Hebah: Hey guys, it’s Hebah. So - you may know that the podcasting scene in the Middle East is growing, and I want to tell you about another podcast company, by our friends in Jeddah, the MSTDFR network, who have been rocking the podcast game in Saudi for the past few years. Their shows feature conversations around gaming, tech, science, philosophy, and entrepreneurship - in Arabic and in Arabezy. Today's story features one of the cofounders of MSTDFR, Ammar, so you'll get a little taste of the personality behind the network. For your listening pleasure, check out mstdfr.com - That's MSTDFR.com.
So, today, we have something of a nostalgic story. It’s a story about a show that revolutionised children’s television, and what that meant for the Arab world. Because remarkable things can happen when people pledge allegiance to a something bigger than themselves – like, affect entire generations of kids.
I’m Hebah Fisher, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures; radio documentaries from the Middle East. Hebah: Our story today starts with Ammar.
Ammar: Okay, my name is, Ammar Al Sabban. Ammar Ilderus Al Sabban. Ilderus is my father, obviously. For me growing up, I didn't really uh like to go out a lot. I was always either by myself playing with something. I didn't have a lot of friends. I was more of an introvert.
Hebah: Ammar is originally from Mecca, but he grew up in Jeddah. And he says when he was young, he wasn’t really like other kids.
Ammar: the other boys wanted to play soccer, I didn’t want to play soccer
Ammar: I was always either by myself playing with something or watching television. Television was a big chunk of my life.
Hebah: And this was the 80s, so…
Ammar: Ghostbusters is like a franchise that changed my life. I was crazy about He Man for a big chunk of the eighties. I never failed to keep myself entertained. And even when I never had something I always made something. If I see a toy or something on a cartoon and I don't have it, I figured out a way to make it out of cardboard or paper or or plastic or something.
Hebah: Now, as Ammar is growing up watching all these shows, and there was one show in particular that had a really big affect on him.
Hebah: Or, the Arabic Sesame Street
Ammar: I mean I started watching way before I can remember. And my Mom used sit with us like Saturday mornings and before school and just watch Sesame Street.
I remember when I was like four years old, I think the first thing that I ever wanted to be when I grow up it's either to be a, like a puppet, puppet character or a cartoon character. Which you realize eventually that's impossible, because they're not real.
And I used to remember, my only concern, or my only wish was that I could take the glass off the TV because I thought that was how I could go in and and be in that world, and I felt like that was the only thing that's standing in my way; this glass. But yeah, it's just the feeling that it gave me of anything is possible.
Hebah: That feeling he got from watching the show - that feeling that anything was possible - it wasn’t by accident. It was by design. But to understand that, we have to go back to Manhattan, New York in the 1960s.
Michael: Well, the good news is that I'm old enough at 66 to remember what children's television was like, in the late 1950s and early 1960s and uh, it was a cavalcade of nonsense for the most part.
Hebah: This is Michael Davis, he’s an expert and author on the history of Sesame Street. So, what he’s saying is that in the 50s and 60s, in the United States, children’s television in the US was just basically one terrible show after the next.
Michael: Very little thought was given to the the quality of the content that was being consumed by kids like me who were sitting cross-legged in front of the television and watching cartoon characters hit each other over the head with pans.
Hebah: Shows like Tom and Jerry, or a show called Top Cat. But then, all of that changed. So it’s because of this guy.
Michael: Lloyd Morissette
Hebah: Who’s a social scientist and researcher.
Michael: Had a daughter - a young daughter - and she uh had a habit of crawling out of bed early in the morning on the weekends and and tiptoeing down stairs and turning on the television at 06:30 in the morning, and at that hour there wasn't any programming. It was just a test signal on the air accompanied by a terrible beeeep. Yet she would sit there in front of the television waiting for the broadcast day to begin at 7am. So Lloyd, one day, was watching this from a vantage point upstairs, watching his daughter downstairs transfixed in front of the screen, and it just perplexed him as a scientist, like, what is it about this medium that would inspire a child to leave her warm bed and come down and sit and watch essentially nothing?
Hebah: A few weeks later, Lloyd was invited to a dinner party in New York at the home of a television producer friend named Joan
Michael: Uh, Joan Ganz Cooney
Hebah: They’d been introduced through her cousin, who Lloyd had gone to middle school with.
