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'Sesame Street' Tries To Pave New Road In Afghanistan

'Sesame Street' Launches In Afghanistan
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The producers of "Sesame Street" -- which will be known as "Baghch-e-Simsin" in Afghanistan -- provided a look behind the scenes of the Afghan version ahead of its December 2 premiere.

"Sesame Street," the world's most-viewed children's educational television show and a program known for taking on divisive social issues in the United States since the 1960s, has debuted in Afghanistan.

Its producers hope their culturally adapted version of the nearly half-century old format can reach Afghan kids facing some of the world's most daunting adversity.

The letter of the day? A, of course. But A no longer stands for places like Afghanistan. In the Afghan version of the show, A is for Alef, the first letter in the Perso-Arabic script used throughout country.

The Afghan version of the popular "letter of the day" segment will feature only the letters shared by the country's two main languages, Dari and Pashto, for the show's airing on the Dari-language Tolo TV and Pashto-language Lemar-TV.

It's just one of many changes called for when adapting the show -- a mix of puppets and live-action characters exploring language, numbers, and youth-oriented themes -- to an Afghan audience.

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Its Afghan-American executive producer, Tanya Farzan, says some of the challenges she faced actually inspired new segments.

"I was struggling trying to get kids to smile for the clips I was making," Farzan says. "So this show, actually, there are a couple of scenes specifically trying to get kids to know, to recognize these kinds of emotions, and also the fact that it's OK to express those emotions, you know? It's all right to...distinguish between 'happy,' 'sad,' 'angry,' and all the different things that here [are] not really encouraged."

She suggests that Afghanistan can feel like "you're supposed to subdue yourself at all times, and usually anger is the one that's expressed so easily and comfortably."

"So I'm pretty excited about getting the young generation of kids to become familiar with the different kinds of emotions," Farzan says.

Children attend a prelaunch promotional event in Afghanistan for "Baghch-e-Simsim."
Children attend a prelaunch promotional event in Afghanistan for "Baghch-e-Simsim."
The new show is called "Baghch-e-Simsim," a combination of a word meaning "peaceful garden" and the well-known expression "Open Sesame!"

Time-Tested, Newly Crafted

The show features Muppets creator Jim Henson's perky, lovable puppets interspersed with segments shot on location in Kabul. Not all of the puppets made the cut with Afghan audiences, however.

The main character, Big Bird, remains but will be known to Afghan children under the name The King of the Birds. Other familiar "Sesame Street" characters, Farzan explains, were either eliminated or amended.

"I struggled a little bit with The Count [a numerically inclined vampire], because the Count is a Dracula and no one [here] understands why he has fangs, so I had to omit him, too," she says. "Another one was Oscar [the Grouch]," she says of the shaggy green trash-can dweller. "Even though I have one of his segments...I can't let him be in the trash can...and like one of his songs, 'I love trash' -- well, translating that is just -- no way I can promote a guy who loves to live in garbage..." she says, trailing off into laughter.

The new 26-episode "Baghch-e-Simsim" series has no original puppeteering, instead pulling from prerecorded puppet footage and dubbing it over. With a $1 million budget provided by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in cooperation with the nonprofit organization Sesame Workshop, which originally started the series in the United States in the late '60s, the show will air afternoons Thursday through Sunday.

Education Challenge

"Baghch-e-Simsim" joins a host of international adaptations of "Sesame Street" that can be seen in over 100 countries, including Egypt, Israel, Russia, as well as the Palestinian territories.

Proponents of the new Afghan program hope it will boost early-learning education in the country, where only 50 percent of children between 7 and 13 years old attend school.

"I like the series very much and I am looking forward to seeing it on television very soon," one mother in Kabul tells an RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent. "My kids are all happy and excited to see it. At the moment, this show is their greatest wish."

Nafisa, another mother living in Kabul, tells RFE/RL she's sure her children "will learn" from "Baghch-e-Simsim," adding, "I hope other parents in Afghanistan will encourage their children to watch this series."

Not All Smooth Sailing

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker welcomed the show's debut in comments this week to reporters. "Teachers here in Afghanistan will discover that 'Sesame Street' can help children start school well prepared," he said.

Not everyone is convinced, however.

One Kabul teacher objects to the idea that "broadcasting such a series will help children."

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker poses for pictures with "Sesame Street" character Grover before the inauguration of a show in Kabul on November 30.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker poses for pictures with "Sesame Street" character Grover before the inauguration of a show in Kabul on November 30.
"Earlier, there was a TV series for Afghan youth, a very Western-type of a program," the teacher tells Radio Free Afghanistan, "and it exposed kids to negative things. Now they [the West] want to influence the minds of our children."

Others question whether the show will reach its target audience -- most importantly, girls. Just 12 percent of women over 15 are literate, largely a legacy of the Taliban regime's strict policies, and the education of girls continues to be controversial for religious and societal reasons in much of the country.

But Tolo TV is known for airing racier shows, such as Turkish and Indian soap operas, that are often criticized by the country's religious establishment. Considering that religious families are more likely to prevent their daughters from attending school, the question arises whether they are willing to tune in.

Spreading The Word?

Adding to such concerns are surveys that show fewer than half of all Afghans own a television and a little over 40 percent of the population watches either Tolo or its Pashto-language equivalent, Lemar, in a typical week.

Farzan is optimistic that the show will find success the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.

"In [even] the most rural areas, there's always this big satellite dish. Now chances are that in that little town there's one extreme, fundamentalist side that might not put his children to watch [the show]. But then there's two families that do. And then the word of mouth hits," Farzan says. "Word of mouth is the most powerful thing in Afghanistan, because that causes waves more than anything else."

She envisages a scenario in which just a small number of families might initially watch but quickly be joined by others.

"Let's say a family -- even if it's just the two families that see it and their kids play the next day -- those two kids that watched it, they'll tell that kid what was there [on television]," Farzan says. "So I know it's not possible to reach everyone 100 percent of the time -- just like it is in the [United] States or England. You can't reach everyone all of the time. But at the same time, there's [such] a power behind this show that I can say with all certainty that if one kid in the whole block sees it, the other kids will hear about it."

If that one kid is a little girl in Kabul named Adiba, chances are word will spread fast.

"I am very, very interested in this 'Sesame Street' series. I am just so curious. I want the show to start soon!" Adiva told a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent who asked her and her schoolmates about the program. "This will not only be a show for children to enjoy, but, as I have heard, it's a very watchable show [for all ages]. I hope that is it is on television soon!"

Radio Free Afghanistan's Jakfar Ahmadi and Mohmand Hashem contributed to this report. Television statistics courtesy of the InterMedia Survey Institute