Bringing Sesame Street back to Palestine

In November, a joint U.S.-Palestinian version of Sesame Street (Sharaá Simsim in Arabic) was launched in Ramallah. With months of outreach planned to introduce Kareem and Haneen, the two main Muppet characters, to Palestinian children, producers and educators are hoping the show will help educate children in the midst of a worsening political and economic situation in the Palestinian Territories.
sesame street
A Sesame Street launch in November with Palestinian Education minister Lamis Al-Alamis, and USAID's representative in the Palestinian Territories, Howard Sumka.

RAMALLAH, December 22, 2008 (MENASSAT)—A US-funded, Palestinian-produced version of Sesame Street, or Shara'a Simsim in Arabic, is poised to hit the market in early 2009.

Daoud Kuttab, Director of Pen Media, a Palestinian educational media organization, and the local Executive Producer for the series, said Sesame Street in Palestine is about giving back pride to the Palestinian youth.

"Whether it's the television program, special appearances, or outreach initiatives, Shara'a Simsim goals are to serve as a catalyst for positive change by promoting Palestinian children’s sense of their own identity."

But this is not an easy task.

Launching at a tough time

Abdel-Hakim Abu-Jamous, Director of Media for the Palestinian Ministry of Education told MENASSAT that the trouble is dealing with the trauma and fear that has made living in the Palestinian Territories a nightmare for Palestinian children.

"We have to provide a sense of calm to show children that there is hope," Abu-Jamous said.

Numerous clinical studies have shown the abundance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by Palestinian children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Last November, Palestinian children joined government officials, educators and TV broadcasters in launching this new Palestinian-produced Sesame Street. It is being relaunched as "Sharaá Simsim" after a joint Israeli-Palestinian version of the show was discontinued in 2002, in large part because "the utterance of every Muppet was potentially inflammatory." (New York Times)

Kareem and Haneen

Production has been completed with the main Muppet characters, Kareem and Haneen, anchoring some 20 public service announcements (PSAs) that will debut on Palestinian TV in February 2009.

According to Abu-Jamous, "The PSAs will help children deal with fears, emphasize the importance of friendship, encourage bike safety, among a host of other topics."

The two Muppets will begin making appearances in schools and community centers in the coming months to promote the show, which producers say will officially debut with 52 episodes in April 2010. In-house production is due to begin in September 2009.

Cairo Arafat, the content adviser for the show, told MENASSAT, "The new season will focus on three dimensions and will be the culmination of decisions made in three workshops held back in November by the program producers, the Ministry of Education, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), private NGOs, educators and members of the private sector."

During those workshops the participants looked at the old and new curricula of the Palestinian educational system, as well as comparing it to the curriculum used by UNRWA.

According to Arafat, the basis for the up-coming shows will be to prepare Palestinian children for basic education and help them feel proud about their national identity and culture.

"The search for a proper curriculum was deeply focused on what the messages were to be for the children especially for children ages 3 to 8," he said.

A similar workshop was also held in November at Al-Quds University's Institute of Modern Media in Jerusalem to discuss possible content for a series of outreach material. The material, including thousands of storybooks, teacher guides, posters and DVDs, will be delivered to schools and nurseries throughout the region.

A project with a past

The project is funded by the US State Department's Agency for International Development (USAID), the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, and local Palestinian NGOs.

But the program's history in Palestine goes back to 1997 when the children's TV show began broadcasting an Israeli-Palestinian co-production that completed some 70 half-hour shows in both Hebrew and Arabic.

Under a different co-production agreement, the name Sesame Street was changed to Sesame Stories in 2002 because "the concept of a place where people and puppets from those groups can mingle freely had become untenable."

"We've realized that a goal of friendship was beyond realism, given where things are now,'' Charlotte Cole, vice-president of international research for Sesame Workshops (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) in New York told the New York Times in 2002.

But things have only gotten worse in the Palestinian Territories since 2002. The western powers—particularly the European Union and United States—have imposed an economic and trade embargo on the Palestinian Territories after the Islamist movement Hamas won legitimate Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. And the situation in Gaza has worsened since Hamas violently overthrew rival Fatah factions in the Strip in the summer of 2007.

Still, Robert Knezevic, current assistant vice-president of Sesame Workshops, said that his group was committed to working with its partners "to provide relevant and innovative content to prepare Palestinian children the skills to deal with the world they’re inheriting."

The Ministry's Abu Jamous says that with the lack of options on Palestinian TV, young Palestinians are thirsty for knowledge.

"The most important investment is investing in our children. No investment has a better return." 

(With reporting by
Tamara Kuttab and PNN, the Palestinian News Network.)