Tough Pigs News Extra
July 30, 2002
Israeli-Palestinian Battles Intrude on Sesame Street
The New York Times -- July 30, 2002
by Julie Salamon
Reprinted entirely without permission
Ramallah. Gaza. Jerusalem. Hebron.
These are the familiar battlegrounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now another location has come under siege on the map of desperate contention, a place where the sky is always supposed to be sunny, the air meant to be sweet, and everything is supposed to be A-OK: Sesame Street.
Four years ago that children's television show began broadcasting an Israeli-Palestinian co-production, conceived in the afterglow of the 1993 Oslo accords. The collaboration [starring Haneen and Karim, above] produced 70 half-hour shows, each one containing Hebrew and Arabic segments that were broadcast to receptive audiences. But under a new co-production agreement, which now includes Jordanians, the project has run into difficulty.
The name Sesame Street has been changed to Sesame Stories because the concept of a place where people and puppets from those three groups can mingle freely has become untenable.
The original shows were built around the notion that Israeli and Palestinian children (as well as puppets) might become friends. Now, reflecting the somber mood in the Middle East, producers see their best hope as helping children to humanize their historic enemies through separate but parallel stories.
"We've realized that the goal of friendship was beyond realism, given where things are now," said Charlotte Cole, vice president of international research for the Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) in New York.
Other problems involve practicalities. Palestinians no longer go to Tel Aviv to work on the shows as before. The creative back and forth -- taking place in meetings near London and in New York and by telephone and e-mail messages -- has an eggshell fragility. The utterance of every Muppet is potentially inflammatory.
The participants cannot agree on when or even if the completed episodes should be broadcast. The Israelis want to show them as soon as they are finished, probably early next year. "We have to find a way to tackle the harsh reality with children, because the grown-ups aren't managing very well to resolve it," said Alona Abt, the Israeli executive producer.
But her Palestinian counterparts say it would be pointless to broadcast a series promoting tolerance until a peace agreement is signed. "Children in Palestine today will not appreciate, understand, absorb and react in a positive way to the goals we want to accomplish," said Daoud Kuttab, the Palestinian executive producer, whose studio at the public television station in Ramallah, the West Bank town, was damaged by Israeli soldiers. "You're telling them to be tolerant to Israelis when Israeli tanks are outside their homes."
Yet the production process has kept going, with a sometimes surreal mixture of good will and apprehension. "In the current climate we can only try to humanize and demystify," Dr. Cole said, "to see that other people play in a playground or that they enjoy being with their grandparents. Once you have that level of humanity it's so much harder to hate."
The project has eight underwriters, all American except for the European Union and the Canadian Kahanoff Foundation, and they have raised $6 million of the $7 million needed to complete 26 shows from each of the three partners. The lead donor is the Charles H. Revson Foundation.
Travel logistics have become harrowing since Sept. 11 for many of the participants, making them anxious about flying or leaving home. They are constantly on the telephone and sending e-mail messages to discuss plot lines and characters. Recently writers and producers from Israel, Jordan and Palestine gathered at the Sesame Workshop offices in Manhattan to brainstorm. At one face-to-face meeting there, people from the different teams were laughing at one another's jokes during a conference.
During a lunch break, the supervising producer from Sesame Workshop, nodded toward two Israelis chatting amiably with a Jordanian writer. "This is a roomful of people who desperately want their children to have a different experience," she said. "We could all walk away from this, but then what hope is there?"
Quixotic? Undeniably, especially in a part of the world where many people consider finding humanity in one's enemies a traitorous idea. But, Dr. Cole asked: "What's the alternative? To risk nothing?"
Even the first Israeli-Palestinian venture, begun in more hopeful times, required much negotiating, most significantly about the circumstances under which Kipi and Dafi, an Israeli porcupine and monster respectively, would meet Karim and Haneen, a Palestinian rooster and monster. The Israeli puppets could not simply appear in Palestinian territory -- too reminiscient of Israeli settlers. They had to be invited.
Then as now, the participants had practical as well as idealistic motives. For the Palestinians, whose television industry is quite new, the Sesame shows have offered an unusual opportunity to learn animation, puppetry and other production skills from the experts at Sesame Workshop. (The Israelis have had their own Hebrew-language version of Sesame Street -- Rechov Sumsum -- since 1982.)
But idealism is an undeniable factor. In an e-mail interview from Amman, Khaled Haddad, the Jordanian executive producer, said he became involved in the current project because he and his wife were expecting a baby. "I wanted to do something to contribute to peace in this region," he wrote.
Shari Rosenfeld, project director from Sesame Workshop in New York, is an American who has lived in Israel. During the height of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 1991, while driving in East Jerusalem, she and her 18-month-old son were hit by stones. The boy was covered in blood and broken glass. For Ms Rosenfeld, who has worked on both co-productions, the project began as a way to overcome what she calls her "own stereotypes."
In 1996 she moved with her family to Israel, where she worked with Palestinians on educational materials related to the first joint production. Despite violence in the Middle East, the initial hopefulness carried them through. The shows, called Rechov Sumsum/Shara'a Simsim, which are still being broadcast in Israel, were popular with Israeli and Palestinian children. Research indicated that children who watched them had softened initially hostile attitudes toward the other group, though more significantly among the Israelis.
Yet is was clear after the current intifada began, in September 2000, that the old model was not going to work. There could be no neutral street on which Israeli and Palestinian puppets would find themselves.
In the Sesame Stories format, each of the three participants is producing three or four animated stories meant to illustrate literature and folklore from the region while also carrying messages of respect and understanding. These stories, 13 in all, would be mixed into the separate shows (with the usual Sesame Street staples like literacy and numbers) to be shown on Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian stations. None of the animated stories are likely to deal with political issues head on.
In one Palestinian story, "The Rose," a girl in a refugee camp finds a discarded can on the street and is inspired to plant something in it. Despite naysayers, who tell her you can't grow something in a refugee camp, she waters and nurtures the plant, inspiring others to gather discarded materials to plant a garden.
At a production meeting, Israelis objected, not to the story's themes of child empowerment and recycling, but to the image of a child picking up a can on the street. "Our children have been taught not to pick up stray objects," one of them explained. "It could be a bomb." After brainstorming with Palestinian and Jordanian partners, the story was changed to make the container a clear water bottle and to show a child taping the rough edges with the help of an adult.
Jordanians objected to an Israeli story that featured an owl as a protagonist because, they said, in Arab cultures, owls are bad luck.
"I don't think we have any illusions that this project is going to bring peace to the region," Ms Rosenfeld, who now lives in New York, said in an interview. "Here we are, the day after the worst suicide bombing in Jerusalem and we have our Israeli team here, our Jordanian team arriving tomorrow, a Palestinian writer coming on Saturday. Do they know if this project will make a difference? They don't know. But they're still engaged."
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