Sunday, October 4, 2009

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? by Samantha M. Shapiro

Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah? by Samantha M. Shapiro
(c)The New York Times, September 30, 2009.

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.

Kuttab, a big, gentle man whose suit pants are perpetually rumpled, told me he specifically wanted to work with untrained writers like Awadallah. He knew that his head writer, Nada Al-Yassir, who was raised in Canada and has produced some short films, could on her own churn out enough Sesame-appropriate scripts, but he was pursuing a bigger goal. Developing an independent television and film industry, he said, was a crucial step in building a Palestinian state, and he told me he thought that if his writers could learn to write hopeful, engaging stories for kids, it would benefit them as much as the viewers.

Children make up the majority of the population in the Palestinian territories, and they have played an iconic role in the Palestinian national struggle. But there is very little programming created with them in mind. More than 90 percent of Palestinian families in the West Bank have a satellite dish, so most kids are able to watch Spacetoon, a Dubai-based channel, popular throughout the Arab world, that shows Japanese anime and American cartoons like “The Flintstones” and “Power Rangers” dubbed or subtitled in classical Arabic rather than local dialects, to minimize distribution costs.

On the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, the Palestinian Authority’s official channel, the longest-running children’s program is a slow-moving talk show hosted by a young woman who sometimes reads storybooks aloud into the camera or watches, in real time, as an artist painstakingly paints a parrot. The official Hamas channel, Al-Aqsa television, has several children’s shows, and Al-Aqsa’s director of children’s programming, Abu Amr, told me the network is considering starting a station devoted entirely to children. Al-Aqsa TV’s most famous (and infamous) children’s program is “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” in which Saraa, a Palestinian girl, and several animal characters teach ideological lessons: why it is bad to speak English and good to memorize the whole Koran; how the Danes are infidels who should be killed. Occasionally an animal character will die as a martyr for Palestine.

At the story meeting that Tuesday in Ramallah, Kuttab introduced the novice writers to the concept of pitching, and one by one, hesitantly, they began trying to sell one another on the handwritten scripts each of them brought to the meeting. Some ideas immediately ran afoul of basic “Sesame Street” guidelines — child Muppets couldn’t be seen cooking without an adult, for instance. Other writers’ pitches pushed the conversation toward larger existential questions. Dalia Othman, the 25-year-old daughter of the show’s production manager, proposed a segment in which one Muppet meets a Bedouin, a nomad who herds cattle around the Middle East. Othman said that the segment would help kids “learn about members of the Palestinian people that no one knows about, myself included.”

“Are Bedouins considered Palestinian?” asked Osama Malhas, a writer in his late 40s who was wearing the logo sweater from the boys’ school in Nablus where he teaches science.

“I actually don’t know,” Othman said, fiddling with a slice of mushroom pizza. “I am bringing up this idea partly to ask if it makes sense.”

Al-Yassir shook her head. “They don’t recognize borders, Israeli or Palestinian,” she said.

Each season, in each country, Sesame productions are built around a few particular curriculum items, like cooperation or numbers. For the coming season of “Simsim,” respect was one chosen theme. When it came time for Taha Awadallah, the young film student, to share his pitch, he explained, “I focused on the theme of respecting myself and respecting others.” Awadallah had been working on revising his Gaza segments. The new script began with Saleem, the handyman character on the show, watching the Gaza coverage on TV. “Saleem is sad and worried, so he calls his sister in Gaza,” Awadallah said. “She is O.K., but her friend Tariq is missing.” In the next scene, Awadallah explained, the Muppets Karim and Haneen would encounter Saleem while playing hide-and-seek. “He is still sad,” Awadallah continued, “so they do funny things to make him forget he is sad.” He acknowledged that so far he was stumped as to what those things could be. “I need some help in coming up with funny scenes and jokes,” he said. “But they will go on until the conclusion, where Saleem says: ‘You made me laugh! Thank you for making me forget that Tariq is missing.’ ”

No one said anything. Then Othman said, in a quiet voice, that she wasn’t sure that “Simsim” could really address the Gaza issue so directly.

