Birthday party on the street where every Arab child grew up

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Ammar Sabban, above, at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and below, with his cast of characters. (Supplied)
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Updated 09 February 2019

Birthday party on the street where every Arab child grew up

  • Fans of Sesame Street include a young Saudi who is now captain puppeteer on Iftah Ya Simsim

DUBAI: As “Sesame Street” celebrates its 50th anniversary, many Arabs are looking back on the influence that the show had on them throughout their childhood, particularly the Arabic version, “Iftah Ya Simsim,” which began 40 years ago.
“I grew up watching both Sesame Street and Iftah Ya Simsim,” said Ammar Sabban, a 40-year-old Saudi who spent his first three years in the US. “I was mesmerized by how these characters functioned and I was intrigued by their mechanism. I always wanted to be a part of that world and try to see it for myself.”
His curiosity was so strong that it drew the former architect toward being a part of the Arabic show. As a result, two years ago Sabban started giving life to Cookie Monster, Grover, Burt and the Count as captain puppeteer, while assuming the role of creative content director at Bidaya Media.
“I’m living out my childhood dream,” he said. “Being part of the team and creating it came full circle because I spent most of my time watching these cartoons. I feel I am helping to create the same things I used to watch for younger generations.”
It all began in the US in 1969, when colorful muppets were created to teach young children in a playful manner, while preparing them for school. Ten years later, in 1979, “Iftah Ya Simsim” was born as the Arabic version of the show, which aired in 22 Arabic-speaking countries. Although it was pulled off the air in 1990 after the outbreak of the Gulf War, its new series started in September 2015, with the present show led by the Abu Dhabi Education Council, Twofour54, the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States and Bidaya Media.
“Iftah Ya Simsim was a really exciting part of my day when I was child,” said Ruba Awni, a 31-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Jordan. “I felt like I was going to another place where fun and imagination would run free. I always thought that they lived in a real neighborhood nearby.” Awni said Anis and Badr — also known as Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street” — were her favorite characters. “I loved them then and I still love them today,” she said. “I remember when my dad would keep telling me stories about them, and how Anis was the smart one and Badr was the silly one. I even watched all the new episodes with my children — it’s amazing to watch it in HD, but the older version will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, “Sesame Street” has had a massive impact on children and adults alike.
Since its comeback in the Middle East, the show has now entered its third season. For Sabban, “Iftah Ya Simsim” is all about fun learning — a crucial point for him, as he grew up loathing school. “I still hate school,” he joked. “But at the same time, I love learning, and these shows educated and entertained me simultaneously. I found out about the entertainment aspect first, then the educational part without knowing.”
“I love to teach and analyze but not in the traditional way,” he said. “I tried to do it, and I wasn’t happy with it, so I felt that this is maybe my way. Being able to write and perform comedy, and educate at the same time is a trifecta.”
Over the years, he was able to share his passion for the show with his three children. “I used to sit and watch shows with them, and do the voices,” he said. “But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would actually do it. They know the characters. They like the sense of humor, but they don’t watch it as much now because they have reached their teenage years.”
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A trailer of Iftah Ya Simsim’s Season 3, which features Sheikh Abdulla bin Mohamed Al-Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health of Abu Dhabi.

