Arabic Sesame Street returns after 25-year hiatus but with restraints

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The Arabic version of Sesame Street was one of the first international co-productions of the hit US children’s show but no new series have been made in a quarter century. Now the show is returning, but is treading carefully in a region rife with sectarian issues.

The Arabic version of Sesame Street returned to television screens on Friday after nearly 25 years, but it is wary of dealing with some of the harsher issues facing the Middle East including sectarian and racial divides.

The educational children’s show, known in Arabic as Iftah ya Simsim (Open Sesame), was produced until 1990 but was shut down after Kuwait, where the programme was filmed, was attacked by Iraq.

The Arabic show aims to set good examples for children on issues such as obesity and illiteracy by mixing education with entertainment, using the colourful puppets that have become synonymous with the international hit programme, which first aired in its original American version in 1969.

“We found out, through our research, that children living in the Arab world now suffer from problems such as being overweight and malnutrition, unlike the case in the past,” Cairo Arafat, managing director of Abu-Dhabi-based production company Bidaya Media, told dpa.

Arafat said the creators of the new show at first considered creating an entirely new concept, but then realized that Sesame Street was a “long-term brand” that had lasting appeal around the world.

All of the show’s content is based on the educational curriculum approved by the Arab Gulf monarchies, who have set up the Educational Advisory Committee and the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States.

For now, this means the show will not aim to tackle some of the more pressing and complicated concerns of the Middle East, including sectarianism based on ethnicity and religion.

The divide between Sunnis and Shiites in Islam has been a key concern of civil rights campaigners in Saudi Arabia while also fueling conflict in countries like Iraq and Syria. Moreover, divides between Arabs and other ethnicities, such as Kurds, continue to plague several states.

“Children cannot understand subjects related to conflict,” argued Arafat, saying that instead “we can teach them indirectly that people are different and that, for instance, children in all parts of the region dress differently and talk differently.”

At a later stage, the show will aim to tackle more seriously issues such as tolerance and diversity.

The show brings back the popular No’man, a puppet meant to be 6-years-old, who is kind and easy-going. He will be accompanied by Melsoon, a colourful bird who is ageless and questioning.

The new version is also bringing to life 28 new animal characters including Shams, a quick witted and energetic 6-year-old girl.

‘Iftah Ya Simsim’ first premiered in Kuwait in 1979 and was broadcast in 22 Arabic-speaking countries. The new version returning to screens is broadcasting in 14 countries, targeting children aged 4 to 6.

Studies have shown the programme, which has numerous versions around the world in different languages, is an effective educational tool and helps support multi-culturalism.

Critics have sometimes pointed out that it can at times be too idealistic and out of place with harsh realities some disadvantaged children face.

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