Malhas, the teacher, turned to Awadallah: “Will Saleem find Tariq?”

Awadallah nodded. “Yes, I want him to find his friend at the end of the episode,” he said. “It will turn out that Tariq was missing for an unexpected reason.”

Maha Atmawi, a 30-year-old teacher from Qalqilya, objected. “You can’t lie to children,” she said. “Most people in Gaza who are missing will not be found. This can’t be a trick. We have to show reality.”

IN 1994, PRODUCTION EXECUTIVES at Sesame Workshop first approached Kuttab about creating a Palestinian version of the show. Kuttab was a founder of the Jerusalem Film Institute, which trained Palestinians in television journalism. During the 1980s, Sesame Workshop produced three seasons of “Rechov Sumsum,” the popular Israeli version of “Sesame Street,” in collaboration with Israeli Educational TV, or IETV, a government-financed public network. The producers had secured financing for a new batch of shows, and one backer of “Sumsum” suggested that they should include a Palestinian “street” that could model peaceful co-existence for a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians. The executives in New York and at IETV liked the idea.

Kuttab was unenthusiastic. “We are looking for a divorce from the Israelis, not a marriage,” he recalls telling the Sesame Workshop executives who first approached him. Palestinians had strong taboos against what they called “normalization” — working with or even openly acknowledging Israel before a peace settlement was reached. But the opportunity to build up Palestinian television capability and benefit from American and Israeli expertise and money proved irresistible to Kuttab.

Although most people I talked to who worked on the joint production, which was broadcast in 1998, spoke fondly of it, they said the process of reaching consensus on even small details was arduous. The Palestinians didn’t want to show Israel’s flag or state colors or kids wearing yarmulkes. The Israelis didn’t want to see the Palestinian flag or Muppets wearing kaffiyehs. Khalil Abu Arafeh, the head writer for the Palestinian show at the time, gravely recalled that “the issue of hummus and falafel was very heated.” (Both sides considered the dishes to be “their” food.) The most contentious segments were the ones in which the Israeli and Palestinian Muppets interacted. Each set of Muppets lived on their own set — so where would they meet? An American adviser from Sesame Workshop proposed the Muppets meet at a neutral third location on the border of their sets, perhaps a park, but the Palestinians weren’t comfortable with that idea — they wanted to know who owned the park. Dolly Wolbrum, the show’s producer at IETV, told me she thought that wasn’t a question that 3-to-6-year-olds would wonder about, but Kuttab said he felt Palestinian children would assume it was an Israeli park. He proposed dividing the park by a low wall, an idea Wolbrum said was a deal breaker. They finally agreed that the Muppets would visit one another’s streets rather than meet in a park. But again, controversy arose: the Israelis were in favor of spontaneous Muppet drop-bys, but the Palestinians insisted the visits had to be by invitation only. “The only Israelis who come to Palestinian neighborhoods uninvited are settlers,” Kuttab explained to me.

The Israelis told me they were trying to emulate the philosophy of “Sesame Street,” to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was. The Israeli segments from this era have a giddy euphoria about them, already anachronistic. One segment featured an Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli boy skipping, swinging, hugging and napping side by side, while singing a song about the number two: “You can always be alone, but together is more fun, two by two!” For Kuttab, the Israeli idea that Palestinian and Israelis on the show would be best buddies who casually drop in on each other was absurd. In real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits — they feared for their safety — and many of the Palestinian crew didn’t have permits to enter Jerusalem. “There was no wall yet,” Kuttab told me, referring to the concrete boundary that the Israeli government began constructing in 2002 to separate Israel and some settlements from the Palestinian territories, “but there was an invisible wall between us, and we didn’t want to give kids a false impression that everything was happy.”

