Afghanistan’s Sesame Street gets proud brother Mup­pet

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Zeerak the be­spec­ta­cled or­ange mup­pet is the lat­est in­no­va­tion from Sesame Street in Afghanistan: a chil­dren's TV char­ac­ter who reveres his ed­u­cated older sis­ter, brought on to screens to show a new gen­er­a­tion that a woman's place is be­yond the home. Pro­duc­ers are bet­ting the new char­ac­ter-a four-year-old boy dressed in a tra­di­tional shal­war kameez and a waist­coast em­broi­dered in Afghan na­tional col­ors will in­spire mil­lions of chil­dren-and their par­ents-to see the value in ed­u­ca­tion. Zeerak's big sis­ter Zari, in­tro­duced last year with great fan­fare as the first Afghan mup­pet to join in­ter­na­tion­ally cher­ished char­ac­ters such as Big Bird and Elmo, has al­ready proved a suc­cess on the lo­cal ver­sion of Sesame Street, known as 'Baghch-e-Sim­sim'.

Mas­sood San­jer, head of Tolo TV which airs the show, be­lieves in­tro­duc­ing a boy, who adores and wants to em­u­late his school-go­ing, older sib­ling, will "in­di­rectly teach the kids to love their sis­ters" in a con­ser­va­tive, gen­der-seg­re­gated na­tion which tra­di­tion­ally has in­vested more in its sons. Baghch-e-Sim­sim is the only pro­gram on Afghan tele­vi­sion ded­i­cated to chil­dren and has a re­mark­able reach-a re­cent sur­vey showed some 80 per­cent of chil­dren and par­ents with ac­cess to tele­vi­sion watch the show.

San­jer be­lieves the show can, from an early age, un­der­line the im­por­tance of ed­u­cated women in Afghan so­ci­ety, but also show boys that a good ed­u­ca­tion ben­e­fits ev­ery­one. "Peo­ple-kids and par­ents, who have ac­cess to TV are watch­ing and know the brand of the char­ac­ter. So it is a very good sign that peo­ple love to learn and it is great to use me­dia as an ed­u­ca­tion tool for kids," he told AFP.That mes­sage still needs to be ham­mered home in many parts of Afghanistan nearly 16 years af­ter the end of the Tal­iban's re­pres­sive regime. A re­port pub­lished last year by the Na­tional Risk and Vul­ner­a­bil­ity As­sess­ment Cen­ter showed that just 66 per­cent of boys and 37 per­cent of girls aged 15-24 can read and write, while barely 45.5 per­cent of Afghans at­tend pri­mary school, and 27 per­cent sec­ondary school.

Driv­ing so­cial change

The broad­caster is uti­liz­ing ev­ery­thing it can to help change at­ti­tudes -- the new mup­pet Zeerak's name means 'smart' in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two of­fi­cial lan­guages. And even his trendy, black-rimmed glasses were cho­sen for a rea­son.

Pro­ducer Wa­jiha Saidy ex­plains that wear­ing spec­ta­cles is seen as shame­ful for Afghan young­sters, so they wanted to ad­dress the is­sue and show it to be nor­mal. Across its global it­er­a­tions, Sesame Street has made a point of in­clu­siv­ity with its cast. Ear­lier this year the Amer­i­can ver­sion de­buted a char­ac­ter with autism, while in South Africa the pro­gram fea­tures a HIV-pos­i­tive mup­pet.

Last week it courted con­tro­versy in the US af­ter tweet­ing a group im­age of some of its stars to re­flect a rain­bow in sup­port of 'LGBT Pride Month'. "Sesame Street is proud to sup­port fam­i­lies of all shapes, sizes, and col­ors," the of­fi­cial ac­count said.

In Afghanistan, the show's at­ten­tion to equal­ity ex­tends to its cast­ing, with two tal­ented fe­male pup­peteers, Sima and Man­sour, lend­ing their voices to Zari and Zeerak. Zari is by far the fa­vorite char­ac­ter on the show in Afghanistan, ac­cord­ing to the study com­mis­sioned by Tolo which sur­veyed some 1,500 chil­dren and their par­ents. Just 60 per­cent of Afghanistan has ac­cess to tele­vi­sion, but Baghch-e-Sim­sim is also broad­cast on the ra­dio across 44 FM sta­tions, says An­war Jamilli, who runs the au­dio pro­grams. The pro­duc­ers also or­ga­nize small mo­bile theatres that travel to kinder­gartens in ru­ral ar­eas, with Jamilli es­ti­mat­ing that they reached nearly 20,000 chil­dren last year. He says the show's fo­cus on friend­ship and shar­ing brings a dose of hap­pi­ness to chil­dren liv­ing with the ever-present threat of vi­o­lence. "This is very new for Afghan chil­dren", he says. — AFP

Afghan pup­peteers Seema Sul­tani (left) and Man­soora Shirzad hold Sesame Street Mup­pets 'Zeerak' and 'Zari' as they meet chil­dren af­ter a record­ing at a tele­vi­sion stu­dio in Kabul.— AFP pho­tos

Afghan pup­peteers Raziya Nazaria (left) and Man­soora Shirzad dress Sesame Street Mup­pets 'Zeerak' (sec­ond left) and 'Zari' ahead of record­ing at a tele­vi­sion stu­dio in Kabul.

Afghan chil­dren meet Sesame street Mup­pet 'Zari' af­ter a record­ing at a tele­vi­sion stu­dio in Kabul.

Afghan pup­peteers Seema Sul­tani (right) holds new Sesame Street Mup­pet 'Zeerak' as she per­forms with col­league Man­soora Shirzad, hold­ing Mup­pet 'Zari', dur­ing a record­ing at a tele­vi­sion stu­dio in Kabul.

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