Dubai based animator Mohammed Saeed Harib created the most successful animated TV series in the history of the Middle East. He recently spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper about his nonstop work pace, the charity he started with his sister and working on the hit show.
Chet Cooper: Can you give me some background on FREEJ, your characters and how you came up with the concept?
Mohammed Saeed Harib: I studied general art and animation in Boston and came up with the idea for the show when my professors asked me to create a superhero based on my culture. I chose my grandmother because she was a lady who looked unique. Back in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, roles for women like her were limited in the media because they were only telling tales of our fathers’ heroic adventures as they dove to get pearls from the sea. They neglected the roles of woman like my grandmother, who raised seven or eight children. She worked for a living, educated her childrens’ kids and yet stories like hers weren’t being told.
Cooper: It’s unusual for a grandmother to be the hero of a story.
Harib: Maybe I missed my grandmother more than anybody else when I was in the United States! But I could tell there was no potential for an animated show in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or the Middle East for that matter until about 2001. At that time, Dubai underwent a huge transformation where there was this tremendous infusion of creativity as the government evolved from an oil based economy to a knowledge based economy. These were the conditions under which an entrepreneur’s dreams could be achieved. I started off with a sketch of a particular character and through the years, the bank financed it, the government supported it and we launched our show.
Cooper: Have there been topics that you couldn’t include in the show?
Harib: You know, we don’t have red tape as such, but there are issues we don’t include because they’re not acceptable to viewers—not because of the government. You just need to be smart about how you portray your ideas; sometimes you can hide them in a visual joke without using dialogue. Sometimes we do things that have double meanings. It might be this or it might be that. But I’ve never had my show cut, edited or censored. Because I’m from this country, I have my own parameters around what things I’ll put in the show. At the end of the day, this is entertainment and it’s a commercial show. I want it to be successful and make money.
Cooper: So your internal sensitivities have been the only governing aspect so far?
Harib: Yes, and I’m a very open minded person.
Cooper: We have the Federal Communications Commission. If certain things are said on a media outlet that are out of line, such as foul language, nudity, etc., the outlet will be fined. Unless it’s a cable/satellite TV channel that the viewer pays for, then it’s pretty open.
Harib: In the States, you have the First Amendment. People feel the freedom to speak and the right to be heard. And they kind of push the message: “It’s a free country.” Everybody has the right to say whatever they want to say. But in this part of the world, culture is your guide. You have to ask, is it culturally okay to say something like that? Is it culturally okay, for example, to show a woman giving birth? As Arabs watching such a scene in an American film it’s okay, but when it comes to the Arabic context, we’re like, “How dare you?” So it’s how you present it.
Cooper: How many writers do you have on your show?
Harib: I have one writer: me.
Cooper: And how do you get along with him?
Harib: (laughs) He’s been lazy lately! He’s late submitting episodes. But I have to wait on him, because when he writes he knows what would be funny without being insulting and what really fits into the world of the four grandmothers. We’re not talking about four teenagers here; we’re talking about four grandmothers, so there are rules. You can do certain things with grandmothers that you would not do with a teenager.
Cooper: They must have extended family, though, so that teenagers could, conceivably, pop up in the show.
Harib: They do, and they discuss their issues, but as they fall under the umbrella of the main story. Our team at Dubai TV is very open minded and they’ll say: “Hey, this might be an issue the viewers might not take very well,” or “This is a line that we don’t think would push the episode forward. Can you rephrase this?” We’re very collaborative in that sense. At the end of the day, I want the message to go through and I don’t want my show to be stopped. It’s a balancing act.
Cooper: Have you dealt at all with what’s been happening in several of the countries in the Middle East, what we call the Arab Spring?
Harib: We did two episodes that kind of mimicked the Arab Spring, but it was set within a local neighborhood. Basically the tyrant was the grocery store owner who has all the goods. Everybody owes him money and he sets the rules. So they decided to overthrow him. We did a mini-political thing, but within the established context of our show; it was accepted very well because we never said it was political, but people saw the parallels between our story and what was actually happening in the real world.
Cooper: Was the shopkeeper replaced, or did he change how he did business?
Harib: The shopkeeper had this huge display that he sat on and it collapsed on top of him. And you know what’s funny? He comes back in the season finale as if nothing happened. Our episodes are stand alones, so we don’t say, “This happened in the sixth episode and in the ninth episode the guy is dead.”
Cooper: That makes it so much easier. We have a show here and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s called South Park?
Harib: Yes, where they keep killing Kenny.
Cooper: (laughs) Exactly. They’re over the top with the way they put their material together and they also have to be on cable because some of the material that they produce wouldn’t be allowed on network TV, so they get away with a lot more. But I had heard that your show was similar in the sense of notoriety as The Simpsons. Have you heard that comparison?
