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The Legacy Of An Israeli-Palestinian 'Sesame Street'

Jun 26, 2018
Originally published on June 26, 2018 8:09 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About 20 years ago, the Muppets inserted themselves in the Mideast conflict. A "Sesame Street" program was adapted for Israeli and Palestinian children to help foster peace. One of the creators of the show has written a book about it with some important takeaways. Though the production itself did not survive much longer than so many peace plans, its legacy carries on, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET THEME")

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The surprise offer came from "Sesame Street" New York in the early 1990s - produce a program for children that brings Israelis and Palestinian kids together. In his new book "Sesame Street, Palestine," journalist Daoud Kuttab, the head of a television production company, writes that at first he said, no thanks. It was too politically risky. Then his Palestinian staff said, are you crazy?

DAOUD KUTTAB: Yes. My colleagues, they said, this is a chance in a lifetime to work with "Sesame Street." And as a result, we came up with the idea of creating a separate Palestinian kind of "Sesame Street." This way, we took advantage of the fact that money was available to do this big program.

AMOS: Shari Rosenfeld, part of the New York Sesame team, said the idea was to bring new images to children in both communities.

SHARI ROSENFELD: Kids who were so used to seeing whether it was soldiers or settlers or terrorists or whatever their media diet was serving up - that maybe there was an opportunity to use the power of "Sesame Street" to kind of interject another version of reality.

AMOS: At the time, reality was already changing because of real-world events. The Oslo peace accords had been signed a year earlier. For Kuttab, maybe there was an opportunity for a groundbreaking program.

KUTTAB: I was aware that we were starting or working on unchartered territory. I knew that Sesame had not done that kind of a search for solving conflict.

AMOS: You might call it the two-street solution - separate versions, one in Hebrew, one in Arabic. And there would also be crossover segments, explains Kuttab.

KUTTAB: Israeli Muppets meet Palestinian Muppets, and they kind of find some kind of a common ground between them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RECHOV SUMSUM/SHARA'A SIMSIM")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #1: Hey, Elmo.

AMOS: The program first aired on April 1, 1997, with original Muppets created for Palestinian children - Haneen, a young, energetic orange monster, and Kareem, a green rooster. He would teach children the importance of showing up on time, as Kuttab wrote in his book.

KUTTAB: I wanted kind of a character to be extremely crazy about being on time. Everything had to be on time. We wanted to be funny, but also, we wanted to deal with some of our own kind of weaknesses.

AMOS: And studies proved the show had impact, he says.

KUTTAB: I think what we can take credit for is that we tried to teach children respecting the other. I think that to me is the most important goal that we accomplished.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RECHOV SUMSUM/SHARA'A SIMSIM")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Singing in foreign language).

AMOS: A hopeful political landscape helped usher in the program. Eventually politics ended its production, says Kuttab. The Oslo peace accords fell apart. A spiral of violence further divided Israelis and Palestinians. In 2012, the U.S. Congress cut off funding for the Palestinian production.

KUTTAB: They shut us down, and they ended the USAID grant. Basically, it ended there.

AMOS: But it wasn't the end for Shari Rosenfeld and the Sesame team. This was Sesame's first attempt to create a program for children in conflict. The lessons would lead to many more productions.

ROSENFELD: It was the first co-production that I personally worked on. And I then went on to work in Northern Ireland and in Kosovo and adopting and adapting a lot of what we learned.

AMOS: The new "Sesame Street" production is the most ambitious yet to reach more than 9 million children aimed at refugees in the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (As herself) Well, Elmo, Laila and a bunch of children just like her were forced to leave their homes and schools because it just wasn't safe anymore.

RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) You know, Elmo would never want to leave Sesame Street.

GOLDBERG: (As herself) I know.

AMOS: Rosenfeld leads the team to create programs that addresses trauma in refugee children and their parents.

ROSENFELD: Kids need that positive, nurturing adult-child interaction, and they're not getting it. Part of what we're looking to restore is that parent-child interaction as well as giving children the resilience that's going to carry them through.

AMOS: It's a long-term project for the displaced in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria - children likely to remain refugees for a decade or more. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.