Politics, Palestine, & Sesame Street

"Shara'a Simsim" is the Palestinian version of Sesame Street. Reporter Samantha M. Shapiro visited the production offices and returned with a snapshot of the complications that arise when creating children's programming in against a tense and politically-charged backdrop.

Shapiro lays out the scene early on. Describing the converted hotel space that has become the television production studios, she describes the struggles of the staff to work on a show that promotes hope rather than messages about the struggle.

Palestinian TV is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel controlled the airwaves in the territories, and most of the major Palestinian channels that have emerged since then are mouthpieces for one political faction or another, broadcasting mostly news and talk shows. Palestinian-produced media for the sake of entertainment are virtually nonexistent. The "Simsim" meeting reflected this. Kuttab, the show's producer, is a journalist, and his deputy producer, Layla Sayegh, is a lifelong P.L.O. activist. For the most part, the writers at the table didn't have much experience; they had been hired only part time, and most of them worked other jobs. A central premise of each "Sesame Street" co-production is that the show should be apolitical, but few of the writers seemed to think that made sense in a Palestinian context.

The ideas that resulted from the staff pitch meetings were not always appropriate for children:

Awadallah was still struggling to find a way to express himself within the parameters of the "Sesame Street" universe. His first idea for a "Simsim" segment, which he sketched out at a meeting a few weeks earlier, was a series of disturbing vignettes based on the Israeli siege in Gaza last December. In one scene he proposed, Haneen, a girl Muppet, would cower under a table while bats, which Awadallah said represented Israeli fighter jets, swarmed around her. In another, a dove would be shot as it tried to fly to Gaza.

However, the "Simsim" project is well received, partially because the situation for children's programming and television is fairly grim:

On the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, the Palestinian Authority's official channel, the longest-running children's program is a slow-moving talk show hosted by a young woman who sometimes reads storybooks aloud into the camera or watches, in real time, as an artist painstakingly paints a parrot. The official Hamas channel, Al-Aqsa television, has several children's shows, and Al-Aqsa's director of children's programming, Abu Amr, told me the network is considering starting a station devoted entirely to children. Al-Aqsa TV's most famous (and infamous) children's program is "Tomorrow's Pioneers," in which Saraa, a Palestinian girl, and several animal characters teach ideological lessons: why it is bad to speak English and good to memorize the whole Koran; how the Danes are infidels who should be killed. Occasionally an animal character will die as a martyr for Palestine.

The need for a different type of programming aimed at children is one of the reasons the Sesame Workshop decided to create a show specifically for a Palestinian audience. On the official website, the producers explain:

According to UNICEF research, children in nearly one third of Palestinian families were experiencing anxiety, phobia, or depression as of June 2007. This statistic, coupled with the fact that many Palestinian children are experiencing poor nutrition and health due to poverty and low-quality food, makes it all too clear that it is not an easy time to be a Palestinian child. When Sesame Workshop decided to create a locally produced version of Sesame Street called Shara'a Simsim, it was with the express purpose of introducing some light and joy to a population needing a healthy dose of both. [...]

"Giving children hope would be a major accomplishment," Palestinian executive director Daoud Kuttab says, explaining that young Palestinian boys are especially in need of Shara'a Simsim's positive messages. He explains that many boys experience cultural pressure to defend their families and society, becoming disheartened when they are unable to do so. The show presents positive role models for boys in this situation, suggesting activities and hobbies that provide healthy outlets for complicated emotions.

Quickly, the writers begin to focus more on stories and lessons that will benefit children, selecting themes that will resonate with all children and trying to find more metaphoric ways to deal with what children are going through:

Each season, in each country, Sesame productions are built around a few particular curriculum items, like cooperation or numbers. For the coming season of "Simsim," respect was one chosen theme. When it came time for Taha Awadallah, the young film student, to share his pitch, he explained, "I focused on the theme of respecting myself and respecting others." Awadallah had been working on revising his Gaza segments. The new script began with Saleem, the handyman character on the show, watching the Gaza coverage on TV. "Saleem is sad and worried, so he calls his sister in Gaza," Awadallah said. "She is O.K., but her friend Tariq is missing." In the next scene, Awadallah explained, the Muppets Karim and Haneen would encounter Saleem while playing hide-and-seek. "He is still sad," Awadallah continued, "so they do funny things to make him forget he is sad." He acknowledged that so far he was stumped as to what those things could be. "I need some help in coming up with funny scenes and jokes," he said. "But they will go on until the conclusion, where Saleem says: ‘You made me laugh! Thank you for making me forget that Tariq is missing.'"

