upin and ipin give thanks
Ramadan this year starts in just three weeks. Last Ramadan I was in Indonesia and bootleg copies of a Malaysian produced animated Ramadan TV special were circulating. Upin and Ipin are a pair of Malay twins about 5 or 6 years old whose gang of friends include an Indian boy, a Chinese girl, and two other Muslim boys. I recently showed this to my children as an effort to start teaching them about world religions. They loved it, they laughed so hard. And they learned something about Islam as it is lived, or at least nostalgialized in Malaysia.

Because the series was created to educate Malaysian kids about Ramadan, it is perfect for teaching about Ramadan to American kids. My daughter who is going into fifth grade for the most part could follow the subtitles, but in some places they changed a bit quickly for her. My son, going into second grade, needed to have me read the subtitles.

The link above leads to the Google video file that displays the first year’s 6 episodes. Originally it was 6 short episodes but here it has been edited into a continuous story. It opens with the twins sitting on the stairs of their traditional Malay house dressed in their finest Eid al-Fitri/Lebaran attire telling their friends about their first year fasting. One of the twins, Ipin if memory serves, always seems to have a fried chicken leg in his hand whenever he is not fasting. Upin and Ipin are being raised by their grandmother and their sometimes snarky older sister, who is a young adult.

It should be noted that the subtitles transliterate the Arabic prayers and greetings instead of translating them. In a sense, they producers are making the claim that Arabic is untranslatable. This is a bit unfortunate because I think for an American audience it makes Islam seem more distant. When I read it to my kids, then, I translated “Assalamu alaikum” as “Peace be upon you.” And when they boys were saying a thanksgiving prayer before eating, I translated enough so that my kids would recognize it as “saying grace,” after a fashion.

In other places, the translator has chosen to be less than literal. When told that they were to try fasting all day, Upin declares that they are “gonna die.” Their grandmother assures them that they are not going to die. At the end of Ramadan, when he observes that they did not die after all, it is at this point that the translator chooses to render it as “that wasn’t so hard after all.” In this way, some of the humor is lost.

The series illustrates the various elements important to Ramadan, at least as practiced in Malaysia and Indonesia: the pre-dawn meal of sahur, how to break the fast, the special Tarewah evening prayers, seeking forgiveness on the Eid, and praying at the graves of twin’s parents at the end of Ramadan.

For urban Malaysians, Upin and Ipin is clearly nostalgia because the gang’s stomping grounds are a small rural village. Regardless, these mischievous twins and their playmates are an absolute delight to watch, as when they get a bit bored waiting for their sister and grandma to finish the evening prayers and so invent a game in which they construct a tower with all the sandals outside the mosque and then try to knock it down with other sandals.

Of course, more humor come from their sister who teases them mercilessly including setting them up to chase a neighbor’s chicken around the village so that they can have some fried chicken for the holiday.

I think this can be effectively used to teach children of all ages about Ramadan. A teacher may need to review the video and be ready to read the subtitles to younger children. As mentioned it will be necessary to review the Arabic transliterations and through Google searches decided how to render the “untranslatable’ sacred speech.

That said, I also think that it can be used effectively to teach undergraduates. It’s cute, funny, but still accurately depicts Malay practices during Ramadan. I will be using it in the fall and can then report back on its effectiveness for undergrads.

After much searching, I have found the second series with subtitles on YouTube. The first episode is here. This season has not been compiled but is in the original serialized format. You can select all on the playlist and it will play one after another.