Magdi Youssef*

Arab Fairy Tales in Disney Times: 
A Comparative Socio-Literary Approach(1)
There is a flood of American cartoon strips and animation features in children's media, not only in Europe, Asia, South and North America, but also in the Arab World. A general complaint has been voiced in the Arab world of an American 'invasion' of Arab children's literature. American cartoons, motifs, etc. are overwhelming the entertainment forms of modern Arab children, especially children's comic books and television programs. To give a representative example,  Micky is one of the most 'popular' characters in children's comic books in Egypt. It is nothing but an Arab version of a figure belonging to a Walt Disney collection of characters.

Not surprisingly, literate Arab children favor Disney figures as stickers on their school-book covers, on walls, and window panes. However, even illiterate Arab children (who statistically vary both in absolute numbers and relative weight, from one Arab country to another) do not seem to be spared this American substitution of their own rich oral culture, as Arab television stations emit those Americanized cartoons seemingly directed only at 'literate' Arab children. Only those among the so-called illiterate Arab children who live in remote, rural areas 'deprived' of TV, are spared this hegemonic cultural import (and the uniform  orientation it implies), and instead have recourse to their own oral legacy which constitutes a mine of local folk stories and fairy tales.

However, paradoxically enough, the general trend in these remote, 'disadvantaged’ areas is to 'look up' to the Arab cities and towns which monopolize the modern media. It goes without saying that this poses a threat to local Arab fairy tales. What dominates today increasingly in the Arab countries is a rather unified, 'ready-made' and imported, Disney-like fairy tale 'model.' The phenomenon often inaccurately referred to as 'religious fundamentalism' that is currently spreading over most of the Arab world, constitutes a reaction to these dominant imports that unleash interference processes in the framework of socio-psychologically conflicting systems of values and world views. Meanwhile, specific children's tales in each of the traditionally productive agricultural and nomadic areas in the Arab countries seem to recede in favor of the culture dominating in the Arab cities. At the same time, the children's culture of these cities which function as market centers is  imported from world market centers, especially from the U.S.A. This not only runs parallel to the increasing integration of Arab societies and economies in the mechanisms of the world market, but also leads to a consequential loss of literacy of Arab children! Such a statement seems to be, prima facie, a paradox if not a puzzle, yet one to be unraveled: How is it that formal 'literacy' which is supposed to provide access to knowledge, turns out to be, in this case, symptomatic of Arab children's 'illiteracy'?  If we are to define the capacity of 'reading' as an active process promoting the creative abilities of the child in a critical learning process, the swift sequence of moving pictures is all but favorable to the enhancement of this capacity for active intellectual involvement. Instead, it impedes any critical (productive) learning process and transforms children into passive consumers and thus victims of an ideology represented in the dominant configurations, plots, and actions of these animated motion pictures. They are not only weaned from the active enjoyment of a children's literature their peers were confronted with in the past; they are also enthralled by a filmic form which leaves them without any chance for independent reflection.

Having felt the threat to their cultural identity that arises  as a consequence of these cartoons which are plainly overwhelming a TV-watching public of Arab children and adolescents, a number of Arab businessmen and statesmen decided to set up an Arab Society for Children's Moving Pictures, with a fund of  10 million US dollars. The aim of this society is to help create modern Arab children's cinema and TV cartoons which would be consistent with Arab cultural values and legacies, instead of heterocultural, alienating models. However, I do not see how this society is going to achieve its aim of promoting cultural consistency in this specific case without seeking to solve the problem of the reception of moving pictures on the part of children.

As form and content are dialectically united, to simply fill the modern, i.e. technologically advanced, media  of children's moving pictures with Arab 'cultural values' would be, to my mind, in vain. The question which should be raised here is: how can the use of a still relatively new, and overwhelming technology contribute to a real enhancement of the indigenous (not: 'indigène') Arab socio-cultural life?(2) In other words, how can these modern technologies be used to achieve this specific, self-reliant, and rational cultural consistency, without falling into the trap of  surrendering to the all too often mystified new media? And would the strategy suggested by the above-mentioned society really avoid reproducing the mechanism of passive receptivity developed by modern Arab children viewing Americanized moving pictures? Would it help instead to promote their original, critical participation in the reception process - which already exists in their oral cultural traditions? This is the real challenge. If successfully treated, it would not only enhance modern Arab children's culture but might also contribute to solving the ultimate structural problem implied in the current use of this modern technology adapted for the 'entertainment' of children the world over!

