Monday, April 18, 2016

Pokemon, Saddam, and Syriac?

SYRIAC WATCH? Saddam Hussein tried to ban Pokemon (The Week: scroll down, third headline).
Spies loyal to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were deeply suspicious of the Japanese children's TV hit Pokemon, according to documents captured by US troops in 2004. An analysis of the papers shows that the General Security Directorate, the feared domestic security force, thought the name in Syriac was too similar to the phrase: "I am a Jew". The note reads: "Beware my brothers in Islam and protect the sons of the Muslim nation." As a result, Hussein apparently wanted to ban the show.
This story has been showing up in various places. I set it aside until I could fact-check it and, surprisingly, it seems to be more true than not. In about 2000-2001 there were wild rumors in the Arabic-speaking world that the game Pokemon had pro-Jewish and anti-Islamic references in the names of the game and the characters and that these were either in Japanese or Syriac. For details, see this Los Angeles Times article from April of 2001: Arabs See Jewish Conspiracy in Pokemon.

At around the same time, Saddam's henchmen were fretting that the name Pokemon meant "I am a Jew" in Hebrew. For details see the 2003 document A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam's Senior Leaders produced by the US Joint Center for Operational Analysis (JCOA), p. 5 and n. 22. A captured Iraqi document really does provide this information.

For some reason, some of the media (e.g., the Mirror too) have just picked up versions of the latter story about Saddam's regime which involve elements of the rumors circulated in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. I don't know whether Saddam's henchmen brought in Japanese and Syriac as well in sources I haven't found or – not particularly unlikely – the media has become a bit confused in this game of telephone and is conflating elements of the story that were originally independent.

Anyway, for the record, "Pokemon" and "Pikachu" do not sound like "I am a Jew" in Hebrew or Syriac. I don't know about Japanese.

Cross-file under Can't Make It Up.