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Muppet Diplomacy

Ben Felsenburg finds Sesame Street on the road map to peace

Ben Felsenburg  |  Spring 2008  -  Number 209

  
  
 

Finding cultural correspondences can always be a brainless kind of Pelmanism; if you keep on flipping the cards for long enough, eventually two will match. Of course Jews have long been as eager to appropriate the myths of others as anyone else, from back when Jehovah was arguably a riff on Akhenaten’s Aten, to the creation of Superman himself (although the Man of Steel’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were scions of a couple of Litvischer families who’d somehow ended up in Cleveland, Ohio). Still, there is something irresistible about this process of picking out narratives and making them your own that cannot quite be dismissed.

Take The Muppets as an example — and not in any way because leading puppeteer Frank Oz was the English-born son of Holocaust refugees — and it’s easy to recast some of the hand-operated characters in a more yiddisher locale; what are Statler and Waldorf if not a couple of alter kibbitzters? Just how much does Fozzie Bear and his groansome jokes owe to the stale purveyors of third-rate gags washed up off the Catskills circuit? And surely the uncompromising Miss Piggy must simply be the ultimate role-model of self-assertion for any aspiring J.A.P.

Yet look over to Israel and we discover that the cultural colonisation has been reversed. You see, for decades the people who make The Muppets and Sesame Street have been only too glad to reconfigure the shows for local consumption. Over in South Africa, Takalni Sesame has, since the beginning of the century, conveyed a message tailored to the problems of a country struggling with the AIDS pandemic; familiar puppet characters now tell kids that it’s safe and okay to hug someone with HIV. Likewise in Norway, Sesam Stasjon has been moulded with typically Scandinavian social efficiency to support the goals of the ministry of education.

In the Middle East it’s been a similar collaboration between the US-based producers of Sesame Street and local production teams. The story of Rechov Sumsum goes back to 1983, when for the first time Israeli children were able to enjoy the Sesame Street puppet charcters dubbed into Hebrew and given new names: the Cookie Monster was now reborn as Oogi, and Count von Count redubbed Mar S’for. Spliced in between the adapted footage were locally filmed sequences that helped to provide a sense of nationhood for the young, in a country where colour television only arrived in 1981.

Come the Nineties the project took on a wider significance. Just about the time that Rabin and Arafat were signing their agreement on the White House lawn in 1993, a Sesame Street Israeli-Palestinian co-production was conceived that was designed to nurture a young generation for the peaceful coexistence that some believed was surely coming. Rehov Sumsum and Shara’a Simsim were to be separate but parallel streets that would intersect enough for instructional traffic to usefully flow in both directions and for the benefit of both communities.

In Rehov Sumsum, Israeli viewers were able to delight in remoulded characters such as Kippi Ben Kipod, a lumbering porcupine who’s very reminiscent of Big Bird. Aired in Palestine from the late nineties onwards and in the spirit of the Oslo Accords, the ground-breaking Shara’a Simsim featured Moishe Offnik, the Israeli-Jewish version of Oscar the Grouch, and looked to focus on the vocabulary overlap between Hebrew and Arabic.

Things then began to unravel. Although a repackaged Rechov Sumsum had achieved over a million video sales worldwide, where a new bilingual (English and Hebrew) version of Shalom Sumsum, supported by guest stars such as Jerry Stiller and Itzhak Perlman brought a vision of Israel to Jewish children living abroad, a lack of funds eventually saw the Israeli version exiled to that limbo realm in which television programmes exist only as repeats.

Meanwhile the outbreak of the second Intifada and the breakdown of peace talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat meant that Sesame Street, in whatever guise, could no longer be conceived as a pre-school extension of the linear path to peace.

In the light of these events, the Sesame people reconceived the whole project, resulting in Sesame Stories, three different programmes produced for channels in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, but drawing upon some of the same pooled resources. There were separate casts of puppets for each country, but the emphasis on reaching across different ethnic communities remained. In the Israeli version, the live-action characters of Jewish handyman Tzachi and his neighbour Ibtisam, an Arab art student, are best friends.

Aired from 2003, perhaps that set-up sounds pollyannaishly naïve when set against the background of the darkest days of the second Intifada, yet the producers were clearly cognisant of the facts on the ground: Tzachi and Ibtisam’s friendship takes place in the privacy of home. Even for the little ones, it seems it would have been stretching credulity for the message of peace to be acted out in public on the street.

Now you might be wondering how much the ins and outs of children’s television really matter. In Britain, kids’ TV shows enter the adult world solely as a source of trivia and nostalgia, entering the news only when every now and then a Blue Peter presenter commits a misdemeanour. However, few things are quite the same in the Middle East. Given that future hopes for peace between two youthful nations living side by side depend on how children grow up seeing the world around them, you can understand the value put on Sesame Street and its spin-offs. After all, the franchise has proven itself as a positive and formative influence in dozens of countries around the globe since first coming to air in America in 1969, by introducing pre-school viewers to letters and numbers, the ethics of fair play and basic problem-solving.