Michael: Who at the time was working in television in in New York. And um after dinner Lloyd told the story about his daughter Sarah and just said, you know again, what is this? This is mysterious force, this magnetic force that, you know, that television has on children? And could it be used for a greater purpose? And Joan said, I don't know if television could, but I'd sure like to try. And that really was the moment that Sesame Street was conceived.
Joan and Lloyd made for a very powerful duo. Joan was driven by a vision and an urge to see whether television could assist preschool children. And together with Lloyd they started working on some kind of project that would result in an experiment.
Hebah: This new show Joan, Lloyd, and a growing team put together was something revolutionary for its time. As journalist Norman Morris from The Atlantic put it, “Something huge is about to happen… something so huge that it “may well turn out to be the most ambitious experiment in children’s television.” The first time ever people would treat children’s television as an opportunity to educate. So, right at the start, they brought Jim Henson on board. He’d been making these funny television commercials with his cast of puppets for nearly two decades––you’ll know Jim as the voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie. And he was also the creator of the entire Muppets cast, the cast of characters for Sesame Street.
Michael: And the characters within a year became ubiquitous in the United States. You couldn't go anywhere after about a year on the air without seeing a Big Bird doll or an Ernie or Burt doll in carriages and strollers.
Hebah: Because, it was more than just children’s entertainment. Sesame Street was the first television program that would actually educate kids.
Michael: No other children's television program had a curriculum. Sesame Street was developed by educators and psychologists and children's literature experts and a group of people who came together over a series of seminars held at Harvard University and in New York, created a real, bona fide curriculum for the show one that could be measured over time. So, you know, at that period of television history and cultural history, that was a first.
This is a great example - Sesame Street - of what can happen when people sort of pledge allegiance to a cause. And the cause was trying to see if this experiment could assist children who were coming from homes where maybe they weren't being read to, maybe they didn't have a record player. Maybe um, they weren't getting the advantages that some other children were getting. Um, they wanted to try to close that gap.
There was a real reason why the set of Sesame Street looked like Harlem and that's because the founders concluded that if we hope to get the attention of of children in Harlem and other areas of the country where underprivileged children live, let's make it look like a place where they live! And I do think that it was one of the keys to success, in the early days, for the audience. For the the children out in suburbia, it brought them to a place that that they perhaps had never seen before or experienced before.
Another big factor in the early days was - this was televisions first integrated cast – there were African American people, Hispanic people, white people, you know, everyone playing on the street together. That was not by accident. They wanted to show a world where people got along. There was a universality to aspects of Sesame Street, and I think it really began with humor.
Hebah: And that universality meant that within just a few months, countries wanted to bring Sesame Street to their children. Producers from Brazil, Iran and Germany were reaching out wanting to make versions of the show in their countries.
Michael: That humor was translatable and everyone understood that within a year or two. So it quite made sense that Sesame Street could have a life outside the United States. And it did.
Cairo: There was a real push for children’s education, and in the GCC countries, with the oil boom and with a lot of things happening
Hebah: This is Dr. Cairo Arafat
Cairo: I’m the managing director at Bidaya.
Hebah: Bidaya Media, the production company that makes Iftah Ya Simsim.
Cairo: Illiteracy rates were quite high in the GCC back in the early 1970s.
Hebah: The GCC is the cluster of Gulf countries: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen and Oman.
Cairo: With the more scattered type of populations that they had in the region, smaller communities - I mean, they were very small communities, there was not a lot of schooling going on. The whole sector of media and entertainment was still very nascent in this area, you know, GCC there weren't a lot of production companies or production houses or broadcasts or you know, it was very limited at that point in time. There was only like three channels anyways in the whole region, and very few children's programs.
They were trying to develop quickly educational programs for children. And one of the fastest ways they felt was to actually develop an early childhood program for children that could be watched at home by young children because the preschool sector was still fairly negligible at that point in time.
