Finding the silver(ish) lining in Afghanistan's Emerald City

Sesame Street and My 2nd Team America All-Star Nomination

On the subject of the Muppets in general and Sesame Street in particular: I believe in what that show has done like Hindus believe that beef should never be what’s for dinner.

I believe in what Jim Henson and his puppeteers created, that it’s one of the last vestiges of goodness and innocence left in children’s television.

Unlike Barney, which made me want to stab…things. Anything. Just to get that dinosaur out of my head. Barney falls under the “things I cannot unsee” category.

This is not about hating on Big Bird and friends, and when I came across a story on Sesame Street coming to Afghanistan, color me Mulder:

I want to believe

That being said, here we go…

The Muppets are Coming! The Muppets are Coming!

Right away this caught my eye. Enough so that I made it my profile pic. Who wouldn’t love a picture with Grover? Especially if you’re the Ambassador to Afghanistan.

The Embassy was quick to capitalize on that kind of photo op, as they should. It’s not often you get someone as famous as Grover to pose with your ambassador:

The US children’s television favourite Sesame Street has gone to Afghanistan with the launch of a new series featuring familiar characters such as Elmo and Big Bird.

Baghch-e-Simsim made its debut on a local TV channel on Thursday, with the aim of improving education for children in the desperately poor, warring country.

Here’s the video from NDTV:

In order to bring Baghch-e-Simsim to the masses of Afghanistan, there have been some tweeks…for example, dancing is out:

With parents thought likely to frown on their children singing and dancing in front of the TV, the stars of Baghch-e-Simsim exhort their young viewers to “exercise” instead.

“That way I don’t get reprimanded by the parents because it’s exercise and who can disagree with that?” Farzana said.

Luckily Afghan parents would never see through the “exercise” and think it looks an awful lot like dancing. It’s also a little-known fact that conservative Pashtuns want nothing more than to get in touch with their inner Jazzerciser.

These people are just crazy about fitness, especially the farmers. Finding that they have so much free time thanks to the IED threat keeping them off the roads, they’re crying out for something to do.

But it’s more than just the dancing that needed a somewhat delicate touch. Putting Sesame Street on the air in Afghanistan presents some interesting cultural challenges that would never have to be considered in the United States.

“We tested a scene where Ernie is barking like a dog and getting Bert to copy him, but we found that parents were dead set against it,” says Tania Farzana the Afghan-American executive producer of the show. “A dog is considered to be unclean, so the parents didn’t understand it.”

“I can have them do lion sounds, rooster sounds, but doing a dog is not acceptable,” Farzana said.

“One of the worst words you can call someone in Afghan culture is a dog, so to have kids barking like one is going beyond the line of what’s right.”

Other characters had to be retooled in order to be acceptable to a wider Afghan audience, and one of my favorite characters had to be removed entirely:

“Oscar the Grouch I had to minimise because his passion for trash did not translate well culturally here,” said the show’s Afghan-American producer, Tania Farzana. As for The Count, she added that his fangs and fondness for bats would have proved problematic in a conservative, Islamic society like Afghanistan.

Rock the Blue Mosque

Lest we think that it’s just the Afghans coming to blows in a culture clash, there were some issues with footage captured by the Kabul-based team. Sesame Street initially objected to the film being used on the show:

“We had some amazing footage of children flying kites on rooftops,” Farzana said. “This happens all over Afghanistan. But Sesame Street said we could not use it because it was against their safety rules.”

Sesame Street sets great store by teaching children how to protect themselves, and did not want young Afghans encouraged to take up such a dangerous activity.

The compromise: Farzana’s team added a graphic fence to the film.

Kite flying from the rooftops is one of those things unique to Kabul, and in order to show viewers something they can relate to, it’s good that they won the battle to air the footage. I’m sure some will be a little confused by the fence. Unless you’re in one of the ex-pat villas with the bamboo privacy screens, fences on rooftops just don’t exist here. which is just another example of things the Afghans should adapt for the greater good.

