It’s another weekend spent at Teta and Gedo’s modest apartment in Masr el Gedida, which was probably the closest thing to a suburb in Cairo, back when gated communities weren’t plaguing the country. Short whiffs of the autumn breeze escape the slightly opened window. With them the cheerful chorus of small birds, chirping chaotically to awaken the little girl sleeping in her grandmother’s bedroom. The birds may have woken her up, but the smell of melting butter and sizzling eggs were what really got her out of bed. Excited, she hurried to the kitchen to see her grandmother standing in front of an old gas stove. “Sabah el kheir ya Mariuma”, the grandmother wished the little braided girl a good morning and the little girl replied, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, “Sabah el kheir ya Teta”. There was a frozen raw chicken in the sink, left to thaw by the older woman. The girl wondered what they were having for lunch later and her empty stomach started to growl. She hoped it would be Molokhia.
She took the plate from her Teta’s hands. Teta wore one golden ring and had painted her long nails a bright red, matching the red flowers on her long sleeping gown. She kept her hair short. She was a business woman, maybe she never had time for long hair. The piercing green eyes that would look sternly upon her employees, now looked down with a reserved tenderness at the braided child, as she warned her that the plate she’s about to take might still be hot. The girl nodded as she took the plate and thanked her grandmother, “Merci ya Teta”.
In the living room the big television was waiting for her, a bulky black box full of wonders under her command. Spacetoon, or “her channel”, as she called it, was easy to find, its familiar logo gracing the screen and her tired eyes. She sat on the carpet and glued her eyes to the screen as the all too familiar musical themes of her favorite segments and programs lulled her to a state of absolute comfort and enjoyment. She would stay there for hours, watch program after program and listen to story after story dubbed in her language – which wasn’t always the case for her.
After a few hours, the erupting delicious smell of fried garlic would make her stomach rumble again. She would run to the kitchen, see that Teta was indeed making Molokhia and go back to the couch happier than ever. Looping sensorially in the blissful childishness of being taken care of.
If you asked her today if she remembers any of the stories she watched for hours, more than a decade later, she would tell you she doesn’t. And then she would tell you she remembers the smell of food…and the music.
A quick YouTube search would prove that she’s not the only one who remembers. Various compilations of “arabized” theme songs to everything from 80s sports animes to european cartoons about family values garner millions of views.
Nostalgia, as an experience, is neither unique nor avoidable. A beautified shadow of what-used-to-be constantly following the aging individual. And yet, however universal and inevitable they may be, shadows come in different hues, shapes and sizes.
The shadow cast by Spacetoon is one many know all too well, reaching across countries, ethnicities and religions. Creating a collective Force of Young Arabic-Speaking Adults Who Remember Watching Spacetoon.
On an insomnia ridden Tuesday night at three in the morning, members of this Force may find themselves humming the intro to “Case Closed” (aka Detective Conan), a 90s anime with 31 seasons that they don’t remember much of. Frantically, they would search for the opening song that they remember, only to realize that the “arabized” version they’ve grown up listening to is nothing like the original Japanese version. Sure the title cards are written in different languages, but this isn’t just about language, this is about music. Why is it an entirely different song? Why does the Arabic version have lyrics when the original comes with none? This isn’t just a one-time phenomenon, as it turns out, most of these old “arabized” songs are recompositions with wholesome lyrics, remade specifically to be broadcast on Spacetoon.
Twenty-two years ago, with the turn of the millennium, Spacetoon was officially launched as a subsidiary platform to broadcast the dubbed Japanese anime developed by the first dubbing center in the Middle East. “El Zahra Center”, located in Syria, had started its dubbing work in the 80s. Their main focus was (and partly still is) dubbing anime into classical/standard fus’ha (فصحة) Arabic. With Spacetoon as a freely accessible channel, fus’ha dubbed anime found its way into the homes and hearts of many in the SWANA region. While anime served as an alternative to American-European programs, the fus’ha dubbing revived the use of the unspoken standardized Arabic in the daily domestic context.