Hebah: So in the late 70s, a group called the GCC Joint Program Production Institution had bought the rights to create an Arabic language version of Sesame Street, to be produced out of Kuwait. They began working with a team of educational experts to create a curriculum and set of characters that were relevant to an Arab audience. It was seen as a hugely successful pan-Arab collaboration of educators, writers and artists from around the region. And by the time the show aired in 1979, they’d created a whole new set of characters, like a camel named نُعمان and a parrot named مَلْسون, designed using Syrian and Egyptian shadow puppet traditions. The American characters were Arabised, and so Cookie Monster became كعكي, Bert and Ernie became Badr and أنيس and Grover became قرقور.
So they decided the show would be called Iftah Ya Simsim, which is this great sort of loop backwards and forward in time. “Iftah Ya Simsim”, you may remember from your children’s books, were the magic words Ali Baba spoke to get access to the treasures in the cave in 1001 Nights – the collection of folk stories published in the Middle East in the 18th century. When Joan and her team back in NY were thinking what to call their new show, this series that would be a door to this new world of adventure for children, they thought of Open Sesame - from 1001 Nights. So they called it Sesame Street. When Sesame Street came to the Arab world 10 years later, it’s like it sort of came home.
Cairo: So that's how it actually got started. They sent out a crew from Sesame that worked very closely with the Kuwaitis.
Hebah: Half of the show was the American version, dubbed in Arabic. The other half was locally produced, and in the same way that the producers on Sesame Street had tried to create a world that children could relate to and see themselves in, the Iftah Ya Simsim producers built the aesthetics of the show to reflect the 22 Arab countries it was broadcast in. When you watch the intro sequence for the original show, it shows a group of kids running around, playing together; some of them are wearing the keffiyeh or the thobe, against a backdrop of markets and palm trees.
Cairo: At least 50% of the show was locally produced, so they did get to see children who look like them – the environment that they were playing in was very Arabic looking. The actors were all, you know, Arabic, the language was all in Arabic.
Hebah: The other half of the show was original Sesame Street episodes, dubbed in Arabic.
Cairo: They created beautiful music, really funny scripts, really talented cast of actors, it was a very well created show. And I think also what's beautiful about that era was it was an openness - people were interested in learning about other cultures. I mean, back in that time you didn't you didn't get ABC or CBS or any of those channels here. So they never saw anything called Sesame Street. So they they like seeing from, you know, a segment may be from Japan or segment from the US or a segment from wherever, showing children of color - it was actually filling a lot of their curiosity, they wanted to learn more.
Hebah: The show tried to give children a better sense of their place in the world, and to foster a sense of pride in their Arab heritage. Explaining the locations of cities and countries in the Middle East was an important part of the show, were Arabic language lessons. And the way they taught these lessons was not with a spoonful of medicine, like you would think of when you think of children’s education, but with a spoonful of honey – in other words, they made it fun.
Cairo: In the GCC countries, for example, there's a particular at that time, there was quite a heavy reliance on a lot of service providers are service workers from outside. And I think you had two different types of service workers, a lot of them were those who are doing a lot of the more manual and menial type of jobs in the sense of you know - whether it was house cleaning or you know street and environmental cleaning - those kind of jobs. And I think for many people they wanted to protect the idea that all of us are the same, we all you know - whether our job is an x-ray specialist or whether you're cleaning the streets, we’re all one. That was something you saw on the show, this respect for everyone.
Also the idea that giving children a voice. So, you know, we do live in a fairly patriarchal society and you know, you always listen to your elders and your elders are always right. This is a show that was all about really The Muppets and about kids and that it's okay to make mistakes and it's okay to say your opinion.
So the Iftah Ya Simsim show really played a key educational role. You know, children would just be waiting to get home from school just to watch that show.
Hebah: Children like little Ammar, growing up in Jeddah.
Ammar: I love Ernie. I love to Cookie Monster. I like Grover, those were the main characters that I like because they were the silliest always. I mean, I feel like. My parents raised me and the Muppets raised me as as as well at the same time. I used to mimic a lot of the jokes and and the stuff that I used to see from the Muppets. And of course drove everybody around me crazy, but I just felt good when I made other people laugh.
Hebah: Ammar says that growing up in Saudi, he found that there were a lot of rules and expectations of him that he struggled with.
Ammar: So, when you go anywhere, you have to really conduct yourself in a respectable manner, you have to be respectful to other people, and you have to be proper and you have to be polite. And I always felt more, drawn to the craziness and the silliness and the nonconformity and chaos, and I found that in the cartoons, I found that in the Muppets.
