By Madeleine Collins
When Mohammed Saeed Harib created Freej, he never imagined his vision would evolve into a theme park.
When Mohammed Saeed Harib created the unique cartoon tale of four grandmothers living in the UAE, he never imagined his vision would evolve into a world class theme park ten years later. Madeleine Collins met him.
"Not every wise woman is educated, and not every educated woman is wise," Mohammed Saeed Harib tells me as I sit across from him in his bustling, very lime green office. I nod fervently in agreement, not wanting to interrupt in case I jeopardise another out-of-the-blue pearl of wisdom thrown my way.
Harib, it has to be said, is a man who knows a thing or two about women. He may be only 30 years old, but his observations and interpretations of four elderly women tackling life, love and family in the UAE make up the phenomenally successful animated series Freej.
Quite frankly, when meeting Harib, it's easy to assume that he would have ended up carving out a career in front of the camera, rather than the one behind it that has seen him morph from arts student to media mogul in five short years. He has heart-throb good looks and an easy yet charismatic manner, but it is his head for business that has got him where he is today.
A giant framed painting of Umm Saeed - the grandmother who started it all - dressed as Mona Lisa, Arabic mask and all, stares down at us as Harib describes how he was studying arts and animation at Boston North Eastern University ten years ago when he was asked to create a superhero character from his homeland of Dubai.
"I came up with a grandmother character because I come from a male dominant society and a lot of the media spotlight was shed on the hardships my grandfathers experienced when they went on pearl diving trips. Little was known about what was happening on the other side. It was the grandmother or mother figure that used to bring up the children; work for a living, feed the kids."
This was in the 1950s, when Dubai was a "very harsh" desert setting, says Harib. "Grandmothers often had eight to ten kids to deal with each. It was not the best of financial times back then for this region, and I thought that was a heroic thing. It was time to celebrate these women."
He entitled the concept Freej, which means neighbourhood in local dialect. The show is now in its third series and has exploded into a branding empire, but it's been a long road to success since it began life as a six page study book in 1998.
Harib's early sketches followed a formula he had seen work to perfection years earlier on TV. "When I was growing up in Dubai, they used to show The Golden Girls (the comic story of four elderly women living together in Miami) and I used to think it was so funny, so sarcastic," he laughs. ‘They were always making fun of the golden days and how they're still youthful and hot."
While Harib's cartoon interpretation of The Golden Girls didn't focus on looks - all grandmothers wear traditional Arabic masks - the ethos was the same.
"Every character has a sidekick, and opposites attract. I created Umm Saeed first as she stood for a typical grandmother from the UAE - she's wise and very sarcastic, she loves poetry and coffee, she had a bit of a temperament and she is not educated."
Next came Umm Saloom. "She was a bit fat, drowsy and forgetful, so whatever appreciation Umm Saeed has for art, Umm Saloom couldn't care less." Harib then needed another contrast, a grandmother who was "educated, speaks different languages, taller than the rest and she's a tech freak as she loves gadgets. I wanted to establish a connection with the youthful audience." Hence, Umm Allawi was born.
For the forth character, Um Khammas, Harib went for humour: "a rebellious character, who believes in women's empowerment. She takes action before she thinks, she's very forward but later back tracks."
Of Harib's real grandmothers, one died before he met her while the other, who now has Alzheimer's, was an inspiration in his formative years. "She could advise and insult you in the same sentence," he smiles.
Harib also gleaned material from his fellow university students while creating Freej. "The grandmothers of many of my friends were present with them in their minds and hearts and they used to share with me their stories. There were so many common grounds and I thought, we have to celebrate this slice of society. I don't think grandmothers of the next generation will be wearing the mask or talking in pure Arabic, so I wanted to preserve that."
Harib had created a unique concept, but it would take many years to go from his sketch book to television. After returning home from the States, he worked in Dubai Media City on number of projects, which included creating the logo for the Dubai International Film Festival.Eventually, Freej was picked up by Dubai Media City in 2003, and not long after it received the essential funding from the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Business Leaders.
The show debuted on the first day of Ramadan in 2006 and was an immediate hit. "The first year was easy," recalls Harib, "school, shopping, all the obvious subjects were covered." With seasons two and three came challenges.
"We are a society and we have issues and problems, but 45 issues?! It's not easy. The well dries up, so we dig deep into culture. Some issues work in a cartoon and some don't. Some episodes are more skewered towards kids and music and some go deep into social issues."
Without doubt, the most controversial storyline Harib created was one last year that touched on terrorism.
