No white hair for Mickey & friends

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By Sami Moubayed

Last November, the world celebrated the 80th birthday of Walt Disney’s eternal character, Mickey Mouse. For eight decades, Mickey has managed to enchant millions around the world with his landmark voice (recorded eary on by Disney himself), oversized shoes, big ears, and blue overalls. At 80, he still can dazzle visitors—and have his picture taken with them—at EuroDisney, Disneyland, and Disneyworld. Unlike us, Mickey does not grow old with age. He doesn’t take sides in times of war. The economic crisis of 1929 did not break him—nor did the world financial crisis of 2008. Nothing stuck to Mickey Mouse; neither World War II, Vietnam, 9-11, Afghanistan, or Iraq. He probably never heard of George W. Bush, or Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein. He is the only person who was not surprised at the election of Barack Obama—anything can happen after all, in Disneyland. This observation, however, does not only apply to Mickey and other Disney characters. It applies to all fictional characters who have transcended time, ripped down political, psychological, and social barriers, and captured the hearts of children and adults, in every city around the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo. We’re talking Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Bugs Bunny, Pink Panther, Tintin, Popeye, Superman and Batman. Today, Tintin and Popeye stand both at 79. Superman is 76. Bugs Bunny is 68. Asterix is only 47. The Pink Panther, even younger, is only 44.

Mickey is the oldest among all the world’s most lovable characters. He first entered Syria in the mid-1930s, through a French investor working with a Damascene businessman from Bab Touma. The black & white cartoon film, Steamboat Willie, was shown at one cinema and billed as bringing “the mouse from America—one of the wonders of the 20th century, to Damascus.” The Damascenes—needless to say—adored Mickey Mouse. Although the film had sound, and the Damascenes spoke French, rather than English, they roared with laughter at the Disney creation; putting up little effort to understand the plot.

We don’t have such characters in the Arab world, certainly no Mickey Mouse. When King Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia was first shown a cinematic production on board a ship headed to the Suez Canal in 1945, he gasped at black & white images of Popeye the Sailorman. The aged king of Arabia giggled as Popeye puffed away on his pipe, roared his famous chuckle, and drank down spinache in battle to capture the heart of his Olive Oil. He remarked that “this Popeye is so fun—so amusing—that it is impossible for me to allow him into the Kingdom! He certainly will distract worshipers and prevent them from praying!” During the Black September events in Jordan in 1970—and again during the seige of Beirut in 1982, Yasser Arafat used to indulge himself with the mischief of Tom & Jerry cartoons. It was his only pastime and stayed with him until his long seige in Ramallah, until 2004. He never missed a single episode, and saw many of them over and over again—probably getting some inspiration for his never-ending war with Ariel Sharon. Abu Ammar always thought that these cartoons were too violent for children, however, shrugging at the thought of a young child imitating what he sees on screen and slamming the piano on somebody’s fingers, placing dynamite underneath his pillow, or slicing him in half with a kitchen knife! He nevertheless adored the scene when Tom was a music conductor, and Jerry insisted on taking a nap during a concert—within the piano. Arafat watched it over and over again.

One of the few things that both Mao Zedong and his predecessor Chiang Kai Shek agreed upon in China—were the adventures of Tintin. Both were avid readers and so were world leaders who memeorized the stories, and knew the characters by heart—including Prime Minister Rajeev Ghandi of India and President Charles de Gaulle, who once confessed that the only person who challenges him really in the French speaking world, was Tintin. De Gaulle famously said, “Tintin is my only international rival. Nodoby notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

In Syria, the closest thing we ever had to a lovable character is that of Ghawwar, a street prankster popularized in the 1960s by Syrian legend Duraid Lahham. Although absent from the screen for over 20-years, Ghawwar—who turns 45 in 2008—remains an all-time favorite not only for Syrians but for Arabs in general. Ghawwar was watched by everbody—beys and pashas of the 1950s, socialists and generals of the 1960s, Islamists, seculars, and communists. In the early 1960s, during they heyday of radical socialism, the Syrian government met to issue important laws on nationalization of banks, land, and industry. The meeting was adjourned, because of a lack of quoron. Why didn’t the ministers show up, the Prime Minister asked? Because a new Ghawwar series—called Hamam al-Hana—was being broadcasted live on Syrian TV. The socialists preferred getting a good laugh out of his pranks, than sitting behind their office desk, nationalizing property. A senior official approached the Hamam al-Hana team and said, “Either you change the time of your broadcast, or we have to change the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers.” Since shows were broadcasted life, chanting them was very difficult. The Syrian government nodded, and changed its weekly meeting, to accommodate Ghawwar!