Hebah: But this was late 80s, and after airing for 10 years to really popular reception across 22 Arab states, Iftah Ya Simsim came to an abrupt stop in 1990 with the beginning of the Gulf War.
CNN: On the morning of August 2nd, thousands of people in Kuwait City woke up to war.
BBC: Iraq’s army shocked the world by invading it’s neighbour; Kuwait.
Cairo: War is ugly, wherever it happens.
Hebah: This is Dr Cairo again
Cairo: When Kuwait was invaded there was there was a lot of destruction. A large part of Kuwait City was actually destroyed, and one of the places that was destroyed was the production house. You know, the Muppets, the walk-arounds and everything, they were destroyed.
Hebah: In the aftermath of the war and the forced ending of the show, the kids who grew up watching Iftah ya Simsim would watch VHS tape recordings of old episodes. And they eventually grew out of that, too. The impact the show had, on kids like Ammar, though, stuck. He would never forget sitting in front of the TV, mimicking the voices and characters of his favourite Muppet - Gargour. One day, he still wanted to be him.
Ammar: Growing up in a society that really values certain professions like medicine or engineering or you know, law or stuff like that, you don't really see a lot of different options for you to go to. And when I graduated from from high school, I was really - I just felt lost because they didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had to go to college, there wasn't any other options. And of course my parents were devastated, and I and I can see now how heartbroken they were because they they’re college professors and then one of their sons doesn't want to go to college. They have PhDs and I don't even want a bachelor's degree.
Hebah: In the end, Ammar’s uncle suggested he try architecture school, since he always loved to draw and build things with his hands.
Ammar: And when I saw the brochure and everything I said, you know what? This is what I want to do.
Hebah: So he enrolled in architecture school.
Ammar: Studied and graduated.
Hebah: And started working at an architecture firm.
Ammar: I worked there for 12 years.
Hebah: And even though his life had taken a turn from his childhood dream of becoming Gargour, it’s like the universe would remind him of that dream, still.
Ammar: One of my business trips was in New York, and I was just walking I remember what street it was, but I came across a toy store and the toy store had a customized puppet section where you can customize and make your own Muppet. And I was just went crazy and it's like I made two of them and when I came back I was like, okay now I have my own puppets, i need to do something.
Hebah: Which, as fun as that was for him, playing with puppets, it was a child’s pipe dream. He was an architect now, moving his way up the corporate ladder. He got married to the love of his life, they had three kids. His life was going in the direction it was expected of him to go, but...
Ammar: I was just like a zombie going to work, coming back from work, don't want to wake up in the morning don't want to go don't want to do anything–just lost all hope in life.
In that corporate world, I felt chained. I was just dead inside. And I wasn't myself honestly also, I mean I had to dress up in suits or in thobes and had to go to meetings and I had to talk in a certain way and I had to behave in a certain way and I was I think 35 at the time, or 34, and I felt like okay half of my life has gone by and I don't feel like I accomplished anything. I remember the one question I asked myself that made me resign and leave architecture behind was like, if I died right now - at the time - and I'm standing in front of God, and God was like, okay, Ammar I created you into this world. How did you make this world better? I had no answer. And I felt like I needed to find that answer.
Hebah: Ammar’s soul-searching coincided with his wife getting offered funding for her PhD from KAUST, the King Abdulaziz University for Science and Technology. That meant they had three years financially covered while she pursued her PhD, and, so Ammar had an opportunity to try and find the answer to how he could make the world better. So he quit architecture, and started searching.
Alex: Had you kind of forgotten about the puppeteering dream, or was it something you still thought about?
Hebah: That’s producer Alex Atack.
Ammar: I never thought it was an option. I never thought puppeteering was an option because we didn't have any television production in Saudi. And it was important for me to work in Saudi because you know, that's where you're from where your family are.
Hebah: He focused on taking care of his kids, and did some graphic design work on the side with a friend. And, then, on a family trip to New York, he stopped into that same toy store where we had made his first two puppets.
Ammar: I made more puppets, I made one into a scientist and I made the female puppet and a monster puppet. Came back, it's like, okay now I have, you know, a cast.
