"This is not a talking heads program, nor a passive animation."
Most people who have grown up in front of the television know Sesame Street, the groundbreaking children's educational variety show that was the first to implement formative research into its productions. Since it debuted in 1969, it has not only captured the imaginations of millions of children, but also won 159 Emmy Awards and eight Grammy Awards, and is credited with bringing Jim Henson's iconic creations to the masses. Its success quickly spawned a panoply of international co-productions, including Iftah Ya Simsim, an Arabic version that first debuted in 1979 and is finally returning to the small screen for the first time since the show ceased production during the Gulf War in 1990.
While there are other existing Arabic Sesame Street co-productions in the Middle East, such as Alam Simsim in Egypt, Hikayat Simsim in Jordan, and Shara'a Simsim in Palestine, Iftah Ya Simsim was developed with over six other countries in the Persian Gulf, and films segments in countries outside the United Arab Emirates in order to reflect a broader perspective of Arab lifestyles. It's produced in classical Arabic without the regional dialects in the other shows, and as such, is less focused on nationalities and more focused on Arab culture as a whole.
Cairo Arafat is Managing Director of Bidaya Media, which produces Iftah Ya Simsim along with Sesame Workshop. She says that the songs and poetry used in the show are all Arabic, with Arab writers, musicians, lyricists, educators, producers, and directors all working on the show as well.
The first season targets health and well-being, helping to build a child's vocabulary in order to express the needs that go along with positive lifestyle habits. The main educational goals include teaching children about healthy eating, as well as the importance of an active lifestyle, good hygiene, and safe outdoor behavior. It also seeks to encourage children to express their emotions to their parents and to learn how to self-regulate.
The first iteration of Iftah Ya Simsim ran from 1979 until 1990, and Arafat says plans for the newest run began in 2010 when they began assessing educational needs of the Gulf region in cooperation with the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States (ABEGS) and all GCC Ministries of Education, universities, academic groups, etc., before receiving final endorsement by the ministers and ABEGS. Then began fundraising, and with help from Mubadala Development Company, pre-production started. Soon it was a matter of creating an internal educational review committee, identifying production partners, casting, and holding workshops and trainings for writers, lyricists, artists, and directors. After further pre-production, set design, and writing in 2014, production began, and the show just aired this month.
"An overarching focus is to enhance children’s Arabic language and literacy skills as well as to imbue children with the knowledge and skills to support them in being able to lead healthy and safe lives," says Arafat. But it also has another objective: "A central premise of [the] approach is to awaken 'word consciousness' in children through presentation of child-friendly, relevant and culturally appropriate images themed around the child’s holistic development.
Like Sesame Street, much of Iftah Ya Simsim relies on music. Some of the songs are from the US version, which have been adapted to Arabic, but most are new and original. One of the original puppets from the previous run, a large, cuddly monster named No'maan, returns, but this time, he moves around and sings. "The kids love his gentleness and willingness to always help others. He's a little boy with a big heart," Arafat says.
Meanwhile, Gargur is an Arab version of Grover, while a new female muppet named Shams is a quick, curious, and spirited little girl who has garnered a lot of positive response from viewers already. Like the US version of Sesame Street, Iftah Ya Simsim has many different segments mixing live actors with Muppets, as well as a "story-time" segment that appeals to children's imaginations. In the end, it appears the objective is the same across all Sesame Street co-productions: to gently instruct and inform while engaging students through entertainment and play.
"We teach tolerance, acceptance, and respect for others and the self," Arafat says. "It is child-focused and fun, and set in an outdoor environment to encourage children's healthy growth and development with nature and self-learning. The show is based on our belief that children are quick, efficient learners who enjoy solving problems and being creative. We cater to the whole child and respect their intellectual capacity and needs. So this is not a talking heads program, nor a passive animation."
To learn more about Sesame Street, click here.