It is true that the encounter of a national culture with other socio-cultures may well help to overcome many a one-sided attitude or orientation in the indigenous system of values through the comparison with attitudes and orientations prevailing in various different socio-cultures. However, the domination by an alien cultural view over the  world-view of other cultures could well lead to the opposite effect, namely to a socio-psychological interference, ambivalence, and conflict  on the part of the receiving side of the communication process. This would be especially the case in children's literature, as children are much less discriminating with regard to these socio-cultural interference processes, and therefore more vulnerable than adults. The intercultural contact proves to be beneficial, though, when based on a comparative, critical learning process. However, it can be highly detrimental when it takes place on an overwhelmingly unconscious or non-critical level. As the unconscious reception mechanism of identification is inevitable with regard to imaginative literary configurations and actions (which are related to social relations in a mediated form), the emerging psycho-social conflict would be: with which attitude should the child identify?  With that of his indigenous, native socio-cultural system of values or with the alien, overwhelming one? This psycho-sociological conflict, emerging from said interference process, leads either to the refusal of the self or to the refusal of alterity.(3) As an alternative to both, I would like to cite the example of a rational comparison drawn by the distinguished Arab Egyptian children's writer, Yacoub el-Sharouni. He compared the literary treatment of the story of 'Alaa' el-Deen(Aladin) and the Magic Lantern,' as undertaken by his predecessor, the leading Egyptian Arab writer of children's stories Kamel-el-Kilani, with the Arabic 're-telling' of the same story which was originally written by Mary Stewart, illustrated by Robert  Aston, and given its Arabic version by the Syrian children's poet Solayman Issa.

El-Sharouni found that the latter treatment of the story proved to be useful for the enhancement and emancipation of the world view of Arab children.  When he compared the Walt Disney version of the Arabic adaptation of the story of Alaa el-Deen and the Magic Lamp with the new version for Arab children by Kamel el-Kilani, the same positive observation was made.(4)This comparison referred specifically to the positive aspects in the parent-child relationship, in the Walt Disney version of the story. It was Yacoub el-Sharouni himself who was inspired by the ecological awareness as represented in the story of the German children's writer Gerhard Fabian, Der fliehende Baum.(5)  El Sharouni wrote his analogy to Fabian's story for Arab children. Instead of an oak tree he took the River Nile. The new title of the story was: Al-Rihla al-'Agiba Li 'Arus el-Nil (The Wonderful Journey of the Nile's bride).(6) This enjoyable book production which took place in cooperation with the 'Egyptian National Center for Children's Culture' and the German Goethe Institute in Cairo was distributed to Egyptian school libraries.

Such intercultural learning and exchange of experiences, solutions, inventions, and ideas runs counter to the one-dimensional, irrational hegemony of one socio-cultural model over the other. The latter is especially obvious in the case of such American children cartoons as Tom and Jerry or Tarzan,  reproduced in Arab children's comics and broadcast by Arab TV stations. As to the typical American science-fiction series, there is a tendency to mystify the role of technology and thus help indoctrinate an ideology of 'instrumental reason,' which has been, as such, thoroughly criticized by Horkheimer and Habermas.(7) This ideology is, at least indirectly, inherent in the actions of such cartoon figures as Superman or the Power Rangers, regardless of the subjective attitudes of the 'hero.'  It is no wonder that Arab children's writers have raised a warning voice in view of the fact that these science-fiction cartoons are increasingly present in the Arab media.(8) As Yacoub el-Sharouni rightly points out, animated American science fiction features, based on the mystification of power and technology, hardly have anything to do with Jule Verne's science fiction which inspired scientists and researchers.(9) In most of these cartoon series, the question of rational ethics as it poses itself in the field of technological inventions, with regard to both human social relations and the relationship of man to nature, has not been considered or reflected, I'm afraid. (Such basic reflections are, to my mind, indispensible in the making of literature in general and very specifically in children's literature.)

The criticism, therefore, that is leveled at the bulk of US science fiction cartoons, is justified and requires an adequate response. Similarly, American adventure cartoons, notably the Wild West and Tarzan varities, which were amply criticized for their racially biased relationship between the 'white man' and so-called savages (either 'Red Indians' or Africans), should not only be boycotted in the Arab World, but banned worldwide. The extermination of the 'Red Indians' (as Native Americans are frequently referred to) in the Wild West cartoons has been 'translated' and thus perceived by an Arab audience (the 'receivers') as being paralleled by the persecution of the Palestinians, writes Y. el-Sharouni.(10) One can imagine, therefore, the amount of psychological interference it would provoke in Arab children.  The same is valid as regards African children when viewing Tarzan. The reflection of the contradiction between the 'aesthetics' of play and action in a story, and its relation to inter-individual, inter-ethnic, and inter-national relations has not been undertaken by greedy publishers and media bosses, who only strive to maximize their profits at the cost of rational social relations. Rational criticism would see this contradiction rooted in the hegemony of the world-market over inter-individual, inter-cultural, and inter-national relations. However, it can be maintained that the majority of the direct producers in our world support peaceful and rational social relations instead of gambling and persistent efforts to dominate by all means, at the cost of others. Those who protested against Apartheid are a representative example of all this. However, didn't the elimination of Apartheid also help widen the range and deepen the mechanism of a world market which - on its behalf, maybe in a more subtle way - again reinforces the same irrational trend we are critical of?

The fact that the mechanisms of the world market are not evenly spread over the globe provides an opportunity to marginal and marginalized socio-cultural areas, often in one and the same nation, to subsist in their 'natural', pre-market social values and legacies (even though these may have been transformed,  or are in need of transformation, in terms of new social needs). I am referring here to the political economy of folk tales as a dialectical socio-cultural process. Folk literature mainly draws on these self-contained, 'natural' social relations of subsistence economies  which are at the root of, and constitute, a mine of tales to be elaborated and worked on in terms of the children's needs for 'entertainment' and playful learning. The claims of some thematological folklore researchers, such as Mircea Eliade (11) - whose approach is very close to that of Northrop Frye, as well as that of E.R. Curtius, equally based on C.G. Jung's  archetypal  theory of alleged 'constants' in the 'deep level' of human  culture - seem to me to contribute to a leveling out rather than truly relating to, and linking, the various socio-cultural inventions of humankind.(12) This approach runs counter to one that would be accounting for the validity of the specific socio-cultural context in which the oral folk-legacy is received and re-interpreted.

It might be fitting to raise the following question in a Federation of Modern Languages and Literatures, which has been raised already by myself (13), as well as, independently, by the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba in his outstanding book, L'Imaginaire Magrebin  (Tunis 1992) in which he thouroughly studies Tunisian folk tales for children: Apart from the fact that is provides an interesting exercise for literary historians, what would be the use of  an approach  based on presumed 'constants' (in the form of 'recurring' themes, motifs, etc.), in terms of understanding society? Let me reformulate this question by saying: What is the use of an approach which claims to be 'historical' - as long as it disregards (or considers of merely marginal importance) the changes and transformations that occur with regard to  'legacies' when they are ‘entering’ different social relations and when their relation to nature varies, as well?  In other words: how can such an approach call itself 'historical' when it denies 'historicity' as a category of constant change? And how can this change be understood without having recourse to the new societal relations  in which the legacy is received?

Even though the ten folk stories told to Tunisian children by their mothers and aunts which have been collected and interpreted by Abdelwahab Bouhdiba use the 'same' themes known in their specific cultural heritage, the militant female mark left on them is distinct enough. This specific mark gives the 'original' stories a new semantic dimension which is understandable only by taking into consideration the struggles of their female tellers against patriarchally dominated social relations in Tunisia today.

A closer look at these stories demonstrates quite well what is meant. As it is, the children's stories told by men are called in Arabic Asatir. They used to be solemn and preaching, while those told by women to their children are called Khurafat (legends).(14) Contrary to the ones told by men, those told by women take the liberty of having recourse to imagination. They used to deal with their relations to their husbands and men in their society in a mediated (imaginative) form. Most of the ten stories interpreted by Abdelwahab Boudhdiba are hostile towards men. According to Boudhiba, the story of The Mighty Goat  for instance symbolizes a 'phallic mother and an uterine father.' Unravelling the symbols of this story leads him to conclude that it is about 'the castration of the father by the mother who uses her horns to break his.'  The reason why  I prefer to quote Boudhiba in French, in the following passages,  is the fact that his use of a foreign language enables him to distance himself from the ideological and social control mechanisms he would be involved with, would he use his mother tongue. Boudhiba comments on the ten folk tales of his country dealt with by him:

Dans nos contes, presque sans exception, aidée par la seule intuition, par sa seule intelligence, la femme se tire toujours d'affaire. Elle remporte sur l'homme des victoires renouvelées. Dans Sept vierges il es pour le moins leger et imprudent, lache et cornard. Dans Conseils nous reçumes, il est menteur, hypocrite, impuissant et en fin de compte foncierement méchant et capable des pires guet-apens. Dans Demi-coq hormis le cas de Demi-coq lui-même, l'élément male est jaloux, cupide,  envieux, méchant, tyrannique. Dans Si El Baggouri il est inconscient, méchant, nigaud et niais. Dans Elles se sont envolées, il es cupide, tyrannique, méchant. Dans Préposé aux balancoires il est inconscient, inconstant, jaloux, sadique et bourreau de soi-même. Dans Aicha que faisait donc ton père l'ogre? il est inconscient, cruel, malpropre, dégoutant. (15)

Boudhiba elaborates on his analysis of the (implicitly) critical socio-cultural and socio-political position of these children stories:

Parfois, la satire tourne au persiflage et à la subversion. Nos contes ne manquent pas de prendre parfois l'allure de la protestation sociale ou politique. Ils sont en tout cas un art d'apprendre l'irrespect. La maitresse d'école cupide et voleuse finit, a la joie de tous, par reçevoir une bastonnade magistrale. Le Sultan et sa fille sont nargués, ridiculisés jusqu'a l'obscenité. Ils sont dépouillés de leur dignité: la princesse est teigneuse, le Sultan est deculotté! Les hommes riches, les vieillards, les gros proprietaires et les riches commerçants sont l'objet d'une satire féroce une petite 'borma se gausse' de leurs personnes. Mais c'est le Cadhi, et avec lui tout le capital religieux qu'il represente et charrie, qui reçoit en conformité d'ailleurs avec une image populaire stereotypée, les coups les plus durs. Ce magistrat suprême n'est qu'un goinfre vulgaire. Ce juge tout puissant n'est qu'une specialiste de l'iniquité. Ce faquih savantissime n'est qu'un pauvre perroquet qui reprend sans en approfondir le sens, la parole d'Allah. Cet homme enfin qui se veut roublard est finalement la risée d'un petit anier qui préfére s'installer en dehors du système et mettre les rieurs de son côte.(16 ) 

In the face of these males,  the women of the tales have no other way out but to rely on compensatory strategies: some try  to find "the ideal man" and make good for time lost  -  while others turn into the type of the  "castrating woman" with a teeth-studded vagina.

Reduplicating this bipolarity, the tales have two distinct orientations. Boudhiba points out:

Il y aura des contes de rêve ou le thème repose et fait rêver: le beau bâton joueur de Puits rends-moi ma figue, ou encore le serpent qui souffle toute nuit sur une certaine fente qui se retrouve à l'aube triomphant, regaillardi ayant recupére son aspect d'origine et idyllique de jeune homme beau à faire pâlir  la nuit du destin. La compensation type reste la promesse de bonheur sans fin precedée par tant de métamorphoses et tant de retrouvailles avec soi, que symbolise la rencontre avec Sard Ben Ward. 

Il est une autre orientation: lorsque le rêve idealisé d'un bonheur sans fin s'avère hors de portée, s'y substitue alors un rêve de lutte, de renversement, d'écrasement de l'autre, de déstruction. Ce n'est plus un rêve de l'éros, mais un rêve du thanatos. La femme rivalisera avec le mâle. Comme la puissante chevrette, elle fourbira ses cornettes; comme la vieille de Mêre Aigue, elle luttera, voyagera, et finalement fera périr dans le zerdab un partenaire decidement impossible a maitriser. (17) 

Even though the Tunisian folk stories for children reveal feminist militancy, they are highly polysemic in their intrinsic structure. As a sociologist, Bouhdiba remarkably refuses to reduce them to their content or even to their social commitment. Regarding such approaches  as that of Vladimir Propp, who works out a kind of morphological 'grammar of folk tales,' Bouhdiba rightly comments:

Il est tout a fait legitime de tenter une formalisation rigoureuse et systematique des contes et de les traiter comme un ensemble de signes univoques. Les progrès de la formalisation sont à çe prix: la réduction du symbole equivoque au signe univoque.(18 ) 

In his final analysis of said Tunisian folk tales for children, Bouhdiba underlines the necessity to acknowledge the contribution of this humble folk culture as a mine of collective creativity:

Ils sont [the stories - M.Y.] jaillissement renouvelées et, à chaque occasion, recreation collective. De ce point de vue dynamique nous avons grand besoin de rehabiliter la culture populaire et l'humble vie quotidienne.(19) 

He further expounds on the reasons of this necessity, especially with regard to an emancipatory integration of children and adults alike, in spontaneous socio-cultural interaction:

Par le biais du conte, la communauté du conte et du conteur et, par-delà  celle du groupe entier, dévéloppe un véritable sur-moi [note the Freudian terminology - M.Y.] dont l'influence préside a l'évolution culturelle de la société et du même coup à l'insertion de l'enfant et des adultes dans les œuvres culturelles spontanées. [...] Nous plaidons donc pour la specificité du conte et pour son 'autonomie' ce qui n'exclut nullement qu'il y ait des reseaux complèxes et dialectiques qui l'inserent dans son environnement propre.(20) 

While referring to Maghrebinian folk tales for children, Bouhdiba cites Roger Bastide: 'Le symbole prend dans le mythe un autre sens que dans le rêve.'
And Bouhdiba comments:

Disons que dans le conte, et même dans chaque conte, il prend encore un autre sens. C'est que la dialectique içi joue à plein rendement: la forme du conté et les significations multiples qu'elle peut revetir sont au carrefour d'un reseau inéxtricable de relations multiples: conscient et inconscient, conteuse et conté, partenaires du conte et société globale, passé, present et futur, culture et sous-culture ... le conte pour l'enfant, tel qu'il est pratiqué dans les milieux maghrebins, est en derniere analyse un ensemble d'équilibres structurels en dévenir.(21) 

Unlike the Egyptian children's writer Yacoub el-Sharouni, whom we see making  quite traditional claims by wanting Arab children's stories to reinforce the established social values of respect towards parents, the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba hails the opposite trend in the oral children's folk tales of his country. Irrespect and revolt vis à vis patriarchal and despotic fathers and rulers are regarded by him as emancipatory moments in the imaginative realm of the oppressed.(22) Would it be now too far-fetched to maintain that feminist Tunisian tellers of children's stories were among those who went into the streets in their country a few years ago, to voice their protest against the rise of a religious 'fundamentalist' movement, which was making hegemonial patriarchal claims?

To pursue the critical discussion of the theoretical approach of E.R. Curtius that I undertook in my paper presented at the FILLM conference in Brazilia in 1993, I would like to elaborate on an alternative theoretical proposition based on intercultural studies. It is true that themes, motifs, ideas, generally-speaking, emerge through man confronting challenges. The outcome which lasts longer than the moment of discovery of a solution for a challenge goes into human history as an invention. In fact it can be defined as a productive force. The fact that it would be taken over in different situations, according to the principle of accumulation  of human experience, does not mean, though, a continuity of its original identity. Every new situation bears in itself the possibility of transformation of the inherited. New solutions added to the previous ones constitute real  new productive forces. Now, if we take into consideration that the selection process, as such, is an expression of interest or disinterest in a given proposition, we inevitably have to ask ourselves what is the dominating factor in the selective reception? It is not the original challenging situation, as it already passed away. The new situation might seem similar to it. However, where should one start from: from the departed alien - or from the new one? The comparison, in this regard, can be either enhancing or detrimental to the productive force. It would be enhancing when it springs from the discovery of the specific new aspects in the new situation, which requires unprecedented solutions. This is the difficult, but rewarding channel to real knowledge. 

The other way round (where we proceed by reducing the specific, new experiences to  already 'experienced' ones) is much easier. However, needless to say, it would be at the cost of any real enhancing of the human productive force.(23) Now it would be legitimate to ask the following: when I read this paper in front of you, am I productive or a reproductive force? If I try to identify myself with what I am presenting at this very moment, then I would be, without doubt, merely reproductive. It is only when I question my thesis that I eventually become productive. Now, what about this language I am using at this moment? Am I not supposed to follow its rules if I am to communicate with you? These rules are a societal invention,  as they are also a convention. They are in continuous change, even though we would not notice this change but in relatively longer periods. We would notice them clearly in the field of cultural connotations and different societal usage, e.g. the use of cockney vs. Oxford English, or in the case of Portuguese in Brazil vs. in Portugal, French in France vs. in Quebec, etc. This semantic change language undergoes in time and space is the result of socio-cultural 'innovations' carried out by human productive forces. Now, which are the decisive factors which lead to these innovations? They would depend on the decisive interests of those involved in a micro/macro-social relation, or in a socially mediated relationship to nature. The strategies of ideological formations, including those of oral telling of children's stories, are clearly dependent on the specific situation and position of the teller in a given social relationship as mediated through his, her, or their consciousness.