Hebah: Now, of course he wasn’t entirely sure where puppeteering would lead him, but he got this idea to start his own puppet show on YouTube.
Ammar: And then when I was working on the idea of the show, Iftah Ya Simsim advertised that they were looking for puppeteers and I felt like, oh this is why I resigned and this is the grander plan that i never saw coming, because nobody knew that Iftah Ya Simsim was coming back.
Hebah: After being off the air for more than 25 years since the Gulf War, Iftah Ya Simsim was coming back to the Arab world.
Cairo: I think it was because it took many years for the reconciliation between Kuwait and Iraq, which was the main reason that it didn't come back.
Hebah: This is Dr Cairo again.
Cairo: What kickstarted it was two things - in the late 1990s and early 2000s 2010 around 2010 a little bit earlier. There was a great push, I think, in the international community on the importance of early childhood education programs for children. There were people at Sesame Street who were, you know, wise enough to say, hey, let's look at this and then you had people that were in the Gulf there were also saying, you know, why aren't we doing more for early childhood education? And that's how it started.
So we actually spent like two years up to 2012 doing the research and developing coalitions and partnerships with everyone until we were able to say, okay, we're ready to develop a curriculum.
Ammar: So I felt like okay, this is why all of this happened, and how many Arab puppeteers can there be? So I'm sure that they're gonna give me a job.
Hebah: He shot a video of himself performing with the puppets he’d been practicing with and sent it off to Iftah Ya Simsim pretty confidently. And he waited to hear back. And he waited. Then one day he was scrolling through social media, and...
Ammar: I saw a post from Iftah Ya Simsim that they chose their puppeteers and that's when I really knew that I wasn't one of them. So when that happened I felt devastated, but at the same time my reaction was you know, what? These puppets I'm using are toy puppets. So they don't - they're not very flexible and you can't manipulate them a lot to look alive.
So what I did was I said, you know what? I'm gonna build my own puppet. I'm gonna learn how to build a puppet and make a proper show and I don't need Iftah Ya Simsim.
I went and bought some stuff went to the other stores and bookstores and stuff and but you know other stuff that I felt like I needed to build the puppet - fur, blankets, anything that had, foam rubber in it, uh glue, sewing kit, other fabrics plastic spoons - like I made the eyes out of a pair of spoons. I made the head out of foam rubber that was inside like, uh, like a diaper changing mat. It was like anything - I was looking for anything because we don't have a lot of puppet building supplies. So I had to be MacGyver and try to figure it out.
At one point, my youngest Satya he was like, Dad aren't you supposed to be the one at work and Mom's supposed to be the one at home? And I took this as an opportunity to tell I'm like no, nobody said that women should be at home and men should be working. I mean, she, she also had to go through a lot of stuff - people questioning, why she's allowing her husband to do this and point-blank just asking her, how did you, why are you allowing this to happen? It's like your husband staying at home and doing nothing.
Hebah: Ammar steeped himself in the puppeteering world - he was watching tutorials online, reading articles, learning as much as he could. He spent three weeks building his first puppet.
Ammar: Which I called Afroot.
Hebah: Afroot, like rascal.
Ammar: Yeah, the idea was just to put him in situations that I want to address that people here do that are not ideal. So people cutting lines people texting and driving people throwing garbage in the street
Hebah: After he was done, he shot a video with it and he put the video up on Youtube.
Ammar: And it got 200,000 hits. Afrout just blew up, I mean, this is show business–just like you work hard on something and it doesn't work, and sometimes you just do something as a goof and everybody likes it.
Hebah: Ammar and Afroot were suddenly being asked to do comedy club nights, commercial deals around Saudi.
Ammar: Did a lot of ads on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, for companies.
Hebah: And he took every opportunity he could get.
Ammar: Just to show my skills as a puppeteer.
Hebah: Then, in 2014 after Iftah Ya Simsim had been on the air for a year, things started to come together for Ammar. First, he met one of the show’s actors at a charity event he participated in with Afroot, and the two became friends. Ammar asked him if he could get a meeting with the Iftah Ya Simsim team, just to get to know them. And, the managing director, Dr Cairo, came back and said - uh, yea, we know Ammar, we follow his show!
