Shari’ 'lshrin ("Twentieth Street"), a pleasant cul-de-sac in a quiet neighborhood, could be located in any medium sized town or city in the Arab East or North Africa. Narrow alleys join it at irregular angles, ornate grills decorate the older houses and a colonnaded sidewalk runs along one side. After school, neighborhood children stop at No. 8 - "Khalil's Refreshments" - for a sweet, a glass of cold juice, or maybe just a chat with Khalil, and adults with newspapers from "Hisham's Shop," at No. 4, often sit at a table on the broad covered sidewalk reading or talking with friends.
Across the street from Khalil's and Hisham's in No. 3, there's a large house with a veranda, where a young engineer named Hamad lives with his wife Fatima, a teacher. Next door there is a nurse named Laila and next to her house there's a tiny park, with a playground, a garden and a fountain. The park is nearly always full of children and most afternoons Abdullah, a kindly old peddler, wheels his pushcart to the park while children flock around to listen to his stories and gaze big-eyed at his cart laden with toys, books and games of every shape and color.
Shari' 'Ishrin, however, is not part of any real Arab town or city. It is located inside a spanking new 5,400 square foot television studio in Kuwait, where cameramen and sound men, lighting technicians, makeup and prop men, a script girl, producer and director and their assistants, any number of linguists and other educational consultants far outnumber the "residents". For Shari'lshrin - "Twentieth Street" - is the Arab equivalent of "Sesame Street", the setting for the internationally famous educational series of the same name: Sesame Street.
In some ways the series seems to duplicate Sesame Street. Its title is Iftah Ya Simsim ("Open Sesame!") which, appropriately, goes straight back to the Arabic source that inspired the title of the U.S. programs. The magic command from the familiar children's tale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, one of the most popular stories from The Thousand and One Nights, it opened a cave crammed with treasure - as, the producers hope, it will for some 26 million pre-school children throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
The series is similar in other ways, too. As the goal is to use the lure of television to provide pre-school education for the very young, Iftah Ya Simsim uses the same fast-paced "magazine" format as a model and retains advisors from the Children's Television Workshop of New York, the originators of Sesame Street. Simsim even has its own "Muppets," one a fluorescent green parrot with a bright yellow beak called "Malsun," the other a great orange bearish creature called "Nu'man." But Open Sesame! is much more than an Arabic version of Sesame Street. As an American educational curriculum specialist said recently "It's Iftah Ya Simsim vs. Open Sesame! It is similar to the original in that it's bright and brisk and uses the whole bag of television tricks. But in its teaching goals, in its cultural context, it's completely Arab".
Simsim, a $7-million series produced by the Arabian Gulf States Joint Program Production Institution (see box) is scheduled to be aired on TV stations throughout the Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa beginning this fall. It consists of 130 half-hour programs in color, which will run five days a week for six months and then be repeated in 26-week cycles as lessons are reviewed and as new children continually enter the three-to-six-year-old pre-school target groups.
The primary goal, as it was for Sesame Street, is to prepare pre-school children, informally and in an entertaining way, for later classroom instruction. In the words of the educators this means "giving them the opportunity to learn certain skills, concepts and attitudes which will be useful in school". It includes, for example, an introduction to Modern Standard Arabic which, though rarely heard among the many regional varieties of Arabic spoken in homes, is the language used throughout the Arab world in textbooks, newspapers and most radio and television broadcasts.
To define this goal, a team of Arab educators, including researchers, child psychologists and linguists, first drew up a detailed teaching curriculum. They came up with a list of 170 individual educational objectives - such as recognizing numbers, letters and geometric forms - grouped them in 10 categories and assigned priorities. For example, 390 minutes -10 percent of the total 3,900 minutes available during the 130 programs - are to be devoted to "physical and mental hygiene", another 10 percent to "social development and economics."
In the next phase, the television writers, directors and producers began to shape programs that would simultaneously cover these objectives, yet also entertain young viewers - the "impossible marriage" of academic and television people, as CTW consultant Duncan Kenworthy put it, that is most responsible for the success of the original Sesame Street concept. "The researchers are tugging toward education, the producers tugging toward entertainment. The dynamic tension which results achieves tort ends."
As eventually worked out, each of Open Sesame!'s half-hour programs includes six minutes of animated cartoons, six minutes of documentary films, eight minutes of skits featuring such original Sesame Street Muppets as Bert, Ernie and Kermit the Frog ("Badr," "Anis" and "Kamil" in Arabic) and, finally, 10 minutes of studio segments videotaped on Shari' 'Ishrin. These segments are particularly important, contributing day-to-day continuity to the series by presenting familiar characters in an unchanging setting. Unlike many animated, documentary and Muppet sequences, however, which are purposely repeated during the series, each studio segment is new and different. This is meant to reinforce the "live" effect and thus help pre-schoolers believe that Shari' 'Ishrin is a real street, where real people, real children - and their two Arab Muppet friends, Nu'man and Malsun - actually exist.