Let us now move back from the Maghreb (literally: sunset), as well as from our theoretical reflections, to the Mashreq (sunrise) of the Arab World. The first major shift in modern times from the oral traditions of Arab children's stories to a written literary form was undertaken in 1927 by the  Arab Egyptian writer Kamel el-Kilani (deceased in 1959). This was the beginning of a new genre in modern Arabic literature. However, it was only in 1974 that the first, and still unique publishing house specializing in children's literature was founded in Cairo. It was established by immigrant Palestinians and bears the name: Al-Fata al-Arabi (The Arab Chap). The one-hundred-and-seventy children's books and related works published by Al-Fata al-Arabi, until it moved to Palestine (Ghaza strip) in 1995, range from art posters  for children up two two years old, to children's stories written for the various ages by distinguished Arab and international authors. Among the authors of one of its major series entitled 'al-Ufuq-al-Gadid' (The New Horizon), addressing children 7 to 12 years old, we find the following titles: From Heart to Heart, by the starkly melodic, humanistic Egyptian poet Fuad Haddad; The Moon Opera, by Jacques Prévert; The Breeze of the Wing, by Paul Eluard; The Revolver, by Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenia; and The Small Oil Lamp, by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (1936-72). In another series entitled 'Al-Mustaqbal Li'l-Atfal (The Future Belongs to the Children), designed for children between the ages of 6 and 9, thirty-nine titles have been published. These stories were written especially for children by major Arab writers of today, such as Zakaria Tamer of Syria, Hanan el-Sheikh of Lebanon and Tawfik Zayyad  as well as Mo'in Bissesso of Palestine. Their illustrations were undertaken by prominent artists from five Arab countries. Twelve of these books which appeared in English were translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, the editor of Heinemann's Arab Authors Series and one of the foremost English translators of modern Arabic literature. The stories translated present a picture of the Modern Arab World, its reality and its visions, as seen by its writers and read by its children. Among its book titles available in English we find:

The Peacock with Beautiful Feathers, by Ayoub Mansour (Syria), illustrated by El-Labbad (Egypt); A Bird in the Hand, by Hanan El-Sheikh (Lebanon), with illustrations by Leila Shawa (Palestine); The Homeless Little Nightingale, by Hassib Kayali (Palestine), illustrated by Higazi (Egypt); The White Pigeon, by Zakaria Tamer (Syria), with illustrations by Adli Rizkalla (Egypt), etc.

One of the original series published by this specialized house and carried out by the Egyptian writer Sun'allah Ibrahim is entitled: 'Al-Hikayat al-'Ilmiya Lis Sighar (Scientific Stories for The Young). In this series, the author presents scientific discoveries in story form with appealling and adventurous elements. All protagonists of these stories are either birds or animals challenged by nature.

In another series entitled Min Hikayat ash-Shu 'ub (Tales of the World's Peoples), we find sixteen books for children between 7 and 10 years of age. Each of these books deals with the folk tales of a different population, thus from Tunisia, Spain, China, Egypt, India, Italy, Ireland, Japan, Palestine, etc. The ultimate message of this series is one of pointing out to Arab children the varieties of the different cultures and world-views worldwide. Not surprisingly, the first book published by this  publishing house in 1975 in many languages, ranging from Arabic to Swedish and Japanese, was bearing the title Home. It symbolizes the tragic situation of the Palestinians  whose quest today for a home to stay  is all but over.

It is a well-known fact that  the adult's personality is already set up at the age of 6-8.  Many of the attitudes he/she indirectly acquires and interiorises,  are undoubtedly formed  at this early stage, by being exposed to certain systems of values.  It is therefore  obvious that the system of values mediated through  modern, Americanized television cartoons with their imaginary humans and animals not only constitutes a considerable impact on his/her future decisions and options as an adult but also collides and interferes with the traditions of Arab folk systems of values, thus possibly causing a social neurosis.

If we look at the Tunisian and Palestinian children's stories referred to above, we find them geared  towards a negation of the patriarchal hegemony, and a fearless openess towards the experience of ordinary people the world over - the Others, who are compared - in the case of the Palestinians - to the Self, i.e. the situation of the compatriots  which are barred from having a home, like everybody else.