Ammar: He sent me a message and told me that I sent them, they would love to meet you and everything. So now was like. 70% nervous. It's like oh I have to meet them now and I have to really make a good impression and whatnot. And and I went there and I go up and I go inside the office and you see the pictures of The Muppets, and now I'm like 100% nervous. And now I sit down and they're like, okay, we'll just gonna gather everybody and gonna come so I take Afroot up and put him in my hand, and I'm like 200% nervous.
And they come in and it's like the whole office they were like, maybe eight people and everybody was in that meeting room just looking at me. I just had Afroot in my hand and I was talking with the puppet and um, they were laughing, and they were excited and everything. But we finished the meeting, it wasn't a long meeting and we went out and and I was I was feeling happy and feeling nervous. I don't know if they will, you know, hire me or not.
Hebah: He was going back to Dubai that night, and as he was driving from Abu Dhabi.
Ammar: The managing director called me back, can you meet on Friday? Which was like two days later.
Hebah: So he flies back to Abu Dhabi from Jeddah the following Friday and after another interview with higher execs, including Dr Cairo, they basically said: you’re in! We want you to join our puppeteers for Iftah Ya Simsim.
Ammar: It was like a lot of different emotions just you know, you growing up never really expecting that you can be that character that you grew up watching and you get to be that person or be that character and I got to be that.
Hebah: In the months that followed before he started working with IYS, he practiced his characters diligently.
Ammar: I was just listening to videos and of that character trying to get the voice right and get the character right, and I had to take some of these videos turn them to audio and put him in my car. So I'm just driving back and forth anywhere I'm going, I have his videos on, songs and and sketches and stuff and just mimicking the voice just as I'm going, just to get it right.
I don't know how to explain it but it's like - we have a growly type of character, which is Cookie Monster or, in Arabic it’s Khaki. And Cookie Monster talks like this and he likes - me like cookie. I cannot explain what happened in my throat's for that voice to come out. And then we have a character who’s Count Von Count, which is uh, like a parody of Count Dracula. And he talks like this. Ah, ah, ah, ah. And Gargour or Grover he talks like this. Which is a different voice a little bit, and he has an accent but in Arabic he loses that accent.
Hebah: So, even after being accepted by the team in Abu Dhabi, in order to be a puppeteer on Iftah Ya Simsim, he still had to be approved by the Sesame Street team from the US.
Ammar: There's a certain way of doing it, and we have to learn the same method.
Hebah: Forgive me, I know nothing about this, but you use only your hands and they’re on sticks. And so when you manipulate, Gargour, are there are like tiny little sticks to manipulate his eyes?
Ammar: Well, you have, no no - you have sticks to manipulate the hands only. And I stick my hand through the puppet and and manipulate his head and mouth, and if he's going to look right my hand goes right if he's looking left. My hand goes left and so on. You have to learn how to make the puppet breathe and and how to be angry and how to shout and how to walk slowly and how to you know, there's a lot of different techniques that they teach you, it’s really physical.
Hebah: And; here’s some Iftah Ya Simsim trivia that I did not know – puppeteers have to do all of this at the same time while voicing their characters.
Ammar: It’s live. And even the voice is so you have to manipulate the character and do the voice at the same time. It's one take yes, so you're mic’ed up. You have the character in the air, in front of the camera, you're underneath the camera and you have to do the whole scene.
Hebah: That’s crazy! Oh my god, okay. And then, so you go through all of this intense training, you’re driving around Jeddah listening to the voice of Grover and translating this over to who Gargour is going to be, and you do this for 6 months before you actually shoot, is that right?
Ammar: Yeah, I was just super excited. I didn't want to mess it up. So I trained a lot, and the funny thing is all those years growing up watching The Muppets and watching Sesame Street, and I joke with my Mom, it's like I used to watch it when I was supposed to be studying and she's like, you know, this is not going to benefit you in life, you need to study. And every single second I spent watching Sesame Street was beneficial to me.
Hebah: What was the experience the first day you actually recorded for a show, as Gargour?
Ammar: Oh, I was I was super nervous. Until this day, I hate watching that episode because I see all the mistakes and the nervousness and not knowing how to do certain things. So that first day was just super nervous and nerve-wracking, and there’s a lot of stuff that, you know, when you’re on camera it’s just totally different to any practice that you did.
