When Naif Al-Mutawa left New York just over a decade ago, little did he know that he would create a global success story with The 99, his comic book series inspired by Iislamic archetypes. References to his characters even made it into one of US President Barack Obama’s speeches and the debut The 99 feature film showed at the New York Ffilm Festival last month.
“When I started the idea gave it global legs, but [didn’t imagine] this would be something the US President would talk about,” said Mutawa, a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist who quit his job working with survivors of political torture at Bellevue Hospital in New York and began his animation business in 2003.
In 2010, Barack Obama commended Mutawa’s The 99 for its innovation and outreach to the Western world in a speech on entrepreneurship. Tthe comic’s characters, which are based on Islam’s 99 attributes for God, joined forces with DC comic superheroes in an issue published in 2010.
“He [Barack Obama] reached out to the Muslim world, in return, my characters reached back to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to implement his vision in the fictional world,” said Mutawa, who is the chairman of Teshkeel Media Group,the company behind the series.
Mutawa’s comic book series has now been turned into a theme park in Kuwait and his cartoon series will be broadcast in the US, Middle Eeast, Asia and Europe on various channels and in several languages.
Mutawa’s crossover success could soon be followed by other productions emerging from the region, which has long suffered from a shortfall of original creations sourced from the local culture and themes.
A more internet-savvy population, rising interest from Aarab television stations and the internet-linked revolution are fuelling the animation industry to evolve into something bigger than just an amateur idea. Animation created by Arabs is increasingly featured on stations such as MBC and on websites. Dubai TV’s Freej series, revolving around Emirati women, has also grown into a business, with merchandise and events.
Jordan’s Kharabeesh, which means scribbles in Arabic, sees limitless potential for Arab animators to create a market for unique content that appeals to a pan-Arab audience. Wael Aattili, the co-founder of Kharabeesh, believes the Arab spring is galvanising the spread of animation online and on television.
“Political issues always cross borders and Aarab people are very much politically-charged, especially these days,” said Attili. “If you go to the mainstream media, they will say this will not work and they will judge you before you experiment. They have templates you have to talk about – love and hate and marriage and divorce.”
Kharabeesh’s animations spoofing prominent Aarab figures, such as Llibya’s ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi’s style of speech, are among the most popular on its website.
The pressure from people on the street to have more relevant material on television is pushing stations to change their tactics, although the usual staple of Turkish soap operas and other shows will continue to dominate. However, investors in the region are seeing a growing business in animation. Kharabeesh has attracted cash from MENA Venture Investments, while the UAE’s private equity firm Aabraaj has led the third round of financing for Mutawa’s Teshkeel.
This interest is giving hope to Aarab animators to develop their passion into a profitable business that resonates with the Arab population and beyond.
“My dream for Kharabeesh is to make it a complete entertainment network, based on multi-platform new media,” said Attili.