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8 Responses

  1. Totally charming, Sami. If only it were true and cartoon soft diplomacy could civilize our world.

    And, where do you get these quotes!?

    You should give us your sources on some of these so we can read the books – Abdulazziz on Mickey – priceless!

    Best, Joshua

  2. Beautiful article. Especially if the sources of information are genuine. You are becoming a wonderful historian Sami. I would have liked to see you close the article with the recent fatwa of an enlightened Saudi cheikh banning Mickey mouse.
    Sami

  3. I think you need to publish the sources. I doubt you can authenticate much of this.

  4. Another good un Sami.

    Mickey was already a star of the Silver Screen by the time I acquired sufficient awareness to remember him. Then, we grew up together. He is his world, me in mine.

    We had sureties back then. Mickey loved Minnie. Minnie loved Mickey. Popeye loved Olive and would beat Bluto in the fight for her affections. Of course they were not married, Popeye was a dissolute sailor and dissolute sailors did not marry… No matter how dire the situation, a can of spinach would carry the day.

    Today…. we have Obama bin Hussein! Hillary, George, Dick, John and Sarah! Ugh!

    Tell Mickey Happy Birthday if you see him Sami. Tell him not much has changed in the land of Saud. The worshipful worriers still worry that the joy of living, meditation and girls in boy’s shirts might distract the worshipful from their prayers and get them thinking. The Joy of Sex is still a proscribed book.

    Debbie

  5. Okay, thanks.

  6. To those seeking sources to authenticate the information.

    The story of Ghawwar was taken from Duraid Lahham personally, and is recounted in the memoirs of Rafiq Sibayi (Abu Sayyah) called “Thaman al-Hubb” (The Price of Love). The story of Abu Ammar told to me by one of his bodyguards, now retired, who was with him during the difficult years. Ask those close to Abu Ammar, and they can confirm if they were with him back then in 1970 and 1982. If I am not mistaken, it is also mentioned in From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Tom Friedman. As for the Abdul-Aziz story, you can find it in the memoirs of the American ambassador to Riyadh back then, who orchestrated the famous meeting between him and Roosevelt. Oral history is also important; it was repeated by the son of one of his servants, who was Syrian, sent to him via Shukri al-Quwatli. Finally, the Mickey story in Damascus, with “Steamboat Willie” I have the posters, and the documentation for the film billing in Damascus. I will post soon on our other site, http://www.syrianhistory.com

  7. As always good work Sami

    However; one miner note; Superman is 70 this year he made his first apperance in Action comics dated June 1938 (sorry, I’m a big nerd)

    on an interesting note some of these fictinal “people” have met with historic figures the ubove mentioned Superman captured Hitler and took him before the world court for his crimes. Captain America had simular adventures in 1941.

    Bill and Hilary Clinton also made apperances in the pages of Superman in 1992 as did G.W. Bush just a few months ago. (interestingly enough Bush’s term in Superman’s universe was only 4 years as Lex Luthor was elected in 2000!)

    Obama has already made his 1st comic book apperance in a comic book called Savage Dragon.

    It’s interesting to look at these agless characters. Do our prespecticves of them change as we grow older? I mean they still are the same idea running around after all these years?

    As a kid to me Batman had the cool car and all the neat toys, as an adolecent the focas is on Catwoman. But as an adult most people come to realize the Batman is one messed up guy.

  8. Mr. Sami, thank you for this very nice article!
    I became a lunatic this week… since it is Eid, waiting till monday to get the December issue of FW: from the stores to see what you have written again 🙂
    Happy Eid to all by the way!

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