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>Israel Faxx
>JN Oct. 24, 1997, Vol. 5, No. 195

Peace Possible on Palestinian-Israeli Sesame Street

By Patricia Golan (VOA-Jerusalem)

Sesame Street is the longest-running children's television program in the world. The educational TV show is seen in 130 countries. But there has never been a "Sesame Street" production like the one now being created in studios in Tel Aviv. Coming at a low point in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, a joint production of the show is headed into new territory -- the first co-production between two past enemies who are still in a state of conflict.

The show is intended to promote tolerance and respect for others while steering clear of politics, but the producers soon realized that in the Middle East, everything is political.

A scene on an imaginary street with a group of imaginary characters -- a mostly-Muppet cast with a sprinkling of humans to help guide the way. Daffy, a purple Hebrew-speaking Muppet with blue pigtails, is frightened by a sudden power failure. Her friends -- Kareem the Palestinian Muppet rooster; Kippy, the Israeli giant porcupine, and Amal the Arab-Israeli doctor -- have just left and are on their way home. But they come back to help her overcome her fears.

The overall emphasis of this production is on mutual respect and tolerance -- not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but in the Israeli-produced parts, between Jews and Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and between secular and religious Jews. The messages come, of course, in child-size packages.

Although the Palestinians and Israelis are independently producing their own segments in Arabic and Hebrew, they have coordinated their productions and work together on those scenes in which the Israeli and Palestinian characters meet. Just how -- and where -- they would meet was the subject of many heated deliberations.

Lewis Bernstein is executive producer of the series for children's television workshop in New York, the creators of Sesame Street.

"Originally, we thought there would be three different studio locations -- an Israeli street, a Palestinian street, and a neutral setting, a park in which Israeli and Palestinian puppets and children could meet by chance, because children sometimes do meet in parks. They don't necessarily play with each other, but they're near each other.

"The Israelis thought this was a good idea, CTW thought it was a good idea, and the Palestinians said, uh,uh, there's no such thing as neutral territory, and that's part of the political issue of the day. And we said well look, this is a television production for kids, give us a break, we think that it would be helpful from a television perspective to have an area that's not defined.

"And after a great deal of debate, we realized that it didn't make that much sense to the Palestinians, but what made sense was that Israeli characters and children could visit the Palestinian street and Palestinian children and characters and children could visit the Israeli street, and that's how we resolved it."

Daoud Kuttab is executive producer of the Palestinian team. "We agreed from day one that neither side has the veto power over the scripts of the other side. We also agreed to be sensitive, to listen to the other side, to listen to their problems, and correct anything that hurt their sensitivities, but in the end, neither side had the veto over the other side's scripts.

"Our principle, that we basically based the whole project on, was that we insisted that Palestinians be represented as sovereign, proud people, and Palestinian localities and locations be presented as such and that Israelis coming to visit the Palestinian street would be guests to the Palestinians, and not intruders, or people just showing up without a reason. So that while television is obviously a fiction and not reality, we felt for it to be believable and authentic and be credible to children it couldn't be too far away from reality."

In one of the first "cross-over" segments, Kippy, the giant Israeli Porcupine gives a big "hello" to Haneen, a furry orange Palestinian Muppet with a mop of pink hair. "Shalom!" says Kippy. Haneen shrinks back in fear. But she is coaxed back in Arabic by two humans -- Amal the Arab-Israeli doctor, and Adel, her Palestinian cousin. These two human characters -- who both speak Arabic and Hebrew -- provide the language bridge between the Muppets. Many of the live-action scenes for the series shot outside the studio are taken directly from real-life experiences of real-life children. In both Arabic and Hebrew, these four-minute segments are stories young children can identify with.

Rehov Sumsum, Shara'a Susum, the first ever co-production between two past enemies who are still in a state of conflict is scheduled to air early next year. It will be broadcast on Israeli television, which can be received in Palestinian areas as well.



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