11 Memories From the Arabic Version of 'The Simpsons'

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MBC, the first independent Arabic satellite TV station, wanted to make a splash, so they presented a "culturally modified" and Arabic-dubbed version of The Simpsons in 2005. It premiered to criticism and some negative reviews, but it still makes for a fascinating cultural artifact.

1. THE NEW VERSION OF THE SHOW WAS TITLED AL SHAMSHOON, AND THE CHARACTERS' NAMES WERE CHANGED.

Homer Simpson became Omar Shamshoon. Marge was transformed into Mona. Lisa was renamed Bessa. Bart went by Badr. Nuclear power plant boss Mr. Burns was Mahrooey Bey, while his sidekick Smithers now answered to Salmawy. Krusty the Clown was now Maarmish, a translation from "Crunchy." They all called Rabeea (Arabic for "spring") and not Springfield home, and it was designed to resemble an American town with a major Arab population.

2. OMAR SHAMSHOON DID NOT DRINK BEER.

To avoid potentially offending the audience, none of the characters drank alcohol. This meant that all scenes at Moe's Tavern were cut and one of Omar's favorite things was taken away from him. Instead of a frosty Duff, Omar would enjoy a soft drink if he was drinking anything at home. None of the characters consumed pork either — Omar ate Egyptian beef sausages instead of non-Halal hot dogs. Doughnuts were replaced by Arab "kahk" cookies, which are sometimes made with holes in the middle.

3. NED FLANDERS WAS NO LONGER A CHRISTIAN.

The Flanders on Al Shamshoon never professed to an affiliation with any religion, although he did remain annoying. MBC decided against "Arabizing" the early seasons and began with the popular season four, but they did not air "Homer the Heretic," an episode where Homer stops attending church, believes he meets God, and forms his own religion. An unidentified ex-Disney employee in Lebanon told a CBC reporter that if a TV station can do so, "they'll excise references to Judaism from shows meant for the pan-Arab market," which could explain the disappearance of Krusty's father, Rabbi Krustofski.

4. SOME THINGS REMAINED UNCHANGED.

It should be noted that frustration is universally recognized: Omar did say "d'oh!" and Badr said things are "rewesh" (cool). Surprisingly, classic American pop culture references were left in, like allusions to The Twilight Zone and 1990s baseball.

5. A SIMPSONS EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DID NOT APPROVE OF HOMER'S CHANGES.

Al Jean, the co-showrunner of The Simpsons for the third and fourth seasons and the lone showrunner since 2001, thought that Homer's character was being compromised, telling ABC News, "If Homer doesn't drink and eat bacon and generally act like a pig, which I guess is also against Islam, then it's not Homer."

6. THERE WERE INTERNAL CREATIVE DEBATES BETWEEN THE SHOW'S WRITER AND THE NETWORK.

Amr Hosny understood what Jean was saying. Hosny, a respected adaptive screenwriter and Al Shamshoon's writer, watched the original Simpsons and determined that it was a "very American piece of pop culture." He wanted to make the setting "Little Arab Town," which he felt would explain away why a full Arab community existed in a small United States town, but was overruled by MBC. Hosny also said, “This guy Homer drinks beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told them that he will drink she’er — which is a [non-alcoholic] malt drink, and close to beer in sound, so good for dubbing. But they refused this. They said we must make it ‘juice.’” Hosny admitted that he "naturally underemphasized" Smithers' attraction to Mr. Burns.

7. MBC WAS VERY OPTIMISTIC ABOUT AL SHAMSHOON'S SUCCESS.

Michel Costandi, business-development director of MBC TV Network, said before Al Shamshoon's premiere, "I think The Simpsons will open new horizons for us to the future. We are opening up a new genre of programming in the Middle East." Sherine El-Hakim, head of Arabic content at VSI Ltd, a London-based company that dubs and subtitles TV shows for broadcasters and corporations, was bullish on the entire concept of "Arabization" through television, telling the Wall Street Journal that it was going to boom in the next few years, adding, "We're such an impressionable people and we aspire so much to be like the West, that we take on anything that we believe is a symbol or a manifestation of Western culture."

TV shows from America had some mixed results in the Middle East in 2005 — while Who Will Win a Million was a huge hit, an Arabic version of Big Brother was canceled after one week because of complaints over men and women living together.

8. MBC HIRED TOP EGYPTIAN ACTORS TO PROVIDE THE VOICES.

To hedge their bets, the network hired popular actors to provide the voices on Al Shamshoon. Mohamed Heneidy was described in The Wall Street Journal as the "Robert DeNiro of the Middle East," and thus it was Heneidy who provided the voice of the patriarch Omar.

9. IT PREMIERED ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF RAMADAN 2005.

The premiere episode of Al Shamshoon aired in October 4, 2005, the first night of the holy month of Ramadan, which is the biggest TV viewing night of the year. On Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, and after the fast is broken with an evening meal, millions settle in for a night of watching TV. Al Shamshoon was given the 7pm time slot.

10. AL SHAMSHOON WAS CANCELED AFTER 34 EPISODES.

The network order was for 52, but Al Shamshoon would be taken off the air after 34 episodes from MBC 1, 34 days after it premiered. The man responsible for green-lighting the show was Badih Fattouh, the head of acquisitions and drama commissioner for MBC 1. In a postmortem, Fattouh said in 2007, “The show was not a big success. Otherwise, of course, we would have continued to do another season. I would say it was fairly received, but average. This made us reconsider.”

A popular opinion on why the show failed to attract an audience was that it never fully translated the humor, and the majority of the Arabic speaking audience still considered cartoons to be for children.

11. THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THE SIMPSONS IS STILL WATCHED IN ARABIC SPEAKING COUNTRIES.

Before MBC's experiment, un-altered episodes of The Simpsons were broadcast in English with Arabic subtitles on networks like Showtime Arabia and Dubai's One TV. People could also watch the show via DVDs, the Internet, and satellite TV. Some theorize that the most passionate of Al Shamshoon viewers were simply Simpsons fans who wanted to see how badly MBC would botch the job.

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July 11, 2014 - 11:11am
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