As to the American televised cartoons for children, like Tarzan, Tom and Jerry, and Power Rangers - let alone American science fiction  series - which are flooding Arab media today, it cannot be overlooked that they contribute to the alienation of Arab children and youth in a number of ways. They do so,  firstly, by tearing apart the link between production and consumption which exists, as an organic unity  in the narration and reception of Arab folk tales for children. This unity manifests itself in sofar as receivers (children as listeners, active  'consumers') become themselves producers, telling  such stories to their children in turn. In contrast, the modern, televised fairy tale entering the living rooms of Arab children today is a commercial product, which reflects not so much the sheer needs of the recipients (that require an 'answer' in the form of their interaction with the storytellers) but the need to market the product, in order to cash in a net return. The production process is industrialised and segmented, making the film the product of a highly complex division of labor. The writer of the story, the scriptwriter, the designer-trained personnel entrusted with the factory-like drawing of the cartoons, the trick specialists, sound engineers,  cutters and editors all are producing merely part of the work, being separated by the next stage of the work process and finally by the entire technological apparatus of cartoon  or animated film production from the recipient who is a vague and distant customer they do not directly enter in contact with. In fact, even more than the technological apparatus, it is the distribution apparatus that decides, how, when, and for what purpose the product reaches its manifest destination: the viewer or consumer, who is cherished exactly because of his passive, gullible social role.  There is, however,  a second  aspect to the alienation these televised cartoons tend to produce: By referring to an imaginary 'world' that reflects the socio-cultural 'model' presented by American society, they help alienate Arab children and youth from the concrete problems and challenges they are supposed to face in their respective societies. By relying, largely, on a mystifying mechanism which is included in the collective symbols of overpowering modernity,  that is to say,  'American'  technology and  American 'heroes' - which become synonyms of success, domination (often, by brutal means), the grabbing of pleasure, enjoyment, unlimited consumption, etc. - , they trigger an identificatory process in many young viewers, who are prone  to identify with the symbolized equivalent of the aggressively asserted, dominant socio-culture instead of the  culture under attack (which eventually becomes marginalized).  The viewers are thus tied metaphysically to what the late Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922-96) once termed Cavalo do Santo (The Horse of the Saint)(24) - referring to the dependency of a growing segment of the population in Latin America and the rest of the so-called Third World, on a cultural 'model' presented by the U.S.

Indeed, the imaginative realm of many American motion pictures made for children and youthful viewers, by reproducing the above-mentioned mystification of power and technology,  induces the recipients to accept as positive their symbolic representations that are related to the reigning American model. This does not only lead, on the part of the recipient, to self-denial and forms, therefore, the basis for a 'successful reproduction of a helpless, submissive attitude towards the hegemonial attempts of the U.S.A., but also towards the mechanisms of the world market, as propagated and reinforced by the World Bank, the IMF, and WTO. By their dissociation of production and consumption (analysed further above), unlike the traditional folk tales, these televised cartoons help mystify the market mechanisms, as if these were all too 'natural' phenomena. As a matter of fact, they bring about an ambivalent, if not an adverse attitude of Arab children and adolescents towards their presently marginalized socio-cultures. At times, this leads - among some factions of these  Arab  youngsters - to the opposite extreme: a total refusal of the West, and an all too romantic sticking to an ideal self-image derived from the past: a new ethno-centrism, with which they react to modern Euro-Americano-centrism. Often they go even so far as to boycott and even to try and impose on others in their direct milieu (e.g. their families) a boycott of certain (or all) TV emissions - to which they might have been too much exposed in their earlier childhood. The youth who committed the horrible massacre against Western tourists in 1996 at the Hatshepsout Mausoleum in Luxor (Upper Egypt) were but a representative example of this extreme attitude all too often reared by the brutality of  so many Western children's cartoons discussed here.

While we are now at the beginning of the third millenium, the logic of the world market, fully abstracting the production from its producers and severing the consumption from the production process, doesn't augur well either for the populations of the First World who have been abruptly separated in modern times from those of the so-called Third World. The myth of the superiority of the 'white man' that American cartoons are teeming with, shall not spare the Western populations, I am afraid, from the dreadful repercussions of the recent crash of Far Eastern stock exchange markets. It seems to be a main vocation for the current millenium to demystify the illusions which divide the ordinary people worldwide while so many among them are being made victims of hatred, exclusion, and brutality, as often represented in the overwhelmingly present American children's cartoons around the globe.


* The author is a professor of comparative literature at Cairo University, Egypt.

(1) This paper was held as a plenary lecture on the opening session of the XXth triennial congress of the Fédération Internationale des Langues et Litteratures Modernes (FILLM), at Regensburg University (Germany), August, 1996.

(2) Unlike the English term „indigenous“, the French idiom „indogene“ is pejorative as it refers to the culture of the so-called „aboriginals“.

(3) It goes without saying that this opposition of Self and Alterity implies a certain abstraction from moulded cultures of various social strata in a given society, which constitute an ethnic or national general consensus  called 'the Self.'

