Published October 31, 2011
LAHORE, Pakistan – Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are nowhere in sight. But there's Elmo. And new creatures too, like Baily, a kindly donkey who loves to sing, and Haseen O Jameel, a vain crocodile who lives at the bottom of a well.
The TV show has a new cast of local characters led by a vivacious 6-year-old girl named Rani who loves cricket and traditional Pakistani music. Her sidekick, Munna, is a 5-year-old boy obsessed with numbers and banging away on Pakistani bongo drums, or tabla.
The U.S. is bankrolling the initiative with $20 million, hoping it will improve education in a country where one-third of primary school-age children are not in class. Washington also hopes the program will increase tolerance at a time when the influence of radical views is growing.
"One of the key goals of the show in Pakistan is to increase tolerance toward groups like women and ethnic minorities," said Larry Dolan, who was the head education officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Pakistan until very recently.
The show, which started filming last week and will air at the end of November, was jointly developed by Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American series, and Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, a group in the Pakistani city of Lahore that has been staging puppet shows for more than three decades.
The American version of Sesame Street first aired in 1969, and the U.S. government has worked with the company since then to produce shows in about 20 foreign countries, including Muslim nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Perhaps nowhere else are the stakes as high as in Pakistan. The U.S. is worried that growing radicalization could one day destabilize the nuclear-armed country. Washington has committed to spend $7.5 billion in civilian aid in Pakistan over five years, despite accusations that the country is aiding insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan.
Rani, the new program's star, sports pigtails and a blue and white school uniform. Her innate curiosity is exemplified by the magnifying glass she often carries and her endless stream of questions. She is captain of the school cricket team and plays the harmonium, an instrument used to perform Qawwali music.
The creators chose Rani as the lead character to emphasize the importance of sending girls to school, something that doesn't often happen in Pakistan's conservative, male-dominated society, said Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer of Rafi Peer and one of several family members who run the organization.
"It makes the girl stand equally with the boy, which is very clear," said Peerzada.
Rani and Munna are joined by Baily the donkey, Haseen O Jameel the crocodile, and Baaji, a spirited woman who serves as a mother figure for the others.
Elmo, the lovable, red, child monster, is the only traditional Sesame Street character on the show, which is called Sim Sim Hamara, or Our Sim Sim.
The action centers around a mock-up of a Pakistani town, complete with houses, a school and Baaji's dhaba, a small shop and restaurant found in many places in the country. The town also includes a large Banyan tree, known as the wisdom tree in South Asia, in the shade of which the children often play.
Given the intense ethnic and regional divisions within Pakistan, the creators tried to build a set that was recognizable to Pakistani children but did not stand out as being from one part of the country. For similar reasons, the skin colors of the puppets range from very light brown to orange.
A total of 78 episodes will be aired in Pakistan's national language, Urdu, over the next three years, as well as 13 in each of the four main regional languages, Baluchi, Pashtu, Punjabi and Sindhi. The shows will appear on Pakistan state television, and the producers hope they will reach 3 million children, 1 million of whom are out of school.
They also plan radio programs and 600 live puppet performances they hope will reach millions more kids and parents.
Each episode will be based around a word and a number, like the U.S. version, and will tackle general themes like friendship, respect and valuing diversity. This last theme is particularly important in Pakistan, where Islamist extremists often target minority religious sects and others who disagree with their views.
"There are many situations where we coexist peacefully, and that's what we want to focus on," said Imraan Peerzada, the show's head writer.
The program will feature holidays celebrated by Muslims, Christians and Hindus in an attempt to get children to respect the traditions of different religious groups in Pakistan, said Peerzada.
American officials stressed they were not involved in creating content for the show. The U.S. is extremely unpopular in Pakistan, and suspicions run high about American manipulation in the country.
The creators realize that there is some risk of militant backlash. Events held by Rafi Peer have been attacked several times in the past, including a world arts festival in 2008 that was hit by three small bomb blasts that wounded at least half a dozen people.
"We can't just stop because of this fear," said Faizaan Peerzada.