For this reason too, the studio set includes elements of regional architecture ranging from that of the Gulf to that of North Africa, a mix of new and old, urban and rural. Every child, producers hope, will see something to identify with, and be able to recognize the street as actually being in his or her own country.
The effect, in any case, is strikingly realistic: the awning above Hisham's shop has been faded by the sun, the packing boxes of vegetables and fruits in front of Khalil's shop are fresh each day and the trash barrel is sometimes full, sometimes empty. On a wall new posters are pasted over older ones tattered by the wind and drain pipes, clearly, have dripped for many rainy seasons over weathered stones.
The same careful attention to details has gone into defining characters and casting the roles. Both men and women are shown in positive terms, each, whatever his job, shown as contributing to the neighborhood and the community.
As to the actors and actresses - soon to be frequent and familiar visitors in homes throughout the Arab World - they too have an all-Arab character. Khalil the shopkeeper (played by Abdul Majid Qasim), Abdullah the toyseller (Ahmad al-Salah) and Hamad the engineer (Jasim Nabban) are all Kuwaitis. Fatima the teacher (Ahlam Muhammad) is a Bahraini, Laila the nurse (Sana Younus) comes from Saudi Arabia and Hisham the news vendor (Ka'id al-Na'mani) is from Iraq and the 20 permanent children in the cast represent no less than 12 Arab countries, including some as far away as Algeria. Picked from 200 children tested for the parts, and ranging in age from three to 10, they live with their families in Kuwait and use their real names on the program.
Of the two Muppets created especially for Simsim, Malsun the parrot is "played" by Syrian actor Tawfiq al-Asha, whose arm and hand animates the parrot while he sits on a low stool off-camera watching Malsun's performance on a silent television monitor at his feet. The second Muppet, roly-poly Nu'man, is played by Abdullah Hubail, a Kuwaiti who, in one sense, has the more difficult role, for he must wear the stifling costume beneath the hot lights for hours during the long taping sessions.
Open Sesame! is by no means the first foreign language adaptation of Sesame Street since it first appeared on public broadcasting stations across the United States in 1969. Conceived and produced by the Children's Television Workshop, the non-profit educational corporation in New York City, Sesame Street was a response to the discovery that America's TV-saturated youngsters seemed to remember the short, catchy jingles and slogans of the commercials more than the programs. By designing a "magazine" program for children based on an unlikely synthesis of academics and advertising, CTW produced a program that was an immediate success, not only with children but also with parents, teachers and critics. It was so successful that other countries were soon clamoring for their own versions - and CTW began to help produce foreign versions.
In joining international co-productions, CTW, initially, simply eliminated segments of the U.S. series which were specifically tied to American customs or speech, and dubbed the soundtrack of the remaining "multicultural" segments into the appropriate foreign language. In Latin America, for example, Plaza Sesamo went on the air in Spanish and in Brazil Villa Sesamo delighted Portuguese-speaking children. Later, however, as they recognised the need to tie the program to indigenous cultures, local producers began adding new material based on the Sesame Street model and today the program in some form is transmitted worldwide in 13 languages in 40 different countries.
For all the sprightliness and sheer fun of Sesame Street, however, it should not be forgotten that it is, primarily, a serious program with serious objectives. So it is not surprising that the idea of an adaptation for Arabic-speaking children was first broached not by broadcasters, or even by educators, but by the Kuwait-based Arab Fund For Economic and Social Development, in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Both bodies felt that, aside from its intrinsic educational and entertainment value, such a production could also have a significant impact on applied research in the social sciences in the Arab world, and in 1976 delegates to the fourth Arabian Gulf Television Conference not only agreed but assigned responsibility for development to an institution just formed: the Arabian Gulf States Joint Program Production Institution.
The proposed 130-program series was an ambitious project for the new production institution to cut its teeth on, but somehow during the following year, at the same time it was assembling a staff and setting up its own internal organization, the institution also managed to successfully conclude negotiations with CTW. In May 1977, for $2.5 million, it bought the Arab world rights to the Sesame Street concept for a nine-year period, as well as CTW's technical assistance, research and production advice and the services of a resident consulting producer during the production period in Kuwait. Under the agreement, CTW was also to provide 15 hours of cross-cultural material, such as animal or nature films, from the U.S. program, which would be selected by the institution as appropriate for Arab children and dubbed into Arabic.
In July, five key Simsim staff members journeyed to New York to review and select CTW material and observe Sesame Street curriculum research and production techniques. The five included executive producer Ibrahim al-Yusuf, also director of the institution, chief producer Faisal al-Yasiri, formerly of the Baghdad Theater and Cinema Institution, chief writer Yasir al-Malih, a Syrian, and two associate directors of research: Dr. Abdullah al-Dannan, associate director for linguistics, and Dr. Said Abdul Rahman, associate director for psychological and educational affairs.
