Columnist Razvan Sibii: The Muppets try to fix what humans have ruined

  • Ahlan Simsim Muppet Jad making new friends in Amman, Jordan. Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

Published: 2/15/2021 4:15:35 PM

The Muppets have decided to watch a movie. Everything’s ready to go, but when Jad, an adorable yellow monster, wants to turn off the lights, his buddy Basma, an equally adorable purple monster, objects.

She’s afraid of the dark, but she doesn’t want to tell that to the other kids, so she makes up all kinds of reasons for why they shouldn’t turn off the lights or even watch the movie at all.

Jad and Ma’zooza, a baby goat who is very fond of Basma, try to figure out what’s going on with their friend. They ask Hadi for help. Hadi, a human who loves to cook and play the guitar, teaches them how to get Basma to talk about her fears and eventually manage them.

This is a scene from last year’s season of Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame”), an Arabic-language version of Sesame Street aimed at displaced Syrian children who live in precarious circumstances in Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The third season of the show, created by the Sesame Street people in collaboration with a Jordanian production company, a whole lot of Middle East-based puppeteers, and the International Rescue Committee will start broadcasting across the region on Feb. 28.

You might know this already, but I didn’t until recently: Sesame Street has long created content for children across the world whose lives are threatened by violence and trauma (Palestine, Israel, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc.). Right now, in addition to Ahlan Simsim, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces all things Sesame, is also working on content aimed at Rohingya children in a huge Bangladeshi refugee camp, complete with two new Muppets — 6-year-old Noor and Aziz.

Sesame Street and its foreign siblings are undergirded by pedagogical considerations, which, in turn, originate in some serious social science. For example, when the creators of Ahlan Simsim first conceived of the scene where Basma is trying to hide her fear of the dark, they wanted to make sure that the young viewers would get the right message from it. Would they learn to communicate and then master their fears, or would they just learn that darkness is something to be feared?

When making these calls, the producers turn to actual scientists. I spoke to one of them recently: Kim Foulds, the Sesame Workshop’s vice president for content research and evaluation. Foulds, who has a doctorate in education from UCLA, has been closely involved in the development of both Ahlan Simsim and the Bangladesh project. I asked her how her expertise translates into programming that not only entertains kids who have precious little in their lives to make them laugh, but also helps them transcend the circumstances they’re forced to grow up in.

She told me that a new project, like a new season of Ahlan Simsim, always starts with extensive field research in the countries the programming is aimed at. That means performing “needs assessments” analyses with local teachers, social workers, NGO workers, parents and, of course, kids.

A variety of pedagogical strategies and Sesame storylines are brainstormed and tested with all these communities. Once a program is implemented, its impact is assessed the way any educational intervention, in any community, would be. And, because there’s very little scholarly literature out there on early childhood development interventions in humanitarian environments, the results are subsequently published so that others can apply them to similar contexts around the world.

Season 1 of Ahlan Simsim focused on “identifying and managing emotions.” But that was not the plan from the beginning, says Foulds. “Originally, the idea was to focus on self-regulation — how children can manage big feelings. And the education team met with [local] advisers, and the advisers said, ‘Hold on. You’re getting ahead of yourselves because children don’t actually have the vocabulary to even name their emotions, let alone the ability to manage them.’ So it became clear that we needed to take a step back and include emotional vocabulary, as well as management strategies.

“To inform script development, we took two common children’s story books, ran focus groups with children, read the story books, stopped at key points where there were ‘big feelings’ happening, pulled that language feature, and asked children to explain the emotion that was happening to get the language that children are currently using to explain, say, ‘frustration,’ ‘fear,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘nervousness,’ ‘loneliness.’ [Then we] used that language in the script development. The seasons are scaffolded. The skills in Season 3 will build on skills from previous seasons, and it will continue on like that,” Foulds says.

Throughout the creative and educational processes, the Sesame Workshop people pay close attention to local cultural norms. Will Middle Eastern parents approve of lots of singing? (Yes). Should the animated dancers wear outfits drawn from different corners of the region? (Yes). But they also push the boundaries at times — ever so carefully.

“Basma and Jad’s personalities are representative of some non-traditional gender norms in terms of what they like and their phrasing. They embody more progressive gender norms of what girls can and can’t do, while being mindful that if you go too far, you’ll alienate a large portion of the population,” Foulds explains.

While Ahlan Simsim also features Elmo, Cookie Monster (renamed Kaki) and Grover (renamed Gargur), there are no plans so far to bring Jad, Basma, Ma’zooza, Noor or Aziz to the 52-year-old American version of Sesame Street. I’m pretty sure, though, that Kermit and Miss Piggy could use a visit from fellow Muppets from abroad whose fuzzy shoulders have been asked to carry so great an educational burden.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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