DAMASCUS -- Barbie, the busty plastic doll with the outfit for every mood, has seen and done a lot in her 46 years: She's been a rock star, an astronaut and a candidate for president of the United States. But one thing the blond bombshell could never claim to represent was Muslim values.
Into that breach now has stepped Fulla, a doll built on roughly the same chassis as Barbie but with her vinyl feet more firmly grounded in the cultural realities of the Arab world.
With black hair, auburn eyes and a wide selection of head scarves, she's Mecca to Barbie's Malibu. She even comes with her own prayer rug.
The brainchild of Syrian entrepreneur Manar Tarabichi, Fulla has become a marketing phenomenon from Morocco to Iraq since being launched two years ago, taking over the main display areas in toy stores and sidelining the ageless U.S. idol. Fulla's an especially big hit in Saudi Arabia, where Barbie was banned several years ago by a government that disapproved of her "revealing clothes and shameful postures."
The two dolls would likely have a hard time understanding each other. Barbie, of course, is a notorious party girl who likes to prance around in a bikini and spend a lot of her time in the company of her boy-toy Ken. Fulla, who prefers the full head-to-toe abaya, has no male friends, although her creators are planning to add a protective brother some time in the next year.
"Fulla is one of us. She's my sister, she's my mother, she's my wife. She's all the traditional things of Syria and the Middle East. Barbie, to us, is a foreigner," said Mohammed Sabbagh, manager of Spacetoon, a toy outlet in central Damascus. He said he once stocked his shelves with Barbie, but now carries only some of the accessories. Fulla, he said, was outselling her by a 40-to-1 margin at his store.
"I like her clothes," said Alaa Masoud, 9, with a smile. She said she already had eight Fulla dolls and was shopping at Spacetoon for a ninth. She said she also owned two Barbies, but "Fulla is prettier." Alaa was wearing a Fulla jean jacket over a pink Fulla sweatshirt.
Like Barbie, Fulla -- who is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant -- has a wide range of clothing and fashion accessories at her disposal. There are no bare arms, legs or cleavage, however, and everything except the black abaya and another outfit featuring a white head scarf and ankle-length coat is dubbed "indoor fashion" on the box.
"In this market, parents don't want Barbie for their kids. The way she dresses is not how Arab women dress. The values she conveys are not values that Arab parents want to convey to their kids," said Fawaz Abidin, who manages the Fulla brand for Mr. Tarabichi's company, NewBoy Design Studio.
"Fulla is loving, caring. She is respectful and modest. She loves fashion, but in a modest way. . . . She's not extreme in her fashion, in her way of dress."
The company, he said, pays attention to regional differences. Dolls with a less strict dress code sell better in more liberal countries such as Jordan and Egypt, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms are the target market for the more conservative fashions.
Like Barbie, the doll is mass-produced in China. The two dolls are made of the same material, and are the same height, 11½ inches. The only change made to the doll's physique was to flatten out Barbie's less-than-modest breasts.
NewBoy has learned a few other tricks from Mattel, the company behind Barbie. As soon as it became clear that the doll -- of which they've sold 1.5 million since November, 2003, and which sells for the equivalent of about $16 (U.S.) in Damascus -- was a hit, the company turned her into a brand. In the Middle East these days, young girls are apt to ask their parents for Fulla girls' clothing, a Fulla CD player, or a pink Fulla bicycle. There's even a Fulla breakfast cereal.
Local television is saturated with commercials featuring an animated Fulla dancing around the interior of her pink house and saying her morning prayers before donning a black abaya to go outside.
"I don't mind buying Fulla because she's closer to Arab culture," said Shahira Kashlan, a head-scarf-clad 30-year-old mother buying a Fulla backpack for her daughter. "Her clothes don't expose."
Now, in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the hottest-selling item is a pink Fulla prayer gown that girls can wear while kneeling on their Fulla prayer rug.
Fulla does have her critics. Many see her as part of a conservative Islamic trend that has seen more and more women adopt the head scarf -- some by choice, some because of growing societal pressures.
Mr. Abidin, however, said the company never set out to design an Islamic doll, just one that Arab girls could identify with. Despite pressure from some customers, NewBoy has never produced a completely veiled Fulla. And, in the fine traditions of Barbie, a Doctor Fulla and Teacher Fulla will soon be available. Head scarves are sold separately.