Essentially, because of the sheer vastness of the SWANA region, the variety of its peoples and the historical context of nationalism (another gift from the West), the emergence of very different local dialects and “slang-ier” expressions of the Arabic language was unstoppable. Classical fus’ha Arabic became ghostly, confined to classrooms, religious activities, legal documents and the written word. At home and on the streets, dialects prevailed. People may read Shakespearean English and understand it but they wouldn’t exactly speak it.
Therefore, dubbing children’s programs in fus’ha may seem ridiculous but it clearly comes from a unifying pan-Arab sentiment. Spacetoon’s programs are meant for all to enjoy and understand, they were signifiers of collectively overcoming differences. Beside integrating fus’ha in the daily life of an Arabic-speaking child, Spacetoon aimed/aims to teach – and that is not limited to teaching fus’ha.
For the longest time, it seemed that most media produced in the SWANA region had the purpose of establishing a unitary national identity. In mainstream Egyptian cinema – which was and still is both widely produced and widely watched across the Arabic-speaking world – the national unitary identity came in the form of a young lower-middle class God-fearing male, whose Muslim values always led him to do the “right” thing. Righteous role models in a black and white world where good and evil were clearly marked and distinguishable.
Spacetoon basically presented the same kind of stories, only this time to children who were supposed to stay sheltered from the corruption of the West. It’s easy to see why the people behind Spacetoon mainly chose Japanese content to dub and showcase. The Japanese have unwavering moral values, and they are foreigners to the West the way Arabs are. Therefore, their content almost filled the educational void. But not quite. Anime might be too violent, it might incorporate Zen Buddhism or Taoism, it might present love stories and premarital relationships. Unsuitable for the Arab child to watch and learn from. Censorship by cropping, changing the meaning of interactions or simply just cutting scenes out is one of the practices Spacetoon uses to “arabize” the content they show. Categorizing the programs by gendered genres was also another “arabizing” strategy. Before every show, a little animation accompanied by music is shown to signal who the show was for. The animation was sometimes full of pink colors, flowers and candy accompanied by girly giggles and a woman’s voice singing about beauty and friendship. And sometimes it was full of manly roars singing about bravery and strength with blue and gray visuals of weapons and monsters.
In every case, the “arabizing” is not complete without the music that has engraved itself in our generation’s collective Arab memory.
The most memorable tunes that sealed the Arabization of these programs were written and composed by Tarek Alarabi Tourgane, a Syrian-Algerian musician that helped shape Spacetoon in its formative early years. To this day, he performs his nostalgia-inducing tunes on several talk shows and music festivals across the region. In one interview he talks about the importance of children’s programs in their upbringing. According to him, these shows must always be of educational value, which might explain his expressed disdain for today’s (mainly American) cartoons. In his eyes, these modern shows are only made to bring in profit and prioritize entertainment over education. Tourgane’s purist sentiments show exactly the kind of context in which Spacetoon’s goals were formulated.
Spacetoon has set precedents for dubbing and children’s programming that many later copied. Cartoon Channel shows are dubbed in fus’ha and platformed on Cartoon Channel Arabic. MBC3 aims to bring more than just “old” anime to the screen, focusing on American and European shows while retaining the same old censorship of Spacetoon’s Arabization strategies. Spacetoon’s legacy, even if mostly through Tourgane’s music, will live on. That much is certain.
However, it remains unclear whether later generations will ever feel such a connection to Spacetoon. It’s still a click of a button away but in an always shifting media landscape, the channel might be headed into the murky waters of probable irrelevancy. They have a website and an online streaming service, but something about their purist categorizations and pan-Arab sentiments seem to have run their course. Outdated and expired like the innocence of a spent childhood.
It’s four in the morning and the hypothetical member of the Force closes the 7 tabs they opened during their little rabbit-hole excursion into the past. They think about how they haven’t had Molokhia in a year and how they barely remember what their Teta was like. Still braided but somehow different, the hypothetical member of the Force falls asleep.