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‘Sesame Street’ for Palestinians

Not quite sweeping the clouds away

Hadara Graubart
October 01, 2009
The Shara’a Simsim characters Karim (green) and Haneen at a Palestinian school in March.(
The Shara’a Simsim characters Karim (green) and Haneen at a Palestinian school in March.(

A New York Times Magazine article exploring production of Shara’a Simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, reveals a gentler microcosm of the strife that plagues the region. According to executives from the umbrella studio, Sesame Workshop, the difficulty in striking the mandated balance between kid-friendly “core values” and realistic portrayals of local life for Palestinians is “rivaled only by Kosovo.”

This trouble manifests most overtly in the show’s struggle to stay apolitical, which “few of the writers seemed to think…made sense in a Palestinian context.” In fact, some of their early ideas involve more politics than the nightly news: a muppet seeking refuge from bats representing Israeli war planes, a dove being shot down, a poster showing children dismantling the separation wall between the Israeli and Palestinian territories (ditched, in part, because a Sesame exec ruled that “giving a 3-year-old a hammer is something we wouldn’t show”).

The program came about after a protracted and doomed effort to make a version that would incorporate both Israelis and Palestinians, each with their own streets, in order to “emulate the philosophy of Sesame Street, to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was.” The problem with that, of course, is that both sides wished for different worlds. “We are looking for a divorce from the Israelis,” said Shara’a executive producer Daoud Kuttab, “not a marriage.” Optimism may be one thing, but Kuttab couldn’t suffer the irony of a show portraying Arabs and Israelis dropping in on each other, when, as the NYT Mag says, “in real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits.”

In any case, the show, which represents a new frontier in Palestinian children’s programming, has challenged an understandably serious populace to lighten up. One producer recalls complaints from writers about a game show spoof: “They’ll say, ‘Oh, the way he’s dressed doesn’t reflect the area he’s from.’…But for God’s sake, it’s a rooster doing ‘Who Wants to Win a Balloon?’!”

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.