Sunday, September 14, 2008

Golden Girls East

How could it possibly succeed? A comedy about four old ladies living in the shadow of a boomtown, confronted week after week with the foibles and contrasts of the modern world, every episode ending in a feel-good sitdown over a cup or ten of coffee? Not a chance.

Well, lightning strikes twice - because I'm not talking about Bea Arthur and company in Miami. No, the heroines du jour in our part of the world are the amiable old biddies of Freej, the United Arab Emirates' first homegrown cartoon and, believe it or not, a very, very funny show.

Now in its third season, Freej take as its heroines Um Saeed, Um Alawi, Um Saloom, and Um Khamas, ladies of varying personality and background united in their devotion to the Old Ways and their sneaking fascination with the changing world around them. They live in a traditional neighborhood (or freej) of Dubai, and they belie pretty much every stereotype, good and bad, one might have about traditional women in the Arab world.

In fifteen-minute snippets, they encounter everything from the questionable public schools of the UAE (when they take a grandson to parents' night) to religious extremism to Dubai's fashion-crazed youth.

Once you get used to cartoon characters cavorting around wearing the traditional burqa (in the Gulf, a metal mask that is as much decoration as anything, not the all-enveloping Afghan sack of the same name) and the idea of a Dubai devoid of foreigners except for the occasional Indian grocer, it's a hoot from start to finish.

I've looked in vain for a subtitled clip, so you'll have to settle for this, a vignette introducing the rather terrifying modern girl Jameela (she appears about three minutes in, and she's worth waiting for):

Ramadan is Arabic television's primest time, a month when literally dozens of programs, mostly soap-operatic serials, air nightly after the breaking of the fast. Families sit glued to the set, coffee shops fill up with people looking for the latest episodes, and life frequently revolves around getting to the right place with the right people to watch this year's favorite.

Freej, short, snappy, and smart, is doing its part to undermine this longstanding situation, making the camp historical dramas seem just a tad turgid and the hysteria of the romances as overblown -well, as a teenager in bouffant and skintight robe shouting "Wow, wow, wow - OmiGOD!" in front of her grandmothers...

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