Rehov Sumsum was reborn in 2006. A measure of the importance attached to the programme’s return can be garnered from the names Gary Knell, president of non-profit production company Sesame Workshop, had in his diary for his short tour of the Middle East for the relaunch: the Israeli education minister Yuli Tamir, Aliza Olmert, the wife of prime minister Ehud Olmert, and, in Ramallah, the senior Palestinian Authority figure and peace negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The rebooted programme made its return with a new direction that was shared with fellow Sesame variants Hikayat Simsim in Jordan and Shara’a Simsim in Palestine. The production teams for each progamme had worked together, overcoming travel constraints between Israel and the Occupied Territories by holding virtual meetings joining Amman, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, or by flying out to London and New York to come together in person. The result of extensive consultation in all three territories with educational researchers and developmental psychologists was a three-fold agenda: to provide a ‘safe haven’ that young viewers can come back to every day, to provide a sense of stability and normalcy regardless of what may be happening outside — this shortly after the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 — and, perhaps most sensationally, to provide a sense of ethnic diversity.

For the first time, Arab-Israeli children could watch the country’s version of Sesame Street and see themselves embodied in a puppet, in the cloth person of Mahboub, a five-year-old girl with a broad smile and thick coating of blue fur whose best friend is Noah, a red-hued Israeli-Jewish character. Teenage soccer prodigy Rim Musa, an Arab-Israeli, was among the first human guests to appear on the show.

Changing demographic realities were also signified by the arrival of Irina, the Russian immigrant owner of a magic shop. Other characters came with the kinds of socially useful purposes that will be familiar to viewers across all Sesame Street territories around the world — orange-furred Brosh, for example, likes nothing more than to do the cleaning.

The Palestinian version provided similarly positive models, but with the focus not on improving inter-communal relations — simply an unrealistic aim against the volatile background of the Occupied Territories and Gaza — but rather on suggesting behavioural alternatives to the violence and aggression all around. So when a hurricane uproots trees and swings, a clean-cut young man, Salim, suggests to Kareem the rooster and his female friend, fellow puppet Haneen that they should put aside their anger at the destruction and instead work together to clean things up.

Last year we were given another reason to acknowledge the impact of these programmes and the messages they deliver. Farfour, the Mickey Mouse-like costume character on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, aroused a mixture of amusement and shock in commentators and viewers around the world who watched his paeans to the martyrs lost in the fight against Israel on clips on the internet. Reacting to the widespread outraged accusations that young children were being indoctrinated (Diane Disney, daughter of Walt Disney, called it ‘pure evil’), the response of the story-writers was to martyr Farfour himself. He was then succeeed by Nahool the bumblebee, until that character died too, slipping away in a hospital bed having been unable to get proper medical attention because of Israeli road-blocks.

It’s sad but inevitable that the determined campaign to foster peace through the small but vital steps of the Sesame stories shouldn’t earn comparable attention, but it remains a beacon of hope, and the assured professionalism of the Sesame production teams makes for a far preferable product for any half-discriminating toddler viewer than Hamas’s drably humourless attempts at children’s television.

Research shows that one should not underestimate the influence on children’s minds of even the most trivial-seeming factors in these formative years. A 2003 study published in the International Journal Of Behavioral Development looked at the impact of Rechov Sumsum and Shara’a Simsim on children in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It yielded some fascinating and worrying results. As young as four years old, Israeli-Jewish children prior to watching the show already had formed negative stereotypes of Arabs, and the same went for Palestinian children as regards Jews.

More positively, both groups showed a propensity for bringing ‘moral concepts of fairness to peer conflict situations’, meaning that they were already primed to be receptive to the cooperative problem-solving and negotiations of the Sesame shows’ characters, which could perhaps be the basis for the children in each community to empathise with the other culture. Sure enough, after four months’ viewing, the Israeli-Jewish children found newly positive attributes in their Arab counterparts.

In the case of Palestinian children, their perception of the negative characteristics of Jews and Judaism actually increased after the test period, but then their social context is very different, as are the programmes themselves: the makers of Shara’a Simsim incorporate very little of everyday Israeli life. Still, Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish children alike turned more to ‘friendship justification’ in their understanding of conflicts after the four months, in so doing downgrading selfish or sectarian attitudes.

The bottom line as to the value of the shows appears to be that the effects are complex and sometimes surprising, but their ultimate potential value is precious in an area where every incremental step away from the stasis of conflict is to be treasured. 

The commitment of those involved continues to be demonstrated by the development of new projects, including ‘the world’s first and only Hebrew/Arabic bilingual education website for children, parents and educators’ (www.sesasmestreet.co.il). For twenty-five years these production teams have patiently sought to bring something of real value to the children of the area, working together across ethnic and national boundaries to continually reshape their vision and adapt to changing circumstances. There’s a lot to be learnt from Sesame Street — not only by toddlers but by the rest of us too.

Ben Felsenburg is a journalist who lives in London.

  
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