Because of the regional variations in spoken Arabic, the program's research teams immediately had to face a crucial problem: how to present a program that would be equally clear to children in all parts of the Arab world.
To get an answer they divided the Arab world into four linguistic regions: Eastern Arabia including the Gulf region and Iraq, the Eastern Mediterranean area, the Nile Basin and North Africa. They then conducted 15 linguistic, psychological and sociological tests among three-to-six-year-old children in a representative city of each region: Kuwait, Amman, Cairo and Tunis. The results convinced them of the importance of using Modern Standard Arabic for the series, as well as helping to determine particular goals and objectives.
Research on that scale, obviously, is time consuming, but finally, in March 1978, some 40 specialists in linguistics, psychology, education and broadcasting agreed, at a five-day seminar, on objectives and priorities and, after seeing pilot programs, okayed the start of production.
Production too, of course, was an enormous undertaking. Dubbing of CTW material, for example, was done at sound studios in Baghdad, while various new animation segments were assigned to specialized design studios in Australia, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany, England and the U.S.A. Arab composers were commissioned to write some 120 original children's songs and an equal number of musical "bridges," and camera teams moved out across the Arab world from North Africa to the Gulf to shoot more than 500 two-to-three minute "live-action" films on location: footage of natural and historic landmarks, mosques, museums, folklore, handicrafts and industries with, in most cases, a child from the area narrating the sequence - "My father is a fisherman in Qatar," "I live in Damascus. My uncle is a glassblower."
Because of the size of the Arab world and the great differences in terrain, custom and history, these segments are as new to Arab children and adults as they would be to American children. As one director put it, "We are opening a window on the Arab world. Children will be able to see what other children look like. They'll see how farmers in different regions may do similar things in slightly different ways. They'll see how people in one area may have a different shade of skin or wear different clothes, but they are all Arabs. We have unity in diversity. The lesson is that people everywhere are basically the same."
In Kuwait, meanwhile, the Shari' 'Ishrin segments were being videotaped on a new set in the Kuwait television studios. Each day, between May and December during 1978, the producers would marshal their casts, run through the scripts and at 3 p.m., as soon as the children finished school, begin shooting. Because the younger children had to go to bed early, their segments were shot first, but for the others, filming, most evenings, continued until 11 p.m., the older children doing homework between scenes in a special room upstairs in the studio.
Compared to some programs the shooting schedule went slowly: roughly 10 minutes of final air time per day. The reason is that both an educational advisor and a linguistic supervisor were on the set at all times, authorized - and willing - to stop a take any time they felt that the point of a lesson was blurred or that a regional expression had inadvertently crept into an actor's speech.
During 1979 the producers assembled and edited the completed material, splicing Muppet, animation, filmed and Shari"Ishrin studio segments together into 130 precisely timed half-hour programs, and produced enough copies of the entire package to distribute to participating stations throughout the Arab world before October. Meanwhile the Joint Program Production Institution was readying a massive study to measure the impact of Open Sesame! Using research teams, the institution will test children who have seen Open Sesame! and compare their scores with those of control groups not exposed to the program. The results will not only enable the Institution to make revisions as the series is re-broadcast, but also to plan future programs.
What the Arab reaction will be is still unknown, of course, but when the Institution's pilot films were screened last year at an international conference on adaptations of Sesame Street held in Amsterdam, Open Sesame! won first place in an informal competition with six or more national versions. French television programers, furthermore, have expressed interest in buying rights to most of Simsim's films, especially those shot in North Africa, and Children's Television Workshop decided to buy a full hour of the documentary spots for use on the original Sesame Street in the U.S.A.
The Open Sesame! producers, meanwhile, were brimming with enthusiasm and predicting success. CTW's Duncan Kenworthy, for example, expects that when Open Sesame! opens, the series will affect acting styles throughout the Arab world. "The tradition of acting in the Arab world is definitely going to be influenced by Simsim" he says, "because the actors were themselves on the set. A spontaneity and naturalness comes across in the programs. The cast relates to the children as they would in real life, rather than as fellow actors." This, says al-Yusuf, is because the adult actors had to adjust to "the mood of the program" and the result, eventually, was a natural spontaneity.
Habib Hasan, a Kuwaiti graduate of New Mexico State University and a film director agrees. "You can't just direct children. You almost have to be one of them and learn to just play with them and show them what you want them to do."
As air time neared this month, actors, directors and producers, as well as the show's researchers and educators were, undeniably, feeling the tension, but if the experience of previous Sesame Street adaptations hold true, some 26 million Arabic-speaking pre-schoolers will soon be singing Simsim songs, making friends with Nu'man and Malsun, listening to Khalil and the other residents of Shari' 'Ishrin and, not incidentally, reading letters, identifying animals, vegetables, sounds, sizes, shapes and colors. They will also - along with a great many of their elders - be enjoying every single one of its 3,900 minutes.