'Aya and Yusuf', a new 2D animation series available in English — and soon in Arabic — was born out of one mother’s frustration over the lack of value-based entertainment for her children to watch.
The 10-episode series, around 7 minutes each, follows young twins Aya and Yusuf as they interact with animals, nature and each other, in order to learn valuable life lessons.
At the end of each episode, there’s a verse from the Quran that forms the basis for these ‘magic moments’, creator Sara Sawaf likes to call them.
“They’re all universal values that we’re showing … kind words, fairness, trust, patience and perseverance and waste not,” says the Saudi Arabia-based founder and executive producer of Aya Animations.
The mum-of-two, originally from Syria, named the series after her own two children — seven-year-old Aya and six-year-old Yusuf.
And though she comes from a business background, she studied the Quran with a researcher for more than 10 years and it broadened her perspective.
“She really opened my eyes to so many things that basically showed love — things that all religions have in common. I grew up not having that approach with my religion, so I wanted my kids to see that the Quran is actually a source of light, a source of positivity, of not fear,” says Sawaf.
“It’s not just about praying and fasting, but also about being a good human citizen, a good neighbour, a productive human being. I’m talking very big scale here, but it’s in a very, very simplified form for young children,” she adds.
BE THE CHANGE
In a way, Sawaf followed the popular saying: ‘Be the change you’d like to see in the world.’
When her children were toddlers, she tried to find content that was both educational and entertaining, but mostly based on values. But she came up blank.
“I’ve experienced firsthand that children are like sponges. They soak up everything they watch and it affects them and their behaviour … According to a Harvard study and further studies, it’s scientifically proven that values give children a more confident sense of identity in early adulthood. So naturally, this is something that I was looking for, and I could not find,” says Sawaf.
So, she decided to make the show herself.
“I created a pilot episode called ‘Sara and Fares’ in 2016. I tested it with different parents, children and educators. I received a lot of positive testimonials that this is something [parents] would want for their kids. The educators said they could use it at school,” says Sawaf.
‘Aya and ‘Yusuf’ is the final result of her efforts, aimed at kids aged two to eight. Psychologists on her team suggested these are the developmental ages that impact a child’s future values.
NOT YOUR MUM’S CARTOON
Growing up, Sawaf would watch cartoons like 'Pink Panther' and 'Captain Majed'.
But today’s children content is a whole other ballgame, she says.
“It’s literally no longer just a TV, where you wait for five o’clock because that’s when your show is coming on. It’s coming on YouTube — it’s coming to your children, it’s targeted at them and it’s chasing them,” says Sawaf.
“I wanted to be aware of what my kids are exposed to. Content now is no longer just cartoons There’s people opening playdough boxes on YouTube and they have millions of views, kids are enjoying that. Content is so diverse and it’s incomparable to when we were younger.”
‘Aya and Yusuf’ is an international effort, between the US, Spain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, India and more.
LA-based writer Nizard Wattad, who has previously written for Netflix, penned the script. Alfonso Rodriguez, the direct of award-winning cartoon ‘Pocoyo’, also came onboard.
“We tried to mix, basically, the best of the East and the best of the West to get a story that was child friendly and showed the manner, but was also fun. It wasn’t in your face. It was very light and pleasant,” says Sawaf.
“What we have in the episodes is little magic moments. Some sparkles come up and that’s when the character is saying something that’s part of the lesson the day. Then, at the end of the episode, the sparkles come back again and we share the [Quran] verse where it’s from.”
Aya and Yusuf are not from a specific country, but rather, an area that’s known for its lush greenery and nature-filled landscapes.
“I always thought of the Levant and everything that belongs in the mountains of that Levant,” says Sawaf.
“Even when it comes to the foods and the animals that appear, I always research and make sure that it was there in the Levant area. But, at the end of the day, I feel like it represents a relatable version of the Middle East. Even in Saudi, although it’s a desert, there’s a lot of places that have greens.”
The series also features animals, who often display bad behaviours that must be broken.
“The chickens are always the funny ones - one of them would be sharing seeds, but he would give himself 10 seeds and the others one seed each. It would be simple stories and Aya and Yusuf are always trying to solve the issues that are happening with the animal behaviours,” says Sawaf.
But sometimes, the animals are friends who will try to help Aya and Yusuf on their missions.
In the episode ‘Tea and Honey’, for instance, the animals help the children gather natural ingredients so that they can make a special tea for their grandparents to feel better.
“It’s also about understanding the benefits of honey and lemon and ginger and mint. And the animals help them to find those ingredients in garden; like, the horse helped them reach the lemons on the lemon tree!” says Sawaf.
COMING SOON IN ARABIC
While the English version of the series is currently online on the official Aya and Yusuf website, they hope to dub the series into multiple languages.
An official Arabic version will also be available soon, with video-on-demand services showing interest in picking the cartoon up, but the pandemic interrupted their progress.
“The only thing that slowed down with COVID is the voiceover of the Arabic, because in Jordan, where they’re recording the voiceovers, the kids couldn’t go to the studios and we had to wait until now. They just opened up ... It will come together,” says Sawaf.