Another fact of Kabul life (indeed in all of Afghanistan) is that seatbelts are about as common as bacon kebabs: 

Sesame Workshop executives in the US keep tight control over how their international partners refit their show. One segment recorded in Afghanistan involving a family car ride had to be dropped because, as with nearly all local motorists, no one was wearing a seatbelt.

Outside of wanting to show things that would give Ralph Nader an aneurysm, Farzana wants to push things even further:

More problematic is the season’s final show, in which Farzana wants to show a father taking his 6-year-old daughter to Friday prayer. But Sesame Street in New York, with its resolutely secular message, balked.

“I told them this is not about religion,” she said. “It is about community. In Afghanistan, social life revolves around the mosque; you go there to meet old friends and make new ones; you go to feel that you are never alone.”

She got a tentative go-ahead from New York, but then ran into trouble on the Afghan side.

“So many people did not want me to show a father taking his daughter to the mosque. ‘She’s a girl!’ they said. But I answered, ‘she’s a child!’”

The issue is still not resolved, but Farzana, a woman of prodigious energy and enthusiasm, vows that the segment will be shown.

“I will have a film on Friday prayer,” she said firmly.

In a country that still finds it acceptable for a rape victim to marry her rapist so that she can get out of prison, the public response to Western-supported television program showing a girl going to a mosque should be deafening.

She’s Like an Afghan, but Better

Truly a forward-thinking perspective from a woman who’s putting her life on the line as a native of Afghanistan to get this show on the air. Flouting those kinds of cultural norms must have been challenging for a woman who likely spent her entire life in this country:

Tania Farzana, the Afghan-American executive producer of the show, is hoping that Sesame Street will do more than make children behave. She has set herself the mission of bringing a new vision to a generation that has known nothing but war.

“I was the luckiest child in the world,” said Farzana, who was born in Kabul in the 1970s, before leaving for the United States at the age of nine. “There was so much comfort and warmth, a sense of security. Children now cannot even imagine a Kabul like that.”

Coming back after close to 30 years was a shock.

“The first three months broke my heart,” she confessed. “Nothing was the way I remembered it.”

Farzana recalls a Kabul where her mother rode a bike to university, where women were free to do what they liked.

“My mother never even wore one of these,” she said, flicking at the white headscarf that covered her dark hair.

The subtle tyranny of the headscarf: I can only imagine the horrors an Afghan-American woman must experience in the wilds of Kabul, being forced to wear a headscarf. I’m sure Ghulam Haider, an 11-year-old Afghan girl marrying a 40-year-old man, truly feels Ms. Farzana’s anguish at being forced to do something so terribly demeaning.

A White Light to Guide Them 

So she left for a little while, some would argue during her most formative years, then came back to Afghanistan as soon as she could. Fortunately, for Afghanistan, she’s returned on a mission to bring the bright hope of enlightened Western thinking to the dark places of Afghanistan.

That’s good news for the Afghans, who, when left to their own TV devices, come up with things like The Ministry, a show uniquely Afghan in both production and content.

In order to save the Afghans from themselves, this can’t be an Afghan-centric endeavor at all. Even though TOLO TV and its Moby Group are key partners, this project is being funded by the United States:

Supported by a grant from the US Embassy in Kabul, the Kaboora production house has worked for the past 10 months to make Shahpar and Kachkool — Big Bird and Grover, to most — household names in Afghanistan.

Rather than building a show from the ground up that’s going to be an Afghan-focused concept, it’s a “refit.” And rather than go through the complexity of developing puppet routines based on the local language, the Kaboora production group has decided to set itself some greater challenges:

It is not just a matter of translating the original dialogue into Dari or Pashto, she added. The language has to be pitched just right for the age group — three to seven — and, in addition, has to have the same number of syllables as the English text, so that the famous Sesame Street mouth flaps will match the new words.

