11 April 2011

Salaam Pakistani Sesame Street?

The U.S. Agency for International Development has allocated $20 Million to bring an Urdu edition of Sesame Street to Pakistan. It is hoped that Sesame Street’s fun style of learning basic words and numbers can counteract the marked decline of Pakistan’s educational system, which pushes many Urdu urchins into extremist Wahabbist madrassas.  As Faizaan Peerazza, the local producer who won the grant in conjunction with the Sesame Workshop, put it "The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning, and inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated."

The Pakistani edition of Sesame Street will not transplant 123 Sesame Street to South Asia with Urdu subtitles.  The set will depict a lively Pakistan village with a dhaba, with simple homes and residents hanging out on the balconies.  The show’s star will not be a Cookie Monster or a Big Bird but a muppet of a six year old girl with flowers in her pigtailed hair and a curiosity of the world. The Pakistani production will introduce seven new characters but there will be appearances by two popular American muppets.  Alas, the transplants will be Children’s Television Workshop inspired muppets.  The Muppet Show’s Miss Piggy certainly would have made her mark on the show.  It’s too bad that it won’t be Bert and Ernie, but instead Tickle Me Elmo.

From an Occidental ivory tower prism, Pakistani Sesame Street sounds like a great idea.  For a relatively small foreign aid earmark, education can be encouraged to help eradicate economic stagnation, a strong female lead can be a social vanguard and it can supplement values which are friendly to America with a local veneer.

The show will not be limited to reading, writing, arithmetic but also Islamic principles.  The producers proudly proclaim:

The meaning of jihad (struggle) can be told with lots of colors and a little bird and a flower. No one needs to be a villain. This is what we try to put into the minds of children: the biggest jihad begins when you look into your own self.
The left's commentary (sic) on inculcating culture is that governmental funds should not be used to teach religious principles, despite demonstrating a more benign interpretation of the Islamic principle of jihad.

Unfortunately, ideas are implemented in the real world not in academia. While Pakistani Sesame Street will be broadcast on national PTV during its four year run, will it reach the rural audiences that desperately need the programming?  The program will produce 78 episodes in Urdu along with another 56 shows in regional languages, it will spawn a radio show, mobile TV vans and a traveling Muppet road show doing 600 performances. So it might reach the targeted audiences in some form.

This may be a more positive appearance of muppets than their prior appearances in the region.  The “Evil Bert” image which was a pop culture joke in America at the turn of the Millennium were actually used in pro-Osama bin-Laden demonstrations in the region after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Sometimes exposing oppressed populations to ideas of freedom and individualism can do more than arms could ever accomplish.  Pope John Paul II’s visit to his native Poland with a message of “Be not afraid” and affirming the worth of individuals so inspired the long oppressed people that it has been called “Nine Days That Changed The World”.  It has been postulated that the Voice of America’s  musical broadcasts of Rock and Roll was instrumental in "Rockin' The Wall" down.

While it seems dubious that a South Asian Sesame Street will be a panacea for Pakistan’s problems with education, it does offer some bang for the buck.  Children’s programming in the Dar-al-Islam could use some positive messages, especially considering Palestinian Authority pewee programming which encourages the intifada and suicide bombing.

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