by Egyptian singer Ahmed Adawiya.

Atia, a journalist who runs the political and cultural news website cairolive.com, notes the significance of the characters speaking the distinctive Egyptian dialect instead of the more stilted formal Arabic normally heard in dubbed children’s cartoons. Decades of dominance of Arabic movies and films has made Egyptian slang the lingua franca of the Middle East, and Atia feels its choice is the saving grace of “Al Shamshoon.”

“It’s the only Arabic colloquial language that’s understood by everyone and has that casual, comfortable, potentially cynical feel that’s needed for this show,” he said.

But some aspects still seem destined to go over the head of anyone without a knowledge of American culture and media. One “Al Shamshoon” episode contained lengthy homages to “Twilight Zone: The Movie” and the legend of the Monkey’s Paw. Another centered on baseball, with Mahrooey Bey recruiting major league stars such as Darryl Strawberry and Wade Boggs for the company team.

Atia suspects a hidden pattern in the choices of which episodes to translate -- a sort of subliminal America 101 course.

“They’ve chosen an episode about Thanksgiving, an episode about Halloween and even an episode about the writing of the Declaration of Independence,” Atia said. “They seem to have chosen these episodes that really touch on Americana.”

To which his wife responded: “I think they’ve eliminated the ones that feature Homer in a bar, and these are what’s left.”

But the show isn’t a hit with all families. Atia remembers a recent evening with other young Egyptian couples and their kids. The group had to be persuaded to watch it -- with the adults saying that cartoons were for kids.

In the end, it bombed, he said: “Even the kids didn’t watch it.”


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