"The notion of terrorism comes from the western media spotlight on the Middle East. There are so many people setting bad examples which are picked up and showcased as from this region," he explains.
"Those bad examples are there because of lack of education and understanding of the religion. People assume roles that are not given to them. If you want to be a preacher you have go through education, learn the rules; there is knowledge there. But many people adapt religion. They go to the extreme and they become spokespeople."
But people have it wrong, says Harib. "We as Arabs are very passive, we're too depressed to do anything," he smiles. "Our media is very passive, so I said, let's do an episode where one character has a false diagnosis and gets ten days to live - and make it the rebellious character, who doesn't know better. So she says ‘I want to be close to God' and ‘you should do this, and you should not do that', and she becomes very extreme. The other character's role is to say, ‘hold on, that's wrong what you just said. I know you're emotional but that's wrong'."
The episode sparked a huge debate because, says Harib, many people are uneducated about media. "They're so used to being spoon fed, ‘this is the issue, this is how you solve it, this is what we want you to know and what we don't want you to know'. Many people said, ‘did you just insult my religion?' And of course we did not. We need to show a bad example to show the solution."
"At the end of the day the episode aired," Harib shrugs confidently. At the time he had to explain himself, on radio, in newspapers, but looking back, he has no regrets. "What happened is something that rarely happens in media in Arabia - two groups talking to each other and debating. When you create TV shows you need people to think, to talk to each other and to come to a conclusion. That is the role of media."
Harib dismisses rumours that there are rules or regulations from the government regarding what media must not speak about. "Being a very popular show made by nationals you are allowed to talk about what you feel is right and wrong, and what you observe as a social issue affecting you as a member of this country.
But many people are traditionalists, so if you want to enforce change you don't come in with a knife. You do it in a fun way - by hinting at something but not being overly clever or it will fly over their head. I'm allowed to say anything I want. We don't need approval." It's a balancing act that Harib has mastered.
These days Harib employs a team of scriptwriters, all of which, he says, have to be local women so they can relate to the characters. "I'm here just to enforce the Freej rules," he says.
When I started, I had a dream of creating the first 3D animated series in the Middle East, to create a cartoon. But it became such a huge success that it demanded sequels. I never knew I would be sitting here in this kind of office, and I told myself if this is to continue it should not confine itself to a TV show. All TV shows end - there's a peak you hit or a low you go to - so it's very important to maintain the brand and make Freej synonymous with culture."
And so began steps to diversify the brand. Firstly, merchandising in the region was "hit really good and hard," says Harib. "We didn't have any toys that relate back to us - just Barbies and Barnies. With Freej toys, kids can buy them for their grandmothers. They help infuse morals and traditions as the child can ask, ‘why does she wear the mask?
Harib is also currently creating a theatrical show called Freej Folklore - "like a Cirque du Soleil musical production" - that is planned to take place in January 2009, in Dubai.
It's easy to assume that the big screen is the next logical step, but Harib puts it into perspective. "The biggest audience in the region is the Saudi Arabian market with its 30 million strong population. In order to make back your money you need to need to cater for those people and in Saudi Arabia there is not one single cinema. So I can make a beautiful movie which would cost $20 million but there is no way I can recoup that investment."
Plans are afoot to sell Freej overseas, however. Until now, the format of the show (15 episodes of 15 minutes in each series) has made it too short to sell outside of the Gulf. With 45 episodes now in the can it is currently being translated into different languages in bulk format.
But the icing on the cake was without doubt the announcement last year that a dedicated Freej theme park will sit among the international heavyweights including Dreamworks, Marvel and Six Flags in Dubailand. "To be the local brand there - I think it's a beautiful thing for the next 25 years for children from this region, for tourists to come and see," smiles Harib.
Harib hasn't been back to America since finishing university, but he's never forgotten where it all began. "I come from a creative background. I learned the hard way how to be an entrepreneur and I learned to wear different hats. When you do deals you have to be a shark and put your foot down. Everyone wants to ride on the back of the success of this show, so I've had to be protective, be strategically aligned and be a very diplomatic talker."
It's this advice he now passes on in his guise as regular speaker on the international and Gulf university circuit. "I never turn down an invite to talk at a university. We grew up with no role models.
If you want to study business, then Dubai is your role model city because it is a city of CEOs. If you're creative you don't have anyone to look up to. So I go to universities and say ‘hey, I started with a sketch three years ago and now I have a theme park under my name,' and they get so buzzed. It's a very important message I will continue to send through."