Kuttab told me he felt that trying to recreate the let’s-get-along diversity of the American show was the wrong approach for the Middle East. The idyllic images of racial harmony on “Sesame Street” may have helped African-American children feel more a part of American culture, he said, but that tactic wasn’t useful in the context of a two-state solution. “Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and Palestinians want to have an Arab state,” Kuttab explained. In the end, “Rechov Sumsum” showed vastly more Palestinian content than “Shara’a Simsim” showed Israeli content. Follow-up studies commissioned by Sesame Workshop found that Israeli kids’ attitudes about Palestinian kids improved after viewing the show, but Palestinian kids didn’t change their perceptions of Israelis.

The outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 and the tumult that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, convinced everyone involved with the production that it no longer made sense to try to create segments featuring Israeli and Palestinian characters interacting. Executives from Sesame Workshop recruited Jordan TV, a government-run network, to act as a third partner. The plan for the new round of shows was that Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli crews would independently shoot their own programs but each would agree to show about 10 segments from each of the other two productions, redubbed into either Hebrew or Arabic. The show was renamed “Sesame Stories” (“Sippuray Sumsum” in Hebrew; “Hikayat Simsim” in Arabic), as there was no longer an actual Sesame Street where the characters met. When “Sesame Stories” appeared in 2003, the Israeli version featured 10 segments each from the Palestinians and Jordanians, but the Palestinians showed only a handful of Israeli segments. (The Jordanians didn’t broadcast any.)

As Layla Sayegh, who supervises the day-to-day operations of “Simsim,” explained it to me, “We tried to show only segments that didn’t have anything recognizably Israeli in them.” She said she selected Israeli segments with animals or Arab-Israelis. Sayegh lamented that this meant passing over some great material. “The Israelis did one about recycling, and it was absolutely fantastic, but at the end they showed a truck with Hebrew lettering,” she said.

Sayegh, who is 54, came to the show in 2001, after three decades’ working for the Palestine Liberation Organization. She spent her 20s and 30s following Yasir Arafat through Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and then to North Africa and Cyprus, and her last job before “Simsim” was working in the prime minister’s office for the Palestinian Authority. The second intifada started not long before Sayegh arrived at “Simsim,” and she told me that it was a very difficult time to be working on a program connected to Israel. Several of the show’s writers quit to protest the connection with Israel. Students at Al-Quds University cursed “Simsim” staff members when they saw them. Sayegh, who had worked for the Palestinian cause her entire adult life, said she was hurt by these attacks. “I was a P.L.O. revolutionary all my life,” she told me indignantly. “And no way will I let anybody call me a traitor.”

THE CURRENT INCARNATION of the show, which began production in 2006, has no Israeli participation at all. (The title has reverted to “Shara’a Simsim.”) A first batch of 15 shows was broadcast in 2007, and Kuttab and his staff, when I was there, were gearing up for a second round. During one visit to the studio, the “Shara’a Simsim” crew was taping a set of public-service announcements that would be shown throughout the day on Palestinian TV channels to help promote the coming season. They had just completed a series that used the terminology of news updates — playing on the words for “independence” or “resistance” — to encourage kids to tie their shoelaces and pick up trash, and now they were working on a spoof of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” called “Who Wants to Win a Balloon?” In one corner, a balloon artist was inflating blue and yellow balloons. Layla Sayegh patted down the yarn hair of a Muppet who was looking disheveled, and cameramen were duct-taping plastic bars to the floor to set up a track for the camera. Shaden Salem, a young actress from Ramallah who was wearing a kaffiyeh and gray leggings, was practicing the accent for the Muppet she was controlling, “Elias, from Al Funduq,” she said, tentatively, to a cameraman from the region Al Funduq is located in.

“No, it’s more guttural,” the cameraman said, correcting her. “El-YOS, not El-yas.”