Harib: (laughs) It is The Simpsons of Dubai and the UAE. We differ in that The Simpsons rely on satire regarding social issues happening in the States. And it’s delivered in a certain way. But we take our cue from fantasy in that we do a comedy show. Sometimes we have a musical show. Sometimes we talk of friendship just for the sake of friendship. So we are not bound by what’s happening politically or socially, because I want the episodes to be timeless. I want you to look at them 10 years from now and go, “Hmm, I can relate to that.” I don’t want you to say, “What was that about?”
Cooper: Do any of the grandmothers use technology?
Harib: One grandmother is tech savvy. She speaks English and French and she’s got stock investments. She’s kind of a mini-millionaire, which is not like any real grandmother in the UAE. They can barely speak Arabic, let alone English. But this character was created in order to relate to a younger demographic; she’s cool and uses Twitter and Instagram.
Our individual characters do have accounts on Twitter, so you can look up one of them and she will say one of our famous lines. It’s a marketing drive. We have a Facebook page of the show but not for the individual grandmothers.
Cooper: It might be funny if a grandmother gets hooked on Facebook and spends all her time there.
Harib: I have a feeling that Facebook is going down and I still want my episodes to be timeless. But one of the supporting characters on the show was sitting with her friends and she was like, “Oh, come, let’s get a picture on Twitter.” And in the instant that she put a picture on Twitter on the show, we posted the same picture on our FREEJ page. It was very interactive.
Cooper: That’s cool. I heard that you’re writing an episode in which one grandmother visits another, finds her reading ABILITY Magazine, and says, “What article is that?” And the one who is reading replies, “Oh, it’s about this program that donates wheelchairs.”
Harib: Hmmm. Thanks for the subliminal message. (laughs) I’ll keep it in mind. I’m facing such a bottleneck right now to finish my episodes. As a director, I’ll have the camera hold on the sky for 20 seconds just to make the time pass by.
Cooper: Lots of pressure as a single writer?
Harib: I’m guided by my team. We sit together and throw ideas around. There are 17 of us in the office and if they say, “This is a cool episode,” or something is cool, I take it as a suggestion. They’ll say, “Oh, you like this idea? Now you have to make it work!” I may massage the idea a little, then we go back and forth a while and then finally I’ll write it.
Cooper: When you and your team throw ideas around, who cleans up afterwards?
Harib: They do. (laughs)
Cooper: So you have a pretty large staff. How many people work on the show?
Harib: Overall, there are about 500 people in different countries, but the core group is the 17 people in Dubai.
Cooper: Is your crew large because of the number of animators it takes to put it together?
Harib: It’s because of the modelers, the riggers (who use physics, anatomy, 3D and other software) and the animators. The show requires floor upon floor of animators and riggers—people who are very specialized and dedicated to one thing, which we don’t have here in Dubai because of the cost.
Cooper: So aspects of your show are outsourced throughout the world?
Harib: Yes, we outsource to Singapore, France and India.
Cooper: That’s interesting. Given the demands on you, how many years do you think you’ll be able to do the show?
Harib: As long as I have ideas and as long as the stations keep backing the show financially. I’m also working on side projects. I’m working on a movie with Roger Allers, one of the directors of The Lion King; I’m doing a theatrical show and several more projects. I keep myself busy and entertained.
Cooper: That’s good. The old saying is: If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.
Harib: Yes, exactly.
Cooper: So your projects include television, features, the web—
Harib: —and theater, also.
Cooper: I saw something on your website that was a mixture of theater, show and animation. Is that part of what you’re talking about?
Harib: That was a 2009 show. It was theatrical and included a blend of 10×10 holograms and 300 performers. You have live characters interacting with the holograms.
Cooper: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything that large scale before. Many years ago, I received an email from a scientist or a group out of Tehran and they had said that they had invented a hologram system that actually had smell connected to it.
Harib: Ooh! I’ll definitely use that if it’s available.
Cooper: I never heard anything back from them and that was a long time ago. Maybe the whole thing stunk.
Cooper: How did you get involved with the ABILITIESme conference?
Harib: I believe they approached us because we have the number one show in Dubai and we said “yes” because we feel we have a social responsibility. We designed an abilitiesme FREEJ logo and we’re excited to be part of this event. Anything we can do to back a cause that has a positive effect on people of all abilities, we support.
There was also a campaign that we did with the four grandmothers to raise awareness around breast cancer for a charity here called Big Caravan. We did it because it’s very hard in the UAE to educate people about breast cancer. It’s such a taboo subject, so we did it in an entertaining way.
Cooper: I heard that you’re connected to an organization called Social Bandage? How did that come about?
