Playing Halal

By Nadia Muhanna
Photos Carole al-Farah

Playing Halal

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

Playing HalalThe
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 Pro Action 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

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

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 Pro Action 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.”