Rajai Sandouka, the puppeteer who has controlled Karim, the main Muppet on “Simsim,” since the show’s inception, crouched with Salem below the set, each of them perched atop a rolling dolly. The director, George Kheliefi, counted down from the control room: ‘‘Tallatah, itnain, wahed, action!” Kheliefi, a Belgian-trained Palestinian filmmaker with Israeli citizenship, has worked on several highly regarded art-house movies by Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, and he co-wrote a book about Palestinian film. He, along with Kuttab, was a founder of the Jerusalem Film Institute in the 1990s. In the scene being taped, the Muppet Elias had to answer a question about where to put a banana peel in order to win a balloon (correct answer: the trash). A minute or so into the dialogue, Kheliefi stopped the scene. “The characters are dead,” he said with gravity. “It’s boring. It’s not funny.” He turned to Salem. “We want him to be a kid, not a man.”

Filming resumed, and Salem’s Muppet introduced himself to Karim as “Elyos from Al Funduq, a village near Tulkarm.” A cameraman interrupted the action to ask Sayegh if she was sure Al Funduq was closer to Tulkarm than Qalqilya; she was not. Sayegh put in a call to her husband, who works for the Palestinian Parliament. He checked with Tulkarm’s representative. Al Funduq was, in fact, closer to Qalqilya. The script was adjusted.

When the shoot was over, I sat down in the office across the street with Saed Andoni, 37, the show’s line producer, who moved back to the Palestinian territories from London after completing film school largely for the opportunity to work on “Simsim.” Andoni said the issue of livening up the Muppets is an ongoing one with a crew whose TV experience is mostly with news broadcasts. “It’s very hard here to ask writers to write something silly, because they are very worried about realism,” he told me. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, the way he is dressed doesn’t reflect the area he’s from.’ ” Andoni laughed. “But for God’s sake, it’s a rooster doing ‘Who Wants to Win a Balloon?’! It doesn’t have to be realistic!”

Andoni said he tried to explain to the crew that they didn’t have to show Muppets doing everything in real time. “Muppets don’t have to walk from here to there in 10 seconds,” Andoni explained. “They can zoom, they can fly. If you watch American ‘Sesame,’ it’s more lively and funny. The puppets aren’t angry, and they sometimes do weird things, while we are more focused on realism, like Italian cinema in the 1950s.”

It’s not just the writers who have trouble getting silly, Andoni said. During one episode last season that was shot on location in the old city of Jerusalem, Andoni recalled, the crowds were difficult to manage. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “We attracted huge crowds, and no one is used to puppets. The religious people were offended. They were making cynical remarks: ‘We are in a sad situation! Why are you bringing puppets here?’ ”

When I spoke to Naila Farouky, the Sesame Workshop producer who oversees all Arabic-language productions from Sesame headquarters in New York, she said it was also hard to film segments with Palestinian kids talking to Muppets. “It’s impossible to get them to loosen up,” she explained. “There isn’t this freedom of kids allowing themselves to act silly with puppets or dolls.”

One afternoon in the production office, Layla Sayegh sat down next to me, opened her laptop and, with a great sigh, showed me a design for an outreach poster. It was meant to be distributed to Palestinian preschools to promote “Simsim.” The illustration — families picnicking on a grassy hill by the sea — looked pretty standard to me. But Sayegh was distraught. “It’s a disaster,” she muttered. “This is our eighth draft.”

Sayegh scrolled through the previous drafts her staff proposed, all of which showed the picnicking families framed by the jarring image of Israel’s cement separation barrier. In the draft posters, kids were interacting with the wall — dismantling it with pulleys, banging it down with hammers or simply playing in front of it. But the Sesame Workshop executives in New York were adamant: no wall.

I spoke with the poster’s designer, Mohammed Amous, as we sat in his car, stuck in one of the frequent traffic jams created by the wall — this one at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The midday traffic backups there have spawned a bazaar atmosphere, with vendors hawking trinkets and freelance window washers scrubbing windshields and demanding tips. Amous, who is 41, told me he had been trying in the poster to represent creativity and imagination, which was one of the three curriculum goals for this season of “Simsim.” He said he understood the concerns about his first image, of the kids with pulleys; it appeared the kids might be building the wall rather than dismantling it. But he was bewildered about why Sesame Workshop found images of children dismantling the separation wall controversial. He viewed the pictures as a way to stimulate kids’ imaginations. “The political situation is very limited, but kids have to dream,” he said.