(4) Obviously, El-Sharouni's positive evaluation of this specific aspect of the written and published Disney version doesn't contradict the fact that the racist opening song of the cartoon  based on it and presented on TV  had to be changed after Arab embassadors in Western capitals protested against it. Needless to say, the different contexts of  reception play a major role in the critical assessment of self and hetero-images.

(5) The Fleeing Tree.

(6) Cairo,1995,1997.

(7) Cf. Horkheimer, Max: Zur Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft. US edition:
Critique of instrumental reason, lectures and essays since the end of World War 2, New York, 1974; 
as well as: Habermas, Juergen: Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie (Technology and Science as Ideology), Frankfurt, 1974.

(8) See: El-Sharouni, Youssef: Al-Qiyam at-Tarbawiya fi Qisas al-Atfal (The paedagogical values in childrens stories), Cairo, 1990, p.5.

(9) Ibid, p.5.

(10) Ibid, p.12.

(11) Cf. his works: Aspects du mythe, Paris, 1963, 249p.; Traite d’histoire de
religions, Paris, 1964,393p.

(12) See: Jung, Carl Gustav (1875-1961): Die Archetype und das kollektive Unbewusste.
US edition: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Princeton University Press,1980. See also, Louis Massignon’s application of Jung’s theory in his: Themes archetypiques et onrocritique musulmanes, Eranos 12, 1945, p.241-5.

(13) See my book: at-Tadakhul al-Hadari wa’l-Istiqlal al-fikri (Socio-Cultural Interference and Intellectual Independence), Cairo, 1993; Cf. Also my papers:Towards a Multi-Centric Literary Canon, in: Proceedings of the XIXth Congress of the Federation Internationale des Langues et Litteratures Modernes (FILLM), Brazilia, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 496-8; as well as its extention: Towards a Real
Decentralisation of the Literary Canon: The Arab Contribution, in: Horwath, Peter et al(eds.):Humanism and the Good Life, Proceedings of the fifteenth Congress of the World Federation of Humanists, New York, 1998, pp. 381-9; Il Myto della letteratura europea, in: I Quaderni di Gaia, revista di letteratura comparata, Roma, 1997, vol.8, No 11.pp.69-76, Le contact entre les litteratures  europeennes et la litterature arabe contemporaine: Une interfernce culturelle?, in: Evans, J.X.; Horwath,P. (eds.): Adjoining Cultures as Reflected in Literature and Language, Proceedings of the XVth Congress of the Federation Internationale des Langues et Litteratures Modernes (FILLM), Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ 1983,131-2.

(14) See in this regard Abdelwahab Bouhdiba’s elaboration on the Arabic use of both terms in his already mentioned book: L’imaginaire Maghrebin, Tunis, pp.17-20.

(15) Ibid,p.152.

(16) Ibid, p.152-3.

(1&) Ibid, p.153.

(18) Ibid, p.144.

(19) Ibid, p. 147.

(20) Ibid, p. 147.

(22) Ibid, p. 152.

(23) My definition of the productive force in this paper is based on the concept of production as the highest form of consumption and vice versa, vs. the sterile dichotomy of production and consumption as exemplified in the modern, commercialized culture.

(24) The term is derived by Darcy Ribeiro from the socio-cultural dependency  on old Yoruba rites claimed by West African slaves working in the Brazilian plantation economy. These hard-pressed people occasionally took refuge to their traditional believes when refusing to obey certain commands of their masters. They did so by claiming they were not free to do what they were ordered to do (by their masters) when the 'Saint' rode them taking the believer for a horse. Ribeiro sarcastically transforms the meaning of this pretended dependency (which camouflages resistance against oppression) by applying it to the socio-cultural surrender of Brazilian elites to the presently dominant American socio-culture.


Magdi Youssef: "Toward a Real Decentralization of the Literary Canon: The Arab Contribution", in: Humanism and the Good Life: Proceedings of the Fifteenth Congress of the World Federation of Humanists, ed. by Peter Horwath et al., New York 1998, pp. 381-390

Book overview

The participants at the Fifteenth Congress of the World Federation of Humanists dealt with a post-Marxist world & how Humanism possesses the power to approach the task of living in this changed environment both locally & globally. In the resulting collection of papers, Humanism & the Good Life, scholars redefine Humanism & explain their approaches to it in essays on environmental, social, economic, & moral issues, as well as cultural & ethnic problems. The contributors come from Africa, Western & Central Europe, North & South America. Their papers demonstrate the wide spectrum of diversity, compassion, & dedication that make up the connection between Humanism & the good life at the end of the twentieth century [...]