Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’

Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’
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Ammar Sabban, Gargoor’s puppeteer, speaking to children at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.(Photographs: Bidaya Media)
Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’
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The UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan paid a visit to the Iftah Ya Simsim studio.
Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’
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The muppets are loved by children the world over.
Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’
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Omar Hussain, one of YouTube’s Creators of Change ambassadors, with Elmo and Gargoor.
Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’
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Yemeni-Emirati singer Balqees Fathi (center) has worked with the show to implement change in the region.
Updated 15 January 2018

Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’

Open Sesame! Behind closed doors at children’s show ‘Iftah Ya Simsim’

ABU DHABI: Iftah Ya Simsim, the first international co-production of the US children’s television series Sesame Street created in the Arab world, is much-loved across the Middle East and recently opened its doors to Arab News for an exclusive, muppet-filled tour of the studio in Abu Dhabi.
The show premiered in Kuwait in 1979 and was broadcast in 22 Arabic-speaking countries before it went on a hiatus in 1990. However, 25 years later, it came back with a bang and is now on air with a new cast and great content suited to this day and age.
Walking into the show’s headquarters at the Bidaya Media office in Abu Dhabi is nostalgic to say the least. Gargoor, the Arabic-speaking version of Grover, and Ka’ki, the Cookie Monster, greeted my daughter and I in what was a wonderful and memorable experience.
The show just completed its second season, with the third set to air in September of this year with a new concept and new projects to look forward to. The award-winning television series targets the educational, social and language needs of children aged three to eight in the Middle East and North Africa region. In December, the producers of Iftah Ya Simsim joined forces with YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative, a global effort to amplify the voices of role models on YouTube. The news comes after the tremendous effort made by the team to promote the importance of positive behavior among children and tackle issues that they face on a day-to-day basis.
One of the show’s puppeteers, Ammar Sabban, spoke to Arab News about the intricacies of conveying a message to such a young audience.
“Each team behind the show plays a major role in providing content. It’s not difficult to convey an idea through fun and games, the difficulty lies in the way you convey it to grab the attention of viewers. As a puppeteer, I have to not only perfect the entertaining part, but also make sure that my Arabic is pronounced correctly, create comedy sketches, ensure the message is clear to cater to the younger audience, the behavioral lesson is relayed properly and so on and so forth,” he said.
“Growing up watching The Muppets and Sesame Street religiously gave me the advantage that I have now. The partnership with YouTube’s Creators of Change will help tackle negative, counter-productive and simply bad content on YouTube, especially as kids are more informed nowadays than ever. Everyone must play their part well, a responsibility I’m proud to take head on to make sure that this next generation turns more toward making a positive impact on the world rather than settling for mediocre,” he added.
Season three’s more than 50 episodes will feature the region’s top YouTube content creators. Iftah Ya Simsim creators will produce additional episodes that will be exclusively available on YouTube. The upcoming season’s theme will focus on respect, resilience and relationships — themes that are designed to encourage children’s social-emotional development by teaching them about self-esteem, embracing their identity and being positive, proactive members of society.
“We, as content creators ourselves, learn something new every day while working here. The same values that we grew up with watching Iftah Ya Simsim or Sesame Street are implemented today, only more evolved and more entertaining. We learn from some of the shortcomings of the previous seasons and strive to provide better content every time,” Sabban said.
Iftah Ya Simsim’s aim is to make a difference in children’s lives everywhere by encouraging them to learn as they play. Earlier in 2017, Sesame Street, in cooperation with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), requested that Sabban accompany them with his puppets on a visit to the Zaatari camp in Jordan to visit Syrian refugees. The idea behind such an initiative is to help Syrian children who have been displaced by the ongoing Syrian war and to give them a sense of normalcy through education.
The two organizations are developing a holistic early childhood learning and development program featuring the Sesame Street muppets. The program’s outreach initiative will be distributed through schools, community centers, social protection programs and more to help parents and caregivers support their children’s early learning and development.
“The idea behind the visit to the Syrian refugee camp by the Sesame Workshop and IRC is two-fold. One is to provide children with entertainment and the second, more importantly, is to educate them. Early childhood education in refugee camps is nonexistent. Part of the effort is to provide good, high-level early childhood education to displaced children and provide them with the support they need to learn, grow and thrive,” said Sabban.
Their effort has succeeded in securing a five-year, $100 million grant from the US-based MacArthur Foundation to educate the displaced children of the Middle East. This grant will help Sesame Workshop — along with its localized versions around the world, including Iftah Ya Simsim — to build child development centers in the region, provide them with storybooks, home visits by caregivers and more.
The team in Abu Dhabi is headed by Cairo Arafat, managing director of Bidaya Media, who believes “in the power of starting early and starting right.” It is incredibly important to provide children with suitable viewing to ensure healthy childhood development and Iftah Ya Simsim's snappy, 20-minute episodes will captivate children and go a long way in teaching them important life lessons.