‘Freej’ is an exhilarating, eye-opening tale about 4 grannies in Dubai

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The four leading ladies in “Freej,” with Um Khammas on the far right

By Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer“Freej” is the United Arab Emirates’ first domestically produced animation. I started watching it on Tokyo MX as a topic for conversation and without too many expectations. Turns out it’s surprisingly entertaining.

The lead characters are four grannies living in Dubai. When you think of Dubai, you imagine an international city with many skyscrapers. However, until recently there were areas cramped with small, rammed-earth houses.

Genuine UAE nationals who respect a traditional religious lifestyle are called Emiratis, and this animation sharply satirizes modern Dubai from Emiratis’ viewpoint. It became an instant history-making hit when TV broadcasts of this work started during the holy month of Ramadan in 2006.

The title “Freej” means “neighbors.” The four leading ladies are: Um Saeed, a sarcastic coffee addict; the computer-savvy Um Allawi, almost pathologically forgetful Um Saloom; and Um Khammas, a sucker for moneymaking. The quartet are always wearing impressive gold burqa masks over their faces.

These four women are really charming. You’ll probably say, “There are aunties like them in Japan, too!” In particular, Um Khammas’ sharp tongue and wild personality are exhilarating. The strong, tough characters are all women, while men don’t have much of a presence. This is a comedy that overturns our perceived notions about Middle East culture.

Director Mohammed Saeed Harib, who comes from Dubai, wrote to The Yomiuri Shimbun in an email interview.

“Back when I started in university [in the United States], it was a project, they wanted me to choose a superhero that is from my culture,” said Harib, 41, explaining how it all began.

“My culture was very much a male-dominant culture — they have big stories of Alladin, and Alibaba of 1001 nights and also all of these heroes are men ... I saw that back then grandmothers were superheroes.”

About his own grandmother, he said, “She raised 10 kids, she had to go outside [to] work for a living. There was no electricity when her husband was away for six-seven months [fishing for pearls].”

The burqa, the four ladies’ signature garb, not only makes women’s eyes look beautiful but also has a practical function of protecting women’s faces from intense heat.

Now that air-conditioners are widespread, the masks are apparently not seen anymore. Yet Harib discovered a new hero in the grannies, who are special in their appearance as well as their personalities. Shouldn’t we say he’s got a great talent?

The UAE’s first domestic animation was produced with support from a government subsidy. Most of the members of the creative team for the first season were virtual amateurs, according to Harib. This reminds me of “Tetsuwan Atom” (Astro Boy) in 1963, Japan’s first domestically produced TV animation. It’s always the power of young people’s reckless passion that breaks new ground for the future.

Harib said he was greatly inspired by Japanese animation, such as “Captain Tsubasa” and works directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Seeing “Freej” broadcast in Japan is therefore very special for him.

“Animation is a beautiful tool of cultural exchange. I am happy that it’s now a two-way street,” Harib said.Speech

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