At the studio, Sabban and his team are working toward also making the show appealing to parents. “It’s part of why Sesame Street survived for 50 years, because the writing appealed to both children and adults, and the jokes and situations are timeless. We have very few children’s shows on TV in the Arab world that are appealing to parents at the same time, so that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
For Hala Khalaf, a 38-year-old Jordanian who grew up in Kuwait, “Iftah Ya Simsim” evokes feelings from her childhood; she recalls standing in her crib at the sound of the theme song. “I remember how much my brother and I used to look forward to it and watch it religiously,” she said. “Every one of the characters feels like an old friend — you can’t grow up in Kuwait in the 1980s without being a huge fan..”
When the show returned a few years ago, she watched the first episode with her daughter. “I get a lump in my throat when I hear the theme song because it’s associated with so many good childhood memories,” she said. “It’s a song ingrained in my brain more than any other, and I’m hoping exposure to the show will improve my children’s Arabic.”
Growing up, Sami Ha Zen, a 32-year-old Indian, was allowed to watch one hour of TV a day, into which he would manage to fit “Iftah Ya Simsim.”
“I was an avid watcher of the show and it shaped my behavior a lot,” said Zen, who grew up in Sharjah. “I loved the playfulness and adults around me were too serious to play with. I was jealous of the kids in the show and wanted to be part of it. Muppets were the wonder I couldn’t understand.”
Today, his children opt to watch “Sesame Street” in English. “During my childhood, we had Channel 33, the only English one in Dubai,” he said. “So we had to embrace Arabic and that’s how I learnt. My parents often translated what was happening in the show, which helped me to learn better.”
Fifty years on, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization behind “Sesame Street,” has announced a year-long anniversary celebration. Throughout 2019, it will bring people together around the lessons of “Sesame Street” — that everyone is equally worthy of respect, opportunity and happiness.
“This is a remarkable milestone for kids, for education and for television,” said Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s chief executive officer. “Sesame Street has now brought the life-changing benefits of early learning to children around the globe for 50 years. Our mission is to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder knows no geographic boundaries. We’re everywhere families are, and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”
Part of the celebration will include a 50th television season, which focuses on empowering children to take safe risks and learn from their mistakes, as well as a US road trip where “Sesame Street” characters host community events in 10 cities.
The Sesame Street in Communities initiative will tackle issues such as substance abuse and foster care to support vulnerable children and families, while the launch of a new local version of “Sesame Street” was created for displaced Syrian families and their new neighbors in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as part of a large-scale early childhood intervention in the region.
A November prime-time special will feature new takes on classic segments and visits from “Sesame Street” icons. “We’re often asked what Sesame Street’s legacy will be,” Cooney said. “To me, a legacy is when something’s over … and this isn’t over.”
For Morrisett, “Sesame Street” had a profound impact on children’s media, setting a template that the industry has followed for generations. “Fifty years later, Sesame Workshop continues to deliver on its mission every day, across multiple platforms, on six continents. We started as an experiment — and it worked.”


‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

Updated 19 June 2019

‘Hypocrite’ Rouhani rejects war as Iran’s drones target Saudi civilians

  • Tehran regime has fanned sectarian flames in region for four decades, analyst tells Arab News
  • IRGC chief says Iranian missiles capable of hitting "carriers in the sea" with great precision

JEDDAH: Iran “will not wage war against any nation,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday — hours after two drones launched by Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen targeted civilians in southern Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani's statement sounded a note of restraint after the United States announced more troop deployments to the Middle East.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. “Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

But he was also contradicted by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Gen. Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.

“These missiles can hit, with great precision, carriers in the sea ... they are domestically produced and are difficult to intercept and hit with other missiles,” Salami said.

He said Iran's ballistic missile technology had changed the balance of power in the Middle East.


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Before both men spoke, Saudi air defenses intercepted and shot down two Houthi drones packed with explosives. One targeted a civilian area in the southern city of Abha, and the second was shot down in Yemeni air space. There were no casualties, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said.

Rouhani’s offer to avoid war was “the height of hypocrisy,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“Rouhani is the biggest hypocrite in the world,” he said. “On the one hand, he is saying that Iran does not seek a conflict with anybody, and on the other it is launching attacks through its militias on oil tankers, oil pipelines, civilian airports and holy cities.

“This is nothing but the height of hypocrisy. Who does he think he is fooling with those words? Why are they enriching uranium? Why are they seeking nuclear bombs? What have they done over the past four decades? They have only caused trouble. They have only fanned sectarian flames in the region.”

The Saudi Cabinet, meeting in Jeddah, also condemned the Houthi attacks on Saudi civilians, and last week’s terrorist attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely blamed on Iran. 


Confrontation fears

Fears of a confrontation between Iran and its long-time foe the United States have mounted since Thursday when two oil tankers were attacked near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, which Washington blamed on Tehran.

Iran denied involvement in the attacks and said on Monday it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord would prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The standoff drew a call for caution from China. Its top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia urged restraint on all sides.

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security, including the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who said Tehran was responsible for security in the Gulf and urged US forces to leave the region.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concerns about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

'Nuclear blackmail'

Iran’s announcement on Monday that it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under the deal was denounced by a White House National Security Council spokesman as “nuclear blackmail.”

The move further undermines the nuclear pact, but Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world.

The nuclear deal seeks to head off any pathway to an Iranian nuclear bomb in return for the removal of most international sanctions.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said the United States should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran.

Wang told reporters China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “of course, very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and called on all sides to ease tension.

“We call on all sides to remain rational and exercise restraint, and not take any escalatory actions that irritate regional tensions, and not open a Pandora’s box,” Wang said.

“In particular, the US side should alter its extreme pressure methods,” Wang said. “Any unilateral behavior has no basis in international law. Not only will it not resolve the problem, it will only create an even greater crisis.”

Wang also said the Iran nuclear deal was the only feasible way to resolve its nuclear issue, and urged Iran to be prudent.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU would only react to any breach if the International Atomic Energy Agency formally identified one.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was flawed as it is not permanent, does not address Iran’s missile program and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.