But for the folks at Sesame Workshop in New York, excluding these scenes was a no-brainer. Aside from the political ramifications, there are basic safety issues involved in destroying a concrete military border. “It’s a very dangerous position for a kid to be in,” Farouky explained to me. “He could get shot. Just giving a 3-year-old a hammer is something we wouldn’t show.”

Charlotte Cole, who runs international promotion and outreach for Sesame Workshop, told me that the question of whether to show the wall represented the kind of dilemma that Sesame productions in the developing world encounter all the time. “Are you going to film in a ghetto in Bangladesh where kids are living in areas where children shouldn’t live, amid open sewage and impromptu housing made of sharp corrugated metal?” Cole asked. “That’s not what you want people to be aspiring to — but it is reflective of the reality of many, many kids in the world.”

Mona Nuseibeh, 25, who directs outreach projects for “Simsim” at Al-Quds University, told me she saw the removal of the wall as one in a series of compromises that had to be made with the Americans at Sesame Workshop. Nuseibeh recalled a script Sayegh wrote the previous season in which a storm destroys Shara’a Simsim and the characters come together to rebuild it. “The idea was based on attacks in Ramallah by Israeli soldiers,” she said. “But Sesame wouldn’t let us show soldiers, so we had to make it a storm instead.” Nuseibeh said she felt the approach used in the storm episode was better than nothing, but far from ideal.

But Sayegh said she was proud of the storm episode; she didn’t feel that it represented a compromise at all. She compared it with an American “Sesame Street” episode that she had seen recently, addressing kids’ fears after Sept. 11, in which Elmo witnesses a grease fire. With her storm script, she explained, “the episode showed the main point — that when something is destroyed, we can work together and make it better. It’s our duty to make a space for children, to make them feel good and to help them enjoy being kids.”

I was a bit surprised by this reaction. Sayegh had devoted most of her life to Palestinian politics, and she was passionate and intense about the subject — she once mentioned that she had told her parents it would have been better for them to “be raped by the British or Jews” than leave their home in Jaffa, as they did in 1948. I had thought that, like Nuseibeh, Sayegh would want Palestinian kids to be educated early about their political situation. But when I asked Sayegh about this, she said that working at “Simsim,” as apolitical as it tried to be, was a way of serving the Palestinian people as much as her previous job in the prime minister’s office was. “In government, there are issues you can’t change because of which party’s in power,” she said. “But here I feel very effective.”

WHEN I ASKED Sayegh exactly how producing a fledgling puppet show was more effective than working for the prime minister, she told me about Muppet “walkarounds.” Every few months, “Simsim” brings human-size versions of the Palestinian Muppets to schools to publicize the show and to promote early-childhood education. “I sit and I look back at the eyes of the kids,” Sayegh told me. “They suffer a lot, and during the show I can see how happy they get. I would like to do these shows twice a day, every day, in every village in Palestine.”

I went with her one afternoon to a Muppet walkaround held at Al Ahli college, a Catholic school with the largest auditorium in Ramallah. Mini-buses from Ramallah’s preschools pulled into the courtyard and unloaded hundreds of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, clad in sweaters or plaid jumpers emblazoned with their school logo. Their teachers herded them into the auditorium, where an actor and an actress appeared onstage in brightly colored overalls and performed a little skit. Then the actors called for the life-size Muppets to come out, and a wave of excitement swept through the room. Kids who were stuck at the back of the auditorium stood on the arms of their plastic chairs and tables, craning their necks. Andoni, who had taken his daughter out of school for the event, held her up on his shoulders so that she could see.

Sayegh was facing the kids, just as she had described, and I turned around to look at what she found more important than working with the prime minister. The view from where she stood was a bobbing sea of hundreds of preschoolers, their open faces transparent with delight, excited to see what would happen next.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer who frequently reports for the magazine from the Middle East.

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