MIM: The article failed to mention the "Bomber Barbie' which is already available:
MIM: In the Islamo facist weltaanschauaang American 'sex symbols' like Barbie and the Homer Simpson type 'everyman' submit to Islam and become shar'ia compliant .
Omar Simpson? No beer for Arab version of Homer
BY YASMINE EL-RASHIDI
Wall Street Journal
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When an Arab satellite TV network, MBC, decided to introduce "The Simpsons" to the Middle East, they knew the family would have to make some fundamental lifestyle changes.
Omar Shamshoon, as he is called on the show, looks like the same Homer Simpson, but he has given up beer and bacon, which are both against Islam, and he no longer hangs out at "seedy bars with bums and lowlifes." In Arabia, Homer's beer is soda, his hot dogs are barbecued Egyptian beef sau-sages and the doughnut-shaped snacks he gobbles are the traditional Arab cookies called kahk.
An Arabized "Simpsons" — called "Al Shamshoon" — made its debut in the Arab world earlier this month, in time for Ramadan, a time of high TV viewership. It uses the original "Simpsons" animation, but the voices are dubbed into Arabic, and the scripts have been adapted to make the show more accessible, and acceptable, to Arab audiences.
The family remains, as the producers describe it, "dysfunctional." They still live in Springfield, and "Omar" is still lazy and works at the local nuclear power plant. Bart (now called "Badr") is constantly cheeky to his parents and teachers and is always in trouble. Providing the characters' voices are several popular Egyptian actors, including Mohamed Heneidy, considered the Robert De Niro of the Middle East.
MBC hopes "Al Shamshoon" will be the first of many adaptations for the growing Arab TV audience. "We are opening up a whole new genre of programming in the Middle East," says Michel Costandi, MBC's business-development director. Suppliers of Arabic-dubbed Western cartoons say demand had been sky-high for years, with Walt Disney Co. dubbing countless animations. Now, broadcasters are looking for something new.
"The advent of the satellite era in the Arab world has created — and is still creating — new channels on a continuous basis," says Sherine El-Hakim, head of Arabic content at VSI Ltd., a London-based company that dubs and subtitles TV shows and other content for broadcasters and corporations.
With 60 percent of the population in the Arab world under the age of 20 — 40 percent is under age 15 — the market for Arabized animations is vast. "Arabization is going to boom in these next few years," says El-Hakim. "We're such an impressionable people, and we aspire so much to be like the West, that we take on anything that we believe is a symbol or a manifestation of Western culture."
"Pokemon," "Digimon" and other animated shows from Japan were popular first, she says, "but now the Americans are taking over." "Al Shamshoon" is currently broadcast daily during an early-evening prime-time slot, starting with the show's first season. If it is a hit, MBC envisions Arabizing the other 16 seasons.
But there's no guarantee of success. Many Arab blogs and Internet chat sessions have become consumed with how unfunny "Al Shamshoon" is. "They've ruined it! Oh yes they have, sob. … Why? Why, why oh why?!!!!" wrote a blogger, "Noors," from Oman.
Some longtime "Simpsons" fans who are Arabs are incensed over the Arabized version. "This is just beyond the pale," wrote As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, whose blog, angryarab blogspot, often touches on politics and the media. After viewing a promotional segment of "Al Shamshoon," AbuKhalil wrote, "It was just painful. … The guy who played Homer Simpson was one of the most unfunny people I ever watched. Just drop the project and air reruns of Tony Danza's show instead."
Few shows have more obsessed fans than "The Simpsons," and their vast online community is worried about whether classic Simpsons dialogue can even be translated. One blogger wrote, " 'Hi-diddly-ho, neighbors!' How the h—- are they going to translate that? Or this great quote: Mr. Burns: 'Oooh, so Mother Nature needs a favor?! Well, maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys! Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she's losing. Well I say, hard cheese.' "
A blogger, who uses the name "Nibaq," wrote, "I am sure the effort (of) the people who made this show to translate it to Arabic could have made a good original show about an Egyptian family living in Egypt, dealing with religion, life and work and trying to keep a family together. That way they can proudly say Made in Egypt, instead of Made in USA, Assembled in Egypt."
El-Hakim says when it comes to Arabized animation, the market is still in its experimentation phase. A few boom years for adaptations of U.S. content