Harib: We’d been approached by many charities to do something here and there, then we decided to start our own charity. My sister Aisha is basically running it. Our first initiative was a T-shirt collection designed by up-and-coming artists from the region and for every T-shirt sold, we donate a wheelchair.
Cooper: Nice. How many T-shirts have you sold?
Harib: More than 3,000 so far. Now the team is doing a lot of hospital visits; they take the FREEJ characters there and tell stories. It’s an obligation I have towards the community, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time and thank God my sister came up with something like this. At least FREEJ is doing something to give back to the community. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’m running this company, writing the show, directing the show and coming up with ideas.
Cooper: You need to figure out how to hologram yourself so you can be in multiple places.
Harib: (laughs) I’ll work on that.
It didn’t take much for Aisha Saeed Harib to see a need and take action. Putting her graphic design skills to the test, she is bringing awareness to the youth in UAE. Through fashion, with a passion to help, the Social Bandage is breaking innovative ground. We learned about her cause de jour and that when one campaign ends, another begins.
Cooper: Mohammed briefly told me about how you’ve created a T-shirt campaign to support your organization.
A. Harib: It’s called the Social Bandage. Basically, here in the UAE, we don’t have projects to help youth become socially aware and learn about the importance of making a contribution. Most of that effort is geared towards people 40 and over, whether it’s donating to a cause or giving blood. So since I’m a graphic designer, I wanted to do something for my community and my generation.
The easiest way to create awareness is through fashion and youth like to wear something for a cause. I was already donating wheelchairs to people with disabilities, so I put that story on a T-shirt. A percentage of every T-shirt sale goes towards the purchase of wheelchairs. We started an online charity store and put the items there for people to order and to spread the word. Samsung sponsors the campaign, which is a great achievement.
Cooper: Can anyone in the world support it?
A. Harib: Yes, anyone can buy a shirt, and we’ll get it to them.
Cooper: And you chose wheelchairs because-
A. Harib: I give away wheelchairs to people who need them because they’re expensive and not everybody can afford one. So I figured why not raise funds to buy the chairs and improve people’s ability to get around.
As a social enterprise, I collaborate with different charity organizations in the field. I love to mix and match from all over the world. I’ve already delivered wheelchairs to India and Kenya and soon I’ll be delivering some within the UAE.
Cooper: Where do you get the wheelchairs?
A. Harib: We work with an organization that manufactures and distributes them.
Cooper: A wheelchair generally needs to have some customization and cushions so the rider isn’t harmed. Are manufacturers taking that into consideration?
A. Harib: Yes. We give them the funds for modifications.
Cooper: We just did a story on a MIT student and her team, who invented a new wheelchair they’re distributing in different parts of the world. It’s an all-terrain wheelchair that they produce using bicycle parts, so they’re easy to manufacture and can be repaired locally. They install these levers that the user can pull up or down, so they don’t have push on the tires and the poles become the mechanism to move the chair over uneven terrain. Perhaps you could work with them? (see page 41)
A. Harib: That would be amazing. Wheelchairs can have a huge impact on keeping people safe, because many who use them cannot move independently. They have mobility restrictions and they’re on the floor relying on someone to pick them up. So, when they’re in their wheelchairs, they feel a lot safer and more independant.
Cooper: How many chairs have you been able to donate so far?
A. Harib: Seven hundred. Once we’ve given 1000 chairs away, we’re going to end the campaign and launch another good cause.
Cooper: Interesting. You said the next shipment will be going into the UAE?
A. Harib: Yes. We get a list of who needs a wheelchair, and we try to deliver them. The next batch of 100 is going to the UAE and then I’m probably going to ship some to Sudan in Northern Africa through organizations there.
Cooper: Will you travel there yourself?
A. Harib: If it’s safe for me to travel, if not I’ll send one of my people to deliver the chairs.
Cooper: You had a career as a graphic designer and now you’re doing this full time?
A. Harib: Yes, I have the first company based in Dubai that tackles problems or causes with a product.
Articles in the Scott Baio Issue; Senator Harkin — Trying to Make it Work; Ashley Fiolek — Kickin’ up Dirt; Humor — Die Laughing; Geri Jewell — Pet Power; Eva Feldman, MD, PhD — ALS and Stem Cell Therapy; Beyond Silence — Deafness in India; Long Haul Paul — Q&A with a PA; Models of Diversity — Embrace it! ; Governor Markell — Blueprint to Employment; China — A Coach with Passion; EMPOWER — Global Inclusion; FREEJ — Grandmothers Rule; MIT — Leveraged Freedom Chair; Scott Baio — Happy Days; MADA — Global Assistive Technology; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…subscribe