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Home > Life & Culture > Performing Arts
The Muppets take Ramallah
Samantha M. Shapiro, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2009

muppets.jpg
The "Shara'a Simsim" characters Karim (green) and Haneen during a performance at a Palestinian school in March. (Uriel Sinai/Getty, for The New York Times)

This season's episodes of "Shara'a Simsim," the Palestinian version of the global "Sesame Street" franchise, were filmed in a satellite campus of Al-Quds University, a ramshackle four-story concrete structure that houses the school's media department and a small local television station. The building sits in an upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah, not far from the edge of the Israeli settlement Psagot. Like many structures on the West Bank, the Al-Quds building seems to be simultaneously under construction and decaying into a ruin. Some walls are pocked with bullet holes, from when the Israeli Army occupied the building for 19 days in 2001, during the second intifada. In another life, the building was a hotel, and the balconies out front where TV crews and students take smoking breaks overlook the crumbling shell of its swimming pool.

The TV station at Al-Quds, called Al-Quds Educational Television, was started a decade ago by Daoud Kuttab, a 54-year-old Palestinian journalist who is also the executive producer of "Shara'a Simsim." Kuttab (who wrote a dispatch for The New York Times Magazine in 2003 on the way Arab TV covered the outbreak of the Iraq war) lives in Amman and works both in Jordan and in the Palestinian territories. He started the channel - one of dozens of tiny mom-and-pop-style microbroadcast operations in the West Bank - in part so that he would have a venue, however small, from which to broadcast "Shara'a Simsim." At the time, in the late 1990s, the official Palestinian TV station was unwilling to show "Shara'a Simsim" because it was produced jointly with "Rechov Sumsum," the Israeli version of "Sesame Street."

Since the inception of "Sesame Street" in the United States 40 years ago, the nonprofit New York City-based organization that produces the show, which is now called Sesame Workshop, has created 25 international co-productions. Each country's show has its own identity: a distinctive streetscape, live-action segments featuring local kids and a unique crew of Muppets. Bangladesh's "Sisimpur" uses some traditional Bangladeshi puppets, and South Africa's "Takalani Sesame" features Kami, an orphaned H.I.V.-positive Muppet. But in each co-production, at least in its early years, every detail - every character, every scene and every line of script - must be approved by executives in the Sesame Workshop office, near Lincoln Center. This requires a delicate balance: how to promote the "core values" of Sesame Street, like optimism and tolerance, while at the same time portraying a version of local life realistic enough that broadcasters will show it and parents will let their kids watch. The Palestinian territories have been, not surprisingly, a tough place to strike this balance, Sesame executives say, rivaled only by Kosovo.

One Tuesday last spring, I attended a writers' meeting for the coming season of "Shara'a Simsim," held at the show's production offices in a quiet apartment complex across the street from the Al-Quds studio. The meeting was scheduled to start at 1 p.m., but the writers lived all over the West Bank, where travel times are unpredictable because of Israeli Army checkpoints. They drifted in one by one and eventually gathered around the conference table.

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.

Taha Awadallah, a 28-year-old rookie "Simsim" writer, spent part of his adolescence serving two terms in Israeli prison for throwing stones at Israeli cars when he was a teenager. A serious young man with a neat crew cut, Awadallah told me he viewed his early years in prison as the best, most edifying period of his life. He met leaders of all the Palestinian factions there and followed their jailhouse regimens of reading and lectures. After his release, he was expelled from high school and spent six years illegally crossing into Israel to work in construction. Then last year, Awadallah enrolled in a Christian-run film school in Bethlehem with the hope of someday working for Al-Jazeera. Because he excelled in his screenwriting class, a teacher sent Awadallah's writing to "Simsim," requesting that he be considered for a position on the show.

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.

To read the full article please visit The New York Times.


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