The future belongs to the young, no matter how much older generations try to shape that future. Educations plays a key role, as does the whole family context, but in the past century it is the expansion of media that has establishing a seemingly hegemonic control over the curiosity of the young. Disney launched the careers of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not to mention the lily white Snow White or comfortably brown Bambi. In my day there was Woody Woodpecker, but my son’s generation was mesmerized by the Ninja Turtles. I have not kept up with cartoon evolution, but I had heard something about a cheesy character named Sponge Bob. It seems that there are many episodes of Sponge Bob available in Arabic on Youtube. The image above is from an adventure in a hibernating-bear-in-an-igloo winterland.

I have seen Arabic translations of Western and Japanese cartoon shows before, and anthropologist Mark Peterson has written a fascinating ethnography (Connected in Cairo: Growing Up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East, Indiana University Press 2011) about the Pokemon phenomenon and other comic characters in Cairo. It is important to remember that the urban generation that has taken to the streets in the Arab Spring and lives and dies through the social media has also been brought up in a steady diet of cartoons, both comic books and videos. While academics have been arguing over the impact of erudite Orientalism, there is a far more potent source influencing the thought of the young: I call this “cartoonality,” the shaping of opinion through fictional non-human or ultra-human cartoon characters.

I suspect that most of the Western cartoon shows that are viewed by Arabic-speaking children are not overtly political or conscious propaganda, but rather reflect the consumer mania that maintains the inequalities of capitalist greed. The values presented in a show like Sponge Bob are obviously not of the same order as those in South Park, a Kuwaiti clone of which is also available in Arabic. But they are imported and often present a very biased view of what life is really like in America or Europe or Japan. Apart from Mark’s insightful study, based on fieldwork in Cairo, I have not seen much analysis of this cartoonality. The analysis of Egyptian comics by Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas in 1994 needs updating, especially with the increased prominence of the Gulf States in producing children’s shows.

Bernard Lewis may be the bane of those who fear the ghosts of Orientalism past and hawkish Neoliberalism present, but make room for Mickey Mouse and Sponge Bob. The impact of cartoonality is not something to laugh off.