Dubai based animator
Mohammed Saeed Harib created the most successful animated TV series
in the history of the Middle East. He recently spoke with ABILITYs
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 werent being told.
Cooper: Its unusual for a grandmother to be the hero of a
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 entrepreneurs 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 couldnt include in
Harib: You know, we dont have red tape as such, but there are
issues we dont include because theyre not acceptable to
viewersnot 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 Ive
never had my show cut, edited or censored. Because Im from this
country, I have my own parameters around what things Ill put
in the show. At the end of the day, this is entertainment and its
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 Im 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 its
a cable/satellite TV channel that the viewer pays for, then its
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: Its 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 its okay, but when it comes to the Arabic context, were
like, How dare you? So its 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) Hes been lazy lately! Hes 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. Were not talking
about four teenagers here; were 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 theyll say: Hey, this might be an issue the
viewers might not take very well, or This is a line that
we dont think would push the episode forward. Can you rephrase
this? Were very collaborative in that sense. At the end
of the day, I want the message to go through and I dont want
my show to be stopped. Its a balancing act.
Cooper: Have you dealt at all with whats been happening in
several of the countries in the Middle East, what we call the Arab
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
Harib: The shopkeeper had this huge display that he sat on and it
collapsed on top of him. And you know whats funny? He comes
back in the season finale as if nothing happened. Our episodes are
stand alones, so we dont 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
dont know if youve seen it, but its called South
Harib: Yes, where they keep killing Kenny.
Cooper: (laughs) Exactly. Theyre 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 wouldnt 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 its 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 whats
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 dont 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 shes got stock investments. Shes 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; shes 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. Its
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, lets 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: Thats cool. I heard that youre 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, its about this program that
Harib: Hmmm. Thanks for the subliminal message. (laughs) Ill
keep it in mind. Im facing such a bottleneck right now to finish
my episodes. As a director, Ill 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: Im 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.
Theyll 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 Ill write it.
Cooper: When you and your team throw ideas around, who cleans up
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: Its 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 riggerspeople who are very
specialized and dedicated to one thing, which we dont 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: Thats interesting. Given the demands on you, how many
years do you think youll be able to do the show?
Harib: As long as I have ideas and as long as the stations keep backing
the show financially. Im also working on side projects. Im
working on a movie with Roger Allers, one of the directors of The
Lion King; Im doing a theatrical show and several more projects.
I keep myself busy and entertained.
Cooper: Thats 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 youre talking about?
Harib: That was a 2009 show. It was theatrical and included a blend
of 10x10 holograms and 300 performers. You have live characters interacting
with the holograms.
Cooper: I dont think Ive 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! Ill definitely use that if its 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 were 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,
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 its very hard in the UAE to educate
people about breast cancer. Its such a taboo subject, so we
did it in an entertaining way.
Cooper: I heard that youre connected to an organization called
Social Bandage? How did that come about?
Harib: Wed 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.
Its an obligation I have towards the community, but unfortunately,
I dont 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. Ive always wanted to do that, but Im running
this company, writing the show, directing the show and coming up with
Cooper: You need to figure out how to hologram yourself so you
can be in multiple places.
Harib: (laughs) Ill work on that. 
It didnt 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 youve created
a T-shirt campaign to support your organization.
A. Harib: Its called the
Social Bandage. Basically, here in the UAE, we dont 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 its donating to a cause or giving blood.
So since Im 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 well get it to them.
Cooper: And you chose wheelchairs because
A. Harib: I give
away wheelchairs to people who need them because theyre expensive
and not everybody can afford one. So I figured why not raise funds
to buy the chairs and improve peoples 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. Ive
already delivered wheelchairs to India and Kenya and soon Ill
be delivering some within the UAE.
Cooper: Where do you get the wheelchairs? .....
in ABILITY Magazine
your Free Digi Issue read the full article and see all of the
photos, by clicking "Like"
from the Scott
Eva Feldman, MD, PhD ALS and Stem Cell Therapy
FREEJ Grandmothers Rule
China A Coach with Passion
Governor Markell Blueprint
Models of Diversity Embrace
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...