'Ahmed and Salim' - the controversial animated series about two clueless characters who surf the Net and bungle terror attacks.
By MYA GUARNIERI
The YouTube comments - vitriolic and expletive-filled, igniting arguments from users all over the globe - are revealing. The debate is all-encompassing, from 1948 to now, from the role of the Holocaust in the Arab-Israeli conflict to the causes for the collapse of the peace process. Name-calling abounds. Both sides accuse the other of murder.
On The Observers, a France24 affiliated Web site, the Palestinian blogger, photojournalist and peace activist Sameh Akram Habeeb says, "These videos are dangerous and full of lies... This type of video will in no case favor reconciliation between Jewish and Arab communities. On the contrary, it can only spawn hate." All this fuss over a couple of Guitar Hero playing cartoon characters who have less than 30 minutes of air time.
But "Ahmed and Salim" isn't your ordinary cartoon. Since the first short South Park-style-animated episode hit the Internet several months ago, "Ahmed and Salim" has become a worldwide hit. Together, the six episodes have received more than 700,000 views on YouTube and have garnered thousands of comments. Users have created subtitles for "Ahmed and Salim" in Czech, French and German. One episode has been banned from YouTube and all of the five-minute-or-less episodes are banned outright in the United Arab Emirates.
"They banned it because the UAE flag was in Ahmed's and Salim's living room," one of the creators of the series, Tom Trager, explains. "In the same episode Yasser, Ahmed's and Salim's father, burns down a synagogue and shoots Jews in the head. But the flag - that was the offensive part to them."
Trager and cocreator Or Paz welcome the controversy. "We try to annoy groups who take themselves too seriously," Paz says. "And no one takes themselves more seriously than Muslim fundamentalists. So we mock them."
THAT MUSLIM fundamentalists - or more specifically, mujahedeen - are ridiculed in "Ahmed and Salim" has sparked criticism that Paz and Trager don't take a hard look at Israel or Jews. "It's a story line soon to come," Paz remarks.
Paz and Trager's own storylines began in Israel. Though both were born and raised in Herzliya, where they still live today, the two 20-year-olds didn't meet until high school. They were helping a mutual friend with a film and between takes, Trager recalls, the two discovered that they had the same sense of humor, which they refer to as "satirical nonsense."
"[This type of humor] is very rare. So we decided to write and produce our own comedy sketches," Trager says.
After high school, both received exemptions from army service due to minor medical problems. "I think it worked out for the best," Paz says, "We are contributing to our country through comedy."
Trager currently works as a graphic designer and a writer; Paz is a video editor. The two create "Ahmed and Salim" in their spare time.
Though "Ahmed and Salim" says little about Trager and Paz's home country, the pair's earlier sketches offered satirical commentary on Israeli society and culture. In one short cartoon simply named "Schalit vs Bublil," Yossi Bublil - star of the wildly popular Israeli version of the reality TV show "Big Brother," is kidnapped as terrorists attempt to attack "the heart of Israel." The parody "Big Kidnapped" follows.
In "Schalit vs Bublil," the Israeli public votes for the "contestant" it most wants to see released. Who wins out in the end? Bublil is voted into freedom, while Schalit languishes in a cave.
"Israelis are too obsessed with reality TV to deal with their actual reality," Trager says. "We wanted to explore the idea of what would happen if their 'hero' Yossi Bublil was kidnapped, as well. It was basically to slap the public into awareness."
"AHMED AND Salim" represents awareness of another kind - the brothers at the center of the series are blissfully unaware. In one episode, their father, Yasser, puts them in charge of watching a kidnapped Israeli - whom they promptly befriend, play Guitar Hero with and then release. In another episode, Ahmed falls in love with an Israeli girl. In both cases, the line between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, is blurry, nonexistent really, to Ahmed and Salim. People are people.
"Ahmed and Salim have absolutely no clue what the difference is between a Jew and a Muslim. They're all the same to them. They are free of religion and much more peaceful because of that," Paz says.
This is in stark contrast to Yasser, who is drawn with a bandolier of bullets slung across his chest. Most of the episodes revolve around Yasser planning a terror attack, and Ahmed and Salim unintentionally bungling it. When Salim is depressed that he doesn't have many friends on Facebook and says he is going to commit suicide, Yasser encourages him, telling him he "should do it with a contribution to your religion." Salim asks how, saying he wants to be a good Muslim.
Yasser instructs him. "You must pray every day at the mosque, be a kind and good person and bomb yourself in public places... It says so in the Koran." Salim, doubtful, becomes the voice of reason. "Really? Where?" he asks.
And that's where the humor lies to Paz and Trager. "It's all about the contrast between their psychotic, religious, whack-job father and their unawareness of the role they are supposed to play in his mind. The idea of these innocent children who only want to surf on Facebook and play Guitar Hero despite their lunatic, racist father's wishes for them to blow themselves up on a bus is very funny to us," Trager says.
TRAGER AND Paz say they're motivated solely by humor, not politics. Much as they resist labeling themselves as either right- or left-wing, they aren't eager to label "Ahmed and Salem" as political or subversive, though it seems to be both. "We intend to be funny. That's it," Paz insists.
Is that really it? That in one episode Ahmed and Salim mistakenly place a bomb on a Palestinian bus, rather than the Israeli bus their father had instructed them to attack, seems to offer the opinion that the Palestinian people are inflicting unintentional damage upon themselves. When asked to comment, Paz hedges, "You are free to analyze it anyway you want." Further, that Paz and Trager chose neither Hebrew nor Arabic for "Ahmed and Salim" - the characters speak a concocted gibberish in which the careful listener will catch snippets of Hebrew, Spanish, French, English and a rare Arabic word - seems to speak volumes. Trager simply says, "We wanted to do something universal without a specific language. So we made one up."
Might Ahmed and Salim, language-free, religion-free and with a strong following among both Jewish and Muslim viewers, do more than play Guitar Hero? Can they break down barriers and lead to dialogue? Can they help build bridges? "If you honestly think a silly, poorly animated cartoon like 'Ahmed and Salim' can lead to peace, you give us way too much credit."
"Ahmed and Salim" is available on YouTube and at www.ahmedandsalim.com.
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