DUBAI: It was both maternal instinct and a bright idea that led Saudi Arabia-based Syrian entrepreneur Sara Sawaf to found an animation company that eventually spawned the children’s edutainment series “Aya and Yusuf,” which debuted this year.
Sawaf had no prior experience in the industry when she founded Aya Animations in 2015, but she tells Arab News that she felt she had to do it so that her children could have some quality TV to watch.
“About five years ago, when my daughter was two years old, I was looking for content that was spiritually or morally educational, in a fun way,” she says. But, particularly when it came to Arabic language content, she explains, she was unable to find anything that met her requirements. “And if I did, it wasn't really comparable to what children are watching today on Disney, Cartoon Network, and all these other famous channels,” she adds.
It took five years of hard work, and a steep learning curve, to finally release the show. It premiered earlier this year (albeit only the English version) on Aya Animations website and other platforms, including Amazon Prime.
The Arabic version will be available soon, Sawaf says. “For this, we are speaking with big networks and we're trying to lock down the best deal to release ‘Aya and Yusuf’ in Arabic regionally.”
The 10-episode series, named after Sawaf’s own kids, follows the daily adventures of six-year-old twins Aya and Yusuf, who, in each episode, encounter a situation that ultimately teaches them positive values including patience, teamwork, and a love for the environment. The show also regularly refers to the Quran — a religious element that Sawaf wanted to include in the show, although she stresses that she has no concerns that this could mean it can only really appeal to a Muslim audience.
"You'd have to watch it to (decide)," Sawaf replies when asked whether the show could alienate children from other religions — pointing out that the values promoted in the show are universal.
Indeed, the biggest audiences for “Aya and Yusuf,” according to Sawaf, are the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates, with the most purchases coming from the US.
She points out that in many Western countries there is a push for diversity in the education sector — or at least a greater awareness of the need to discuss diversity with children.
"To learn about other cultures is huge, especially in the UK. I know it's part of their curriculum to actually learn about other religions, other faiths,” Sawaf says. “They respect seeing differences.”
Sawaf adds that when she was conceptualizing the show, she was keen for it to present a positive view of Islam, in part to combat the growing Islamophobia she felt was perpetuated by mainstream Western media.
She says she wanted to present content that has Islamic references that “are modern, that don't have an agenda behind them, don't have an extremist view behind them.”
The show has resonated strongly with a lot of parents, Sawaf says, not only because of its potential as an educational resource for their kids, but most notably for its regional relevance.
"They feel like this is something they can relate to as a regional cartoon — something with an Arab origin,” she says. “(Parents) found that this is something they want their kids to be exposed to, something that they can connect to.”
Sawaf says she and her team are currently pushing for “Aya and Yusuf” to be formally incorporated into school curricula too, furthering her goal of presenting kids with fun, spiritually enlightening content.
"This is something we have already started to develop as a team in the backend, developing activities around our series for schools to implement in their classrooms,” she explains. "Because the values that we're teaching — patience, kind words, teamwork — these are all values that teachers and parents want to instill in their children from a young age.”
As the mother of two young kids herself, Sawaf understands what a challenge it can be to grab, and retain, the attention of students, especially with the new online learning setup brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"What we'e doing is going the extra step to help teachers and parents at home to create an activity board that they can use with their children, based around these values, to make sure that these values are reinforced,” she says.
The success of Sawaf’s “Aya and Yusuf” is down to the collective effort of an international team of illustrators, animators, and other production-crew members including award-winning Spanish director Alfonso Rodriguez, who has previously worked on the Spanish children’s animation “Pocoyo.”
Prominent Palestinian actor Waleed Zuaiter, who’s starred in “Baghdad Central” and produced the Oscar-nominated film “Omar,” is also part of the “Aya and Yusuf” team as the voice of the twins’ grandfather.
The father in “Aya and Yusuf” is voiced by Los Angeles-based Omar Offendum, an acclaimed Saudi-born Syrian rapper who is known for his blend of hip-hop and Arabic poetry.
The show’s soundtrack composer is also a prominent figure in the industry — Sami Matar, who has worked with major production houses and entertainment companies including Dreamworks, Electronic Arts, and Sony. Sawaf says the support of these well-established Arab artists has given her further inspiration and determination to continue with her project.
“As someone with a vision of having a social impact, it is encouraging and fueling to have established individuals in their fields be involved and be part of this project,” she says.
Looking ahead, Sawaf says she wants to expand the influence of her work through partnerships to build a global audience in the hope of creating a better world, not just for the real-life Aya and Yusuf, but for the rest of their generation too.