Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 March 2000
Issue No. 472
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Open Sesame

By Yasmine El-Rashidi

It was the best night ever. It was fun and she laughed and laughed. Afaf is six years old, and she was all smiles at the premiere of Alam Simsim (Sesame's World).

"I love it more than Bakar," she says, jumping in her seat joyfully. "Because I love Khokha. She's nice and she's cute, and she makes me laugh when she's laughing."

In fact, just talking about Khokha makes Afaf laugh. And it does a lot of other children too, it seems.

Sesame Street itself was created in 1969, and the Egyptian launch marks its nineteenth adaptation. Khokha is the star character of the version produced exclusively for Egyptian TV, funded in part by a USAID grant (through a bilateral agreement with the Ministry of Education), and sponsored by Americana Group. A joint production between the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), New York -- the producers of the original Sesame Street -- and Karma Productions, Cairo, Alam Simsim has been tailored to suit Egyptian cultural and social values.

"Mrs Mubarak has always been a fan of Sesame Street," Steven Miller, vice-president of CTW International, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "So her office sent us a letter asking if it would be possible to make an Egyptian adaptation."

Developed in close consultation with educational advisors as well as child psychologists and experts from the Ministries of Education, Environment and Information, the programme's curriculum was developed with sensitivity to cultural specificities.

"The purpose is not to impose sensibilities of American culture on other countries, but to provide an adaptation reflective of social and cultural norms in the host country," Miller says. "In the case of Egypt, it's a country with such a rich history and culture, we wanted to make sure that Alam Simsim accurately reflected that."

Targeting the masses of three- to six-year-old Egyptian children who don't own satellite dishes, the programme's set shows an average Egyptian town and its average population; a town square with a small garden, carpentry workshops, grocery shops, and several old houses; a carpenter, a wonderful housewife and mother, and a helpful and knowledgeable librarian.

While building a love of learning and self-confidence in girls is the core of the programme, in this little world learning takes place in four broad areas: the Child's World, Social Relations, Symbolic Representation and Cognitive Organisation.

Boys   Khokha
The young viewers gaped in awe as star character Khokha made her grand appearance at the premiere of Alam Simsim
The Child's World is all about fostering self-esteem, confidence and self-worth -- addressing issues such as health and hygiene, the natural world and emotional expression. The second area introduces children to social institutions and ways of interacting with them, providing models for effective interaction with others, imparting skills such as cooperation, conflict resolution and encouraging mutual respect. Area three is about numbers and objects, aiming to prepare children for school by presenting basic literary, numeracy, science and arts education skills. Cognitive organisation, lastly, helps children understand and organise concepts in the world around them -- relational concepts (big, small), classification (by size or shape), and visual and auditory discrimination (matching images and sounds).

Scenes and snippets from everyday Egyptian life -- including washing one's hands before eating and brushing one's teeth before sleeping -- drive home the message and, more importantly, make it fun. One scene of a young boy and his father preparing their boat for a fishing trip on the Nile proved to be the young audience's favourite.

"I like the fishes," says seven-year-old Myrna Medhat. "They're colourful."

Everything is colourful, especially the purple Khokha, green Filfil and pink Nimnim -- three Muppets created by the Jim Henson Company (Muppet creators) especially for the production.

While the Muppet characters are of course designed to look cute and appealing, it is their personalities that received extra-special care.

Khokha is a four-year-old girl with a passion for learning. Curious and creative, she asks question after question -- and enjoys asking "why" as much as finding out the "what". Filfil is enthusiastic and easygoing. Always eager to help, he is the perfect friend, and has all the answers even though he does not always know the questions. The youngest one of the bunch, Nimnim, is gentle and patient. Wise beyond his years, Nimnim finds everything fresh and amazing -- especially when it comes to nature.

It seemed only natural that the young guests at the premiere would love the fuzzy creatures singing onscreen. But the night turned into a frenzy of fun when Khokha herself showed up at the door.

Ecstatic oohs and aahs echoed through the hall, and there was a mad, scrambling rush to get close to the giant creature, hold her hand, sit on her lap, cling to her leg and whisper in her ear.

It would be worrying to parents were this fad-to-be a fighting Ninja or a violent action-man. But Khokha is gentle and sweet, though confident and ambitious. And besides, studies have indicated that the programme is beneficial to children.

"It's been proven that children who watch Sesame Street spend more time reading and engaged in educational activities," says Miller.

So there is no need to agonise. Just sit back: after all, US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer told the guests that he and his wife used to do just that, and enjoy the show with their kids.

"I love it, I love it, I love it," smiles Afaf.

Her mother, or course, has no choice but to love it too.

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