“Don’t forget to play Freej on the TV!” my 8-year-old self tells my parents while going on a road trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to visit my grandparents. The hour and a half long road trip would probably have felt like decades, but while watching FreejI did not feel the time go by. I was immersed in the show, laughing along when “Abood,” one of the main character’s grandsons, caused trouble.
Freej means neighborhood in the Emirati dialect, and the show depicts the lives of four elderly women living in modern Dubai and keeping up with the latest developments in their own simple ways. The four characters’ names start with “Um,” meaning the mother of, followed by their eldest son’s name, which is how parents in the UAE address each other. Perhaps the most well-known character is Um Khammas, as she has a very strong and rebellious personality. The other three characters are Um Saloom, the kindest and most gullible of the group, Um Saaed, known to quote befitting traditional proverbs for every situation, and Um Allawi, who is more informed about modern technology than the rest of the characters.
The show merges aspects of old and new Dubai while demonstrating the UAE’s culture and values. There are a lot of scenes where Um Khammas is called out by the other characters for her rebellious actions. For instance, there is a scene in the first season where the characters are fasting during Ramadan and Um Khammas curses out the seller in a shop for raising the prices; Um Allawai reminds her of the importance of being pious and refraining from cursing while fasting because it includes keeping one’s heart and tongue clean. In contrast, in the same episode, Um Khammas cooks “Harees,” a traditional Emirati dish, and sends it to the neighbors. These moments in Freej remind me of the value placed on generosity and hospitality in Emirati culture. We Emiratis have been taught since a young age about the importance of being generous to our guests and treating everyone with kindness, and Freej captured the essence of these values.
The characters wear traditional Emirati dresses called “Abuteela,” with the “burqa” on their faces, and their hands are decorated with henna — a traditional design of a circle in the palms of their hands and the tips of their fingers. They live in a traditional house in a secluded neighborhood with the skyscrapers visible from a distance, and they have an old TV, radio, and traditional seating area called the “tkyah”. Their lifestyles are simple, as they are mostly seen sitting together and talking or gossiping with neighbors.
Freej is much more than a show to me; it is a piece of my childhood and is filled with memories of my younger self. I grew older and found other interests, but no matter what other show I watched, nothing gave me the same feeling of joy as watching Freej. It hits close to home as the show is one of the very few, if any, cartoon shows based in the UAE that showcases Emirati daily life and heritage.
The show preserves the Emirati dialect as the characters converse with it and use old traditional proverbs. Additionally, they are seen practicing their religion, Islam, which has been present for a long period of Emirati history, by fasting during Ramadan and praising Allah in their conversations. I feel that these teachings are important to preserve within ourselves, no matter how many different people we encounter. It is imperative to speak in the kind manner we always speak in and to not shy away from praising Allah in our conversations.
What makes this show special to me is the emotional connection I have with it as something tied to my childhood. I find myself reminiscing and reliving my childhood through this show, as do many others who grew up with it; it is a reminder of Ramadan nights when new episodes aired, a reminder of talking to our cousins about the latest episode, and a reminder that no matter how old we become, our childhood, and Freej, will always be a part of us.
Roudha Almarzouqi is a Staff Writer. Email her at email@example.com.