By Sonya Rehman
The beloved U.S. television program “Sesame Street” now has international co-productions in 18 countries. Beginning early next year, a 19th country will be added: Pakistan. Like the productions of Sesame Street in every other nation, the Sesame Workshop will be collaborating with a local production company; in this case, the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop. And as in other countries, the Pakistan version will give special consideration to incorporating local cultures and languages into the program. But perhaps unlike most other collaborations, the Pakistan Sesame Street has to contend with a political climate that can be hostile to theatrical productions.
Sesame Street, Pakistan edition, is part of the $20 million ‘Pakistan Children Television Project’ funded by USAID. It will provide Pakistani children with entertainment and education through television programs, radio shows and “600 live puppet performances and video shows to various rural areas,” according to USAID Pakistan’s website.
The Risks of Producing a Pakistani Sesame Street
While the educational goals of Sesame Street may seem benign, the Pakistani production may not be viewed this way by all Pakistanis. Shahid Nadeem, a well-known Pakistani theater playwright of the local socially conscious theater group, Ajoka, advises the producers to be cautious.
“When approaching young Pakistani children, one must not forget to keep the cultural context in mind,” said Nadeem. “One has to be very careful, keeping in mind the needs of the audience and the culture of people that the project is catering to. Sesame Street has been very popular for urban middle-class children, but minor indiscretions can cause a lot of problems.”
Here, Nadeem is referring to fundamentalist elements within the country, whom the project will avoid upsetting primarily for two reasons. First, the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop has twice been a target for terrorist attacks in the span of three years. Second, the fact that the project is funded by the United States will raise suspicions among fundamentalists.
Therefore, argues Nadeem, it is imperative that the project take pains to feel as homegrown as possible.
“The characters, the syllabus and the message – all have to be 99.9 percent indigenously correct and developed, and not imported from abroad,” said Nadeem. “Talking to Pakistani grassroots activists would be very important as the Rafi Peer group has been marked by these elements and therefore needs to be careful.”
A young Pakistani filmmaker, Sarah Tareen, echoes Nadeem’s concerns yet believes that it is important that such a project thrive. Currently in Pakistan, she said, “there is an urgent need to fill the vacuum in the cultural sector, as most cultural activities, concerts and events, such as the Rafi Peer’s World Performing Arts Festival, have come to a standstill due to terrorist threats.”
“It is also an important time to tell our stories in the provincial languages to the younger generation as now schools are introducing subjects in Punjabi, Sindhi, etc and incorporating our folk tales in the curriculum,” said Tareen. “In my opinion, narrative and storytelling is the best way to educate.”
Nevertheless, reiterating Nadeem’s advice, Tareen believes the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop would have to tread carefully while formulating the project’s characters and scripts. Pushing stereotypes and the propagation of any sort of sensitive agenda must be avoided. Instead, Sesame Street will have a better chance at success by focusing on its core function – and that is, educating its audience about health and hygiene, basic math skills, and presenting the children of Pakistan an audiovisual amalgamation of education and entertainment.
The State of Children’s Television in Pakistan
Currently, there are few national television shows here for children. In fact, in households that have the privilege of having cable TV subscriptions, children prefer tuning into American channels such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney, rather than local TV programs targeted toward children. This is primarily due to the complete lack of good quality, entertainment shows on national television.
It wasn’t always this way. Before the Pakistani media explosion, Pakistani children grew up watching local shows such as “Ainak Wala Jin” — translated as “The Bespectacled Genie” — and the much-loved puppet show “Uncle Sargam,” among others.
The Pakistani version of Sesame Street will broadcast socially relevant episodes (for both television and radio) in four of the main provincial languages. Nearly half of the project’s target population remains uneducated and underprivileged. Will the myriad of giggly Muppets – targeted toward rural Pakistanis – gain an audience?
Shahzada Irfan Ahmed, a Pakistani senior reporter at The News on Sunday, has extensively covered the country’s education sector. He believes that the project will likely be a success because it offers a more stimulating form of education than children receive in schools.
“Our public education system encourages rote and has no provision for interactive learning, which makes the learning process extremely painful for children,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed is optimistic about the Sesame Street-Rafi Peer collaboration. The Rafi Peer Theater Workshop is best known for their role in the growth of art and culture in Pakistan, especially their puppet festivals in the 90s and their performing arts festivals.
“It will give Pakistani children access to gripping content in their regional and national languages,” said Ahmed. “They will easily assimilate whatever they see and hear without even realizing that it’s a part of their education. Education through entertainment would definitely be the hallmark of this program.”