The longevity of content: Iftah Ya Simsim, the Sesame Street of Arabia

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I have three kids, aged 11, 6 and 3. So its obvious that a lot of children TV and content is consumed in our household. Kids today have an amazing array of media targeted at them: from Bluray quality Pixar movies in vivid detail, color and surround sound, to online Flash games and YouTube videos that show them how to build better paper planes, not to mention game consoles and other gadgets.

Recently, I bought my kids all the episodes of Maya the Honey Bee (in German) from the iTunes music store. It was quite interesting to see how they reacted to content that my wife and I watched as kids. They really liked it actually.

Our household in Amman is trilingual (German/Arabic/English). This presents some challenges to the younger kids. Of course, kids can learn languages very fast, but learning three languages at once and learning to read and write English and Arabic at school is not without its problems (currently we are facing this with our 6 year old first grader).

To get more Arabic content into the house, we went and bought the DVDs of Iftah Ya Simsim (Arabic Wikipedia page, English Wikipedia page), which is the Arabic version of Sesame Street (by the Children Television Workshop).

Aftah Ya Smsm

This is a landmark show in the history of Arab TV. It was produced, starting in 1979 as a joint production by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. If we think back to 1979, this is very impressive. The UAE was merely 10 years old as country for example. Of course Kuwait already had a pretty advanced media, so the show was shot in a studio in Kuwait City, with outdoor film material shot all over the Arab region. Notably there are a lot of Iraqi actors playing leading roles in the show. I am pretty sure that Arab talent from all of the Arab region was used in the production, but it was the Gulf countries that paid the bill for getting the rights to use the Sesame Street content and characters. The show was given away for free to all Arab TV stations in the 1980s, and consequently got wide exposure (apparently the Egyptians refused to air for one reason or another!).

Although the show has a strong Arab character, the diversity of dress and the role of women is very interesting to watch after 30 years. Most human characters wore European dress styles, but there were also people who wore Arab dress. The main woman character was not veiled. Generally, the production felt quite progressive within its Arab frame.

This history of Iftah Ya Simsim ends with Arab politics and in-fighting rearing their ugly head. A number of its 3rd season episodes disappeared from the Kuwaiti studio after the Iraqi invasion of the country in 1990. Even more hilarious/sad was the fact that the puppets of the two main Arabic animal characters, the bear Numan and the parrot Malsoon were stolen.

So how did this 30 year old content perform with my 6 year old boy in 2009. Well, I would say 50/50. Of course, sound and picture quality are not that great. The content must feel somewhat alien to a kid of today. But we were able to get him to watch two episodes. With some nudging I think we’ll be able to go through the whole season with him.

I will be on the lookout for the Jordanian-produced children show Al Manahel (Arabic Wikipedia link), which also was modeled on one of the Children Television Workshop’s shows: The Electric Company.

The longevity of content, stories, songs, images, is remarkable. Yet I wonder what the state of Arab educational today is. Since I have stopped watching TV years ago, and as my kids have been mostly watching English and German content, I really can’t judge what, for example, Aljazeera children channel is doing. I will pay close attention to this in the coming weeks and months.

Today’s media landscape in the Arab region is TOTALLY different than the days of state controlled media 30 years ago. But the question of progressive children content must be at the top of our priorities at least to counter all the ugliness, pretentiousness and fanaticism that’s out there.. Does anyone know of progressive Arab material being done for kids (sorry, but the Jordanian produced DVDs like ‘Al-Alwan min Hawlina’ might be ‘cute’ but don’t really count as progressive).

I am increasingly interested in this field for obvious family reasons, but also as a field of research and study.


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6 Responses to “The longevity of content: Iftah Ya Simsim, the Sesame Street of Arabia”

  1. Dalia Says:

    Ahmad – A couple of years ago, I read that there was a ‘Ammani’ version of Efta7 ya semsem.. It was called either ‘7ekayat semsem’ or ‘share3 semsem’ (one is jordanian dialect and one is Egyptian)..

    The Jordanian one is produced in Amman I think, and is a bit more modern.. You might try to find out where you can get copies.. I will try to check for you and let you know.. (never could get a copy despite trying – I think it would be easier if you were physically located in Amman)..

    Also – i found 3adnan wa Lina great for boys (fighting wa katha) – to get them interested in spoken arabic..

    And – for good translated Arabic content – try Nickelodean Arabic.. I seem to remember they did ok translated the popular kids shows (like the blasted Dora)..

    But I totally agree with you about Arabic content.. (and Arabic TOYS for that matter)... I’m struggling with Sanad.. His Arabic is embarrassing :(

    Good luck – let me know what happens.

  2. Deena Says:

    I am not sure how helpful this is, but other than al-Manahel, there was a series called al-Hayat (i think) which I used to absolutely love. It was actually about the human body, so the characters were animated red blood cells (carrying oxygen on their back), animated nerve cells in the brain (robot like and connecting electric wires) and white blood cells that ate up ‘intruders’ like bacteria and such. It was brilliant!

  3. Saqf Says:

    During my vacation, I watched a few good things on the Jazeerah Kids channel, I can’t remember the titles of the shows I liked, but it is so important that kids should hear fus7a as much as possible, in the most appropriate way.

    You can easily master a foreign language especially English of German, because the mass produced media uses the simple common language, while in Arabic, your kids can pick up colloquial Arabic from the people around you, but Standard Arabic will never be their mother language this way. They would rather think in a foreign language, and standard Arabic will always feel alien to their ears.

    It is a pity, even for myself, I grew up with a heavy foreign cultural influence. I feel that is it really important to start with pure Arabic with the child, until he has the ability to express himself with his mother tongue, and after 4 or 6 years, parents would start introducing a new language to the child.

    It is a sign of weakness when someone can’t express all his thoughts in one single language, and has to fetch words from a second or third language. I confess that I have this problem in general, and I am not so proud of it.

    Almost every immigrant family in the US or anywhere else, force their kids to speak only their own language at home, except Arabs. You would find the parents are more eager to use English than Arabic, and the kids would correct them instead.

    That, in my humble opinion, is a very serious matter than needs attention.

    On a lighter note, excuse me for shattering some childhood images, but Nu3maan is not what he seems to be. According to the official site of the production company, Nu3maan was supposed to be a big fat Camel, and not a bear as everyone who watched it including me thought so!

  4. Global Voices Online » Jordan: Arabic TV Shows for Children Says:

    [...] Jordanian Ahmad Humeid discusses television programmes available for children in Arabic in this post. Cancel this reply [...]

  5. Moey Says:

    Out of subject: I think you might like this
    http://www.moeys.net/2009/10/26/5-mbps-10-mbps-internet-finally-in-jordan/

    long time ahmad

  6. peter garofalo Says:

    I am working on arabian nights stories in English at present which I hope to have possible translations in other languages including Arabic of course. I try to use a few simple arabic words into the dialogue as my own smattering of arabic increases.
    I have lots of ideas for these shows including a live -on line show.. I don’t know how it will work …. yet !
    So keep an eye open for sim sim puppets !

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