Muppets to Preach Peace in the Middle East

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By Sonya Rehman

Standing as one of the most widely-televised children’s shows around the world, Sesame Street (which teaches young children everything from the alphabet, basic mathematics, ethics and social skills) – has been broadcasted in over one hundred countries, producing more than thirty international versions of the show.

Earlier this month, new episodes for Palestine’s Sesame Street version, ‘Shara’a Simsim’, and the Israeli version, ‘Rechov Sumsum’, are due to go on air.
This year in 2007, after years of being taken off air due to a shortage of funds and adequate financing, the Palestinian and Israeli versions of Sesame Street will return to their respective networks.
But this time around, things will be slightly different.

The twist is this: ‘Shara’a Simsim’ is due to depict encouraging role models for young, Palestinian boys (in the Gaza Strip and West Bank), and ‘Rechov Sumsum’ is set to feature an Arab puppet in the hopes to sow the seeds of unity, respect and compassion in the minds of the young audiences.

“It’s really about respect and tolerance,” Gary Knell, the President of ‘Sesame Workshop’ (the organization behind Sesame Street’s global programming) had stated in an interview. “We know that television teaches”, he had gone on to say, “the question is, what does it teach?”
Both versions of the Sesame Streets were given a go-ahead after discussions between Gary Knell and the region’s political big-wigs – attaining sufficient financing and support to go back onto the network.

Throughout its existence as one of the most popular children’s daytime shows, Sesame Street has from time to time based storylines and introduced certain characters which reflect global politics and social issues. One such was the introduction of an Egyptian Muppet girl called ‘Khokha’ (meaning ‘peace’), who dreams of being an astronaut or doctor when she grows up. The Muppet was introduced in the hopes of empowering young Egyptian women – standing as a direct reflection of the policies settled with the government of Cairo.
What is interesting to note is, a certain blue Muppet, who goes by the name of ‘Mahboub’, speaks both Arabic and Hebrew and is ‘best friends’ with a red Muppet called ‘Noah’.

In Pakistan, countless generations have grown up on the gentle and fun, audio-visual diet of Sesame Street. Infact one of the country’s first television channels broadcasted the program, which was translated into Urdu. Even today, a popular local channel continues to televise translated versions of the popular show.
Sesame Street has always seemed to maintain a very multi-racial bunch of Muppets, real children and actors…therefore the program’s themes have always managed to have a very ‘universal’ feel to them.

With political agendas and propaganda not being restricted to films alone, cartoons too, have carried biased stories and stereotyped characters.
Now with Palestine and Israel’s versions of the much-loved and adored Sesame Street, here’s hoping both versions do not teeter off the edge into negative and dangerous propaganda.

Instep Today, The News

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