Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
It’s always sunny on West Bank’s Sesame Street
Shara’a Simsim, the Palestinian version of the popular television program Sesame Street, will air its fourth season on Palestine TV in January 2010. Funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the new edition aims to teach Palestinian children that they can achieve their dream of an independent Palestinian state through tolerance, education and national pride, as opposed to anti-Israel violence.
“Our problem is that for so long we’ve been focusing on resistance and we gave up on other things like culture, education and tolerance,” said executive producer Daoud Kuttab.
The show will target mainly boys by teaching them non-violent ways of expression. Empowered characters such as six-year-old Basel, who in one episode is seen brushing his teeth, wearing his clothes and tying his shoelaces alone and then waving a Palestinian flag and declaring: “It’s Basel’s independence day!”, will serve as role models.
The show’s Palestinian producers chose to make no reference to symbols of the Israeli occupation such as the West Bank barrier and the network of Israeli army checkpoints, which Palestinians say are sources of hardship.
“This is a program for pre-schoolers and we don’t need to show them all the things they see too much of anyway, which are the tensions that exist in their daily lives,” said Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.
Although the program skirts issues related to Israel, it touches on the Gaza Strip and its 1.4 million residents who live under the rule of the Islamist group Hamas and are cut off from the West Bank, which is governed by the rival Fatah party.
In one episode, a Shara’a Simsim character is upset after losing contact with his brother, who lives in Gaza. His friends send a paper plane to the enclave carrying a message asking the brother to get in touch. Contact between the two is restored.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has its own children’s program which has been criticized for urging kids to fight Israel. Writer and actor of a children’s television program called “The Pioneers of Tomorrow” on Hamas-owned Al-Aqsa TV, Muhammad Ramadan, congratulated Shara’a Simsim on its success but said it also faces criticism.
“I want to say that the successful work faces criticism. The program’s idea is to educate these children and teach them about the social concepts: prayers, charity, the morning prayers and other social issues,” said Ramadan on set in his bear costume. “We also focus on our lands that were stolen by the criminal zionists in 1948. These issues are normal for the Palestinian children. Our program does not argue about politics.”
Knell told Reuters Sesame Workshop had asked international non-profit organizations, including the United Nations, to seal a deal with Hamas that would pave the way for Shara’a Simsim to be aired on a local television network in the Gaza Strip.
“It is our goal to expose the children of Gaza to our programme. The children there have been in extraordinarily difficult circumstances not by their choice,” Knell said.
In Israel, Rechov Sumsum promotes coexistence between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens through Israeli-Arab muppets such as Mahboub (pictured left). The young blue muppet was dubbed and puppeteered by Israeli-Arab heartthrob Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid who is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. “It’s really funny, but the character I identified most with [of those I've played in my career] was ‘Mahboub’ because you return to something very basic — the child within you,” said Sweid of his experience on Rechov Sumsum in an interview with an Israeli website.
An Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street was made in 1996 but Kuttab insisted on having a purely Palestinian version, which translated into Shara’a Simsim.
“This is 100 percent made in Palestine — from A to Z,” he said.
Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Its non-profit Sesame Workshop production firm takes pride in being the single largest informal educator of children in the world, with 30 active co-productions in 140 countries.
Knell admits that fostering tolerance and peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a more grueling task: “When (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu wear Bert and Ernie watches, then our mission will be accomplished.”
Click below to watch our October 20-22, 2009 coverage of Shara’a Simsim in the making and our interviews with Daoud Kuttab, Gary Knell, and Muhammad Ramadan:
PHOTO: Palestinian actor Ezzat Natsheh speaks with puppet Kareem, operated by puppeteers Shaden Zamamiri and Raja’e Sandoqa, during the filming of a scene on the set of Shara’a Simsim in a studio in the West Bank city of Ramallah October 20, 2009. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri