Friday, December 23, 2011

Klun Kaighenni 3la l-Bukimun - Clown Sings about Pokémon

Spring 2001. Pokémon was still new and fun. There were only about 150 of them, so you could actually of memorize the names and characteristics of most of them. They'd been big for a couple years in the states, but were only just hitting it big in Morocco via cartoons dubbed into standard Arabic. And like everywhere, marketing was huge - each pull-off top of Danon yogurt had a picture of a Pokémon and could win you a prize. There were shoes, backpacks, t-shirts, everything (though I don't actually recall seeing the video game itself...)

Now I'm as critical of cross-promotional marketing to kids as anyone. As for Pokémon, I recognized it as such but at the same time sort of reveled in it.  I liked the cartoon, and my Japanese side was tickled to see a Japanese cartoon sweeping the US. But I'm totally OK with critiques of the mass invasion of Pokémon products in general, and certainly in Morocco.

What I couldn't accept was the rise of "Pokémon is haram" discourse that was bubbling up in various newspapers around the Muslim world. If it had been merely a shariah-couched critique of mass international capitalist targeting of kids, that would have been one thing. Or a critique of it as a frivolous waste of time and money and diversion from the remembrance of God would have made some sense. But the word going 'round, courtesy of fatwas from Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr. Nasser Farid Wassel and Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi was that the Pokemon phenomenon was actually a Zionist and/or Masonic plot to subliminally undermine and insult Islam and to introduce Darwinian ideas (pikachu "evolves" to raichu after gaining experience in battles - demonstrating his fitness, right?). Among the more spurious assertions were that the names of some of the Pokemon were directly attacked Islam - "I am a Jew" (Pokemon), "God is weak" (Charmander) and "Be Jewish" (Pikachu).

As a Japanese-Ashkenazi-American Muslim, I found it alternately insulting and absurd. If you know English, it's pretty easy to understand the etymological derivation of "Pokémon" (pocket monsters) and animal names like Charizard, Charmander and Charmeleon (all fire-breathing lizard monsters - lizard, salamander, chameleon - duh?). Pikachu and Raichu were, I think, the only ones that retained Japanese-derived names in their English (and dubbed Arabic) versions. Pikachu means something like "sparkle mouse noise" and Raichu means something like "thunder mouse noise".

Nevertheless, fatwas were issued in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and even in Morocco. Now a fatwa is a legal opinion based on one scholar's interpretation of the shariah, and although some folks accepted the interpretation, others did not. Pokémon certainly remained popular and continued to be broadcast in Morocco.

There were other responses to the Pokemon phenomenon. My fave was this silly cassette it's a basic singalong dkitikat percussion/call-response vocal with a little keyboard-banjo thrown in for good measure. The lead vocal is comedic (I guess that's the clown) and response vocal group sounds like adults trying to sound like kids. Starts out catchy and ends up ridiculous with the substitution of Pokémon into traditional wedding chants. Adding to the pop-culture-meets-trad-singalong-percussion shtick is the inclusion of the theme song to Abdelkhalek Fahid's Miloud comedy sketch TV show (Essururat 3la Miloud) and a song about then-new cell phones (Portable). Silly, yeah, but tailor-made for singalongs at parties by much funkier groups:

1) Ghina' Pokemon / Eddawrat l-Pokemon
2) 3andi ana mushkila / L3ama bgha itzuwwej / Portable
3) Ezzerda / 3regtuha wslebtu 3liya
4) Essururat 3la Miloud / Mut b-jnun / Bghat mwigina

Get it here.