No one said anything. Then Othman said, in a quiet voice, that she wasn't sure that "Simsim" could really address the Gaza issue so directly.

Malhas, the teacher, turned to Awadallah: "Will Saleem find Tariq?"

Awadallah nodded. "Yes, I want him to find his friend at the end of the episode," he said. "It will turn out that Tariq was missing for an unexpected reason."

However, as it often happens, the politics of the region complicate the ideas and lessons of what to teach to children. Shapiro describes the complicated political dance that occurs once characters from the Israeli co-program "Rechov Sumsum" and the characters of "Shara'a Simsim" decide to meet:

The most contentious segments were the ones in which the Israeli and Palestinian Muppets interacted. Each set of Muppets lived on their own set - so where would they meet? An American adviser from Sesame Workshop proposed the Muppets meet at a neutral third location on the border of their sets, perhaps a park, but the Palestinians weren't comfortable with that idea - they wanted to know who owned the park. Dolly Wolbrum, the show's producer at IETV, told me she thought that wasn't a question that 3-to-6-year-olds would wonder about, but Kuttab said he felt Palestinian children would assume it was an Israeli park. He proposed dividing the park by a low wall, an idea Wolbrum said was a deal breaker. They finally agreed that the Muppets would visit one another's streets rather than meet in a park. But again, controversy arose: the Israelis were in favor of spontaneous Muppet drop-bys, but the Palestinians insisted the visits had to be by invitation only. "The only Israelis who come to Palestinian neighborhoods uninvited are settlers," Kuttab explained to me.

The Israelis told me they were trying to emulate the philosophy of "Sesame Street," to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was. The Israeli segments from this era have a giddy euphoria about them, already anachronistic. One segment featured an Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli boy skipping, swinging, hugging and napping side by side, while singing a song about the number two: "You can always be alone, but together is more fun, two by two!" For Kuttab, the Israeli idea that Palestinian and Israelis on the show would be best buddies who casually drop in on each other was absurd. In real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits - they feared for their safety - and many of the Palestinian crew didn't have permits to enter Jerusalem. "There was no wall yet," Kuttab told me, referring to the concrete boundary that the Israeli government began constructing in 2002 to separate Israel and some settlements from the Palestinian territories, "but there was an invisible wall between us, and we didn't want to give kids a false impression that everything was happy."

That last statement is crucial to understand. While children may operate in an enviable world of fantasy, the real world has a way of encroaching on this idyllic respite, inserting its own narrative. For those tasked with raising a child in an environment where that child may be hated for the color of their skin or their nationality, where the divide between the haves and have-nots is so great, the question of what is being taught is important. Do you give the children a happy, glossed over view of the world and allow them to experience their first unmitigated dose of hatred alone? Or do you try to prepare them for the harsh realities of the world, even as we hope those realities will change before our children experience them?

Daoud Kuttab also discusses the idea of context, and how life in an occupied space is a little more complicated than the situations we have dealt with before in the United States:

Kuttab told me he felt that trying to recreate the let's-get-along diversity of the American show was the wrong approach for the Middle East. The idyllic images of racial harmony on "Sesame Street" may have helped African-American children feel more a part of American culture, he said, but that tactic wasn't useful in the context of a two-state solution. "Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and Palestinians want to have an Arab state," Kuttab explained. In the end, "Rechov Sumsum" showed vastly more Palestinian content than "Shara'a Simsim" showed Israeli content. Follow-up studies commissioned by Sesame Workshop found that Israeli kids' attitudes about Palestinian kids improved after viewing the show, but Palestinian kids didn't change their perceptions of Israelis.

The piece goes on to explain the struggles the Palestinian staff had in selecting Israeli segments, noting that even a shot of a truck with Hebrew lettering at the end of a recycling segment could be construed as a political message. The calculus of navigating imbalanced power structures, even while trying to create a space free of those dynamics eventually proved to be overwhelming.

The outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 and the tumult that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, convinced everyone involved with the production that it no longer made sense to try to create segments featuring Israeli and Palestinian characters interacting. Executives from Sesame Workshop recruited Jordan TV, a government-run network, to act as a third partner. The plan for the new round of shows was that Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli crews would independently shoot their own programs but each would agree to show about 10 segments from each of the other two productions, redubbed into either Hebrew or Arabic. The show was renamed "Sesame Stories" ("Sippuray Sumsum" in Hebrew; "Hikayat Simsim" in Arabic), as there was no longer an actual Sesame Street where the characters met. When "Sesame Stories" appeared in 2003, the Israeli version featured 10 segments each from the Palestinians and Jordanians, but the Palestinians showed only a handful of Israeli segments. (The Jordanians didn't broadcast any.)

The piece also delves into the political complications of doing a show like "Simsim". Layla Sayegh, one of the writers of the show, discussed the problems in reconciling messages of light and hope for children with the realities of day to day life - and having some of those she knew question her loyalty to Palestine for even daring to work with Israeli staff members.

Sayegh, who is 54, came to the show in 2001, after three decades' working for the Palestine Liberation Organization. She spent her 20s and 30s following Yasir Arafat through Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and then to North Africa and Cyprus, and her last job before "Simsim" was working in the prime minister's office for the Palestinian Authority. The second intifada started not long before Sayegh arrived at "Simsim," and she told me that it was a very difficult time to be working on a program connected to Israel. Several of the show's writers quit to protest the connection with Israel. Students at Al-Quds University cursed "Simsim" staff members when they saw them. Sayegh, who had worked for the Palestinian cause her entire adult life, said she was hurt by these attacks. "I was a P.L.O. revolutionary all my life," she told me indignantly. "And no way will I let anybody call me a traitor."

Yet, however much politics may color perception, the end result of "Simsim" is supposed to be quality television for children. Unfortunately, with so many events being viewed through the prisms of grief, rage, or politics, the light and whimsy of children's programming is easily lost:

In the scene being taped, the Muppet Elias had to answer a question about where to put a banana peel in order to win a balloon (correct answer: the trash). A minute or so into the dialogue, [Director] Kheliefi stopped the scene. "The characters are dead," he said with gravity. "It's boring. It's not funny." He turned to Salem. "We want him to be a kid, not a man." [...]

When I spoke to Naila Farouky, the Sesame Workshop producer who oversees all Arabic-language productions from Sesame headquarters in New York, she said it was also hard to film segments with Palestinian kids talking to Muppets. "It's impossible to get them to loosen up," she explained. "There isn't this freedom of kids allowing themselves to act silly with puppets or dolls."

There is so much pain in this world, so much hatred, and the creators found themselves trying to do something both original and subversive. In a land where so much is dominated by the struggle for liberation and equality, they were going to try to create a space that allows for children to dream of a brighter future. Even if that is not always what they wanted to convey. Noting the mounting frustration of many of the writers, Shapiro wonders why any of them partake in this work at all. She quizzes Sayegh, and is told to come to a walkaround, one of the occasions when staffers don life size costumes of the Muppets and visit areas with children:

I went with her one afternoon to a Muppet walkaround held at Al Ahli college, a Catholic school with the largest auditorium in Ramallah. Mini-buses from Ramallah's preschools pulled into the courtyard and unloaded hundreds of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, clad in sweaters or plaid jumpers emblazoned with their school logo. Their teachers herded them into the auditorium, where an actor and an actress appeared onstage in brightly colored overalls and performed a little skit. Then the actors called for the life-size Muppets to come out, and a wave of excitement swept through the room. Kids who were stuck at the back of the auditorium stood on the arms of their plastic chairs and tables, craning their necks. Andoni, who had taken his daughter out of school for the event, held her up on his shoulders so that she could see.

Sayegh was facing the kids, just as she had described, and I turned around to look at what she found more important than working with the prime minister. The view from where she stood was a bobbing sea of hundreds of preschoolers, their open faces transparent with delight, excited to see what would happen next.

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? [NY Times]
Shara'a Simsim Spreads Hope and Empowerment to Palestinian Children [Sesame Workshop]