But I did have my parents come over. I really wanted them to come over to see me in action and just doing this and my Mom always wanted to to be on set of Iftah Ya Simsim or Sesame Street, so I got to have them come and just be there for a few hours.
It was just fun, just fun for us to be there and to have them there at least with me for for one day, just to be there and to see this, see what all those years before like me not knowing what's going on and honestly also them supporting me even when I like this adult with kids and a wife leaving his job and sitting at home sewing together fabric and and and doing some crazy stuff and and they were still supportive.
I don’t know how to explain it. But it's like, you feel that you are shaping future generations. So years and years from now when we're not even here, whatever it is, the we doing media, it lives on for long periods of time. So in a sense, it's it's I feel happy because um, I do get to contribute, I do get to be somebody who made a difference in this life. And this is something one of them with the people I admire in life in general is Jim Henson, and he's the guy who created the Muppets and the Muppet did the puppets on on Sesame Street. And his hope was in when he wrote his will and everything is like he wanted to leave this world a little bit better than it was before he was you know there. And I truly believe that. I believe like if I can do that, I feel like I have accomplished what it is that I was created to do.
Hebah: Iftah Ya Simsim is estimated to reach around 45 million viewers across the region now, with more online and through it’s live shows. To get a sense of this, we asked producer Alexandra Chaves to speak to some kids about the show.
And, aside from being totally adorable, it was clear that these kids were accessing this whole new world through this show that Cairo and Ammar help make. And that is no small thing.
Michael: Our home then was in Highland Park, Illinois.
Hebah: This is Michael Davis again, the author of that Sesame Street history book.
Michael: My daughters would sit next to me on the couch and we'd have cereal and we'd have Sesame Street on, and it was a golden period in my life. I loved it when my kids were that age, and I loved watching Sesame Street together with them and I think that we all gained from it. And I think it all boils down to this: a group of people gave a damn. They wanted to make the world a better place. They gave a damn.
Hebah: This episode was produced by myself, Hebah Fisher and Alex Atack, with help from Alexandra Chaves and with editorial support from Dana Ballout. Sound design by Mohamed Khreizat. Thank you to everybody who sent us their memories of Iftah Ya Simsim: Bader Alfarsy, Ltein Alfarsy, Lilian Yasser, Salah Alyasser, Rym Ghazal, Hayat Abdel-Saheb and Lina Bharnawi. Thank you also to Cole del Charco for helping us record Michael’s interview. Michael Davis’ book, which chronicles the story of Sesame Street, is called Street Gang.
To see behind the scenes photos and videos of Ammar and the rest of the Iftah Ya Simsim team, head over to our instagram; @kerningcultures.
Hebah: So as a little bonus, we asked you what Iftah Ya Simsim meant to you, what you remember from watching the show growing up. This is what you told us.
Lina: The opening song of course… I mean, that monosyllable in it is something, whenever I listen to it I feel very nostalgic. It’s very sticky. I love it.
To me, Iftah Ya Simsim is all about being yourself. I remember reading a couple of years back that Na’aman is a camel, and I was surprised, like how come I never asked myself what Na’aman is? But then I realised that he never let me, because he never defined himself to me. And then I realised that that’s what we need to do - to know ourselves very well, and to define ourselves not to be defined.
The other thing is, ask as many questions as you want. I don’t remember a single episode where characters stop asking.
Rym: I really loved it because it was a very pan-Arab show, it was pinned down to one nationality. And I used to love singing the theme songs [sings theme song] - like, it had such a catchy tune that you just have to play it and I’ll become nostalgic. And to this day I like to rewatch it, like, I learned to dance by watching Grover dance to ABC, but they made it into Arabic, you know - alef, baa, thaa - so it’s kind of a funny alphabet dance.
The life lessons learned from Iftah Ya Simsim is to accept people as they are, and to embrace differences, and to always seek knowledge, and that education is fun, knowledge is fun, and it’s not boring. It’s unlimited.
Lina: That’s what the whole show is about - it’s referring to knowledge as treasure, and it’s about reaching that hidden treasure. So, it’s Iftah Ya Simsim.