Palestinian children have lost a major inspiration for tolerance now that “Shara’a Simsim,” their Arab-language spinoff of “Sesame Street,” has been put on lockdown due to US aid cuts. Last October, Congress froze payments of close to $200 million to USAID as punishment for Palestine’s application to the UN for statehood. Although much of the aid has since been restored, it was announced last week that none of it would be going toward producing the show. The government continues to finance “Rechov Sumsum,“ the Israeli version, however.
While “Shara’a Simsim” is only one of many projects being cut, it may ultimately turn out to be one of the most significant. Launched in 1996 and featuring Arabic-speaking Muppets Haneen and Kareem, the program is a cooperative effort between producers and performers at Al-Quds University in Ramallah and at the franchise’s headquarters in New York City. The material is also half Palestinian, half American, and the Sesame Workshop office in New York has the final say on content. The USAID money funded virtually the entire program budget.
As with the original US version, “Shara’a Simsim” isn’t just about entertainment. The USAID mission statement stipulates that it
improves children’s educational programming in Palestine by taking a localized approach; by building local capacity for program production; creating unique Palestinian characters and storylines with which the children can identify; and providing training and technical assistance to local media professionals. USAID also mobilizes local organizations that target educational programming for children and provide them with assistance to ensure long-term sustainability of quality programming for Palestinian children.
“Shara’a Simsim” is specifically aimed at promoting “children’s sense of their Palestinian identity,” illustrating “a means of dealing with the emotional challenges of Palestinian children, specifically boys,” and using “media to reach children and families with educationally sound and socially positive messages.”
It has had little serious competition. Television is a relatively new phenomenon in the West Bank and Gaza, since Israel controlled the airwaves until the Oslo Accords of 1993. Programming is heavily political, with stations controlled by various political factions. “Shara’a Simsim” represented a warm glow in an otherwise gloomy broadcasting landscape.
Hamas has its own TV channel, Al-Aqsa Television, which attracted a lot of negative publicity a few years back when its children’s show “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” spewed unfiltered militarist ideology straight into the airwaves: Martyrdom, hatred of Denmark, and rejection of English and Western culture were recurring topics. In one episode from 2007, Farfour the Mouse imitated shooting a rifle and tossing a hand grenade while telling children: “The people firmly stand, singing this to you. ... Its answer is an AK-47. We who do not know fear, we are the predators of the forest.” In another episode, he proclaimed: “Oh Jerusalem we are coming. Oh Jerusalem, it is the time of death. Oh Jerusalem, we will never surrender to the enemy, and we will never be humiliated. It is beloved Palestine that taught us what to be. And taught us to be soldiers of the Lord.” Those whose families can afford a satellite dish prefer to watch cartoons and other children’s programming beamed in from the Emirates and from elsewhere in the Arab-speaking world.
The competition: Farfour the Mouse
“Shara’a Simsim,” by contrast, showed Israeli and Palestinian Muppets from the two production teams socializing during its first season. That such fraternization is pure fantasy in a Middle East context was driven home by the fact that Israeli producers refused to visit Ramallah out of safety concerns, and the Palestinians couldn’t secure permission to travel to nearby Jerusalem. All interaction with the Israeli show ended in 2006.
But even if Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation is off the air for the foreseeable future, the show focuses on cooperation and self-respect within a deeply divided Palestinian society. The show is particularly keen on exploring new, non-macho roles for boys:
In one episode, the Shara’a Simsim Muppet Karim is upset when the character Abbas knocks over a tower of blocks he’s busy building. Karim’s teacher tells him to use his mind to solve his problem rather than getting angry and violent. When Abbas tries to knock his tower over again, Karim asks him to stop and enlists Abbas’s help in building the tower, saying, “If you want, we’ll build the tower together.” And the two do exactly that, accomplishing much more from teamwork than they could have achieved alone.
The female character Haneen strikes a blow for female empowerment. Her motto is “I can! I can!” Sometimes, when faced with a challenging problem, she transforms herself into “Super Haneen” and gets the job done.
Haneen (l) and Kareem (r)
The show has faced many problems over the past decade and a half. Aside from a ban on overtly political topics (the Wall of Separation is a complete taboo), the seriousness of the overall situation makes it hard to have fun. As Naila Farouky, a producer who supervises the show from her office in New York, said in an NYT portrait of the program in 2009, it is difficult to get kids to interact normally with the show’s characters. “It’s impossible to get them to loosen up. There isn’t this freedom of kids allowing themselves to act silly with puppets or dolls.”
While the USAID funding cut is just a tiny component of a much larger political problem, it may well prove to be the unkindest cut of all. After all, if there ever is to be lasting peace in the Middle East, doesn’t it have to grow within the hearts of the young? “We are trying hard to use our program to introduce general concepts of tolerance to the ‘other’ and the idea of sharing and respecting other peoples both who are from a different gender as well as those with handicaps,” executive producer Daoud Kuttab explains.
Hope comes in many forms. We believe that giving the children positive, wholesome programs that speak with their dialect, reflect their own communities, and deal with issues they face daily will give them a smile – and ultimately hope.