Instead of making the puppets fit the dialogue, Kaboora is working the other way around. And, as every member of the AfPak Hands program knows, Dari and Pashto are eerily similar to English, especially if you’re shouting.

Hazara, Kuchi, Uzbek — What’s the Diff? 

Sesame Street works very well in a place where “country” is a concept embraced by the masses, but in Afghanistan, a country that’s a country because someone with tremendous vision drew lines on a map, it might be a  bigger pill to swallow than the unwashed Afghan masses can stomach.

Fortunately, Ms. Farzana has an answer for that:

The first day of school will feature a little Hazara girl. The choice was not accidental.

“Many people call Hazaras, who are mainly Shia, ‘infidels,’” she said. “We wanted to show that this little girl’s mother blessed her with the Quran as she left the house, just as millions of mothers do every day. We want a Pashtun child in the south, a Tajik or Uzbek child in the north, to watch the film and say ‘that girl is just like me.’”

What’s so refreshing here is that Ms. Farzana is managing to bridge in one massive puppetized effort all the cultural, religious, and racial divides with a cute little story about a Hazara girl. How can that story not resonate with say, the Pashtun? If only she could have put together a story about Kuchi kids in school in downtown Ghazni, for example.

For you skeptics, Farzana has in her own production house a couple of individuals learning to bridge the divide quite nicely:

Her team, she points out, has forged strong bonds, overcoming all the obstacles that Afghanistan’s post-war society puts in their way.

“Look at these two,” she said, gesturing at Zubaid and Ali. “One is Pashtun, one is Kizlbash. One speaks Pashto, the other Dari. One is from the north, the other from the south. There is so much that divides them, but they are the best of friends. Yesterday they went horseback riding together.”

Asked if Bagch-e-Simsim had helped them to get past their surface differences, Zubaid answered with a wry smile.

“Yes,” he said. “When we were out there riding, it was Zubaid, Ali, Big Bird and Grover, all together.”

This team, in working with puppets, has found the answer to the tribal in-fighting: Horseback riding! In Kabul! That’s it! Rather than going to all the trouble of trying to negotiate with the Taliban, what ISAF desperately needs to do is find a lot more Muppets. And horses.

Early Reception

Of course, critics can be the worst enemy of any project with vision, but from the US Embassy on down, responses have been nearly universally positive. Ambassador Crocker himself couldn’t be happier with the refitted Sesame Street, and had this to say:

“Perhaps most importantly, it shows children the world around them.”

And in one of those rare moments of joint agreement, one of the ministers from the Afghan Ministry of Education had nothing but good things to say:

Afghanistan deputy education minister Mohammad Siddiq Patman said he believed the program would “depict traditions, culture and other aspects of Afghan rural and urban life” and would be “profoundly useful” for children.

 It’s having a broad appeal in every corner of Afghanistan.

According one Kabul parent, whose 3-year-old is a finicky eater, Sesame Street has already proved a boon. “Once he saw the characters, our little Hamsa sat right down and ate his cereal,” laughed Inayat.

“My 5-year-old nephew was stuck to the television until the end of the show,” said Fazel Oria, a Kabul resident. “I did not feel it was a foreign show at all.”

Of course not everyone can fully grasp the greatness that is American-based puppetry:

“I did not think it was attractive,” said Huzzein Hazara, a Kabul resident who watched the show with his daughters. “While it was on my daughters were asking me to find Tom and Jerry.”

These interviews were all conducted in Kabul, which must be due to the sheer volume of the interviews conducted elsewhere, and not because those were the only interviews conducted for the story. Otherwise, it would only show the viewpoint of Kabulis, which would smack of a certain lack of journalistic breadth and integrity. If I’ve learned anything from time in Afghanistan, it’s the true depth of a great deal of the journalism that covers these kinds of events. I can’t wait for those other interviews to get published.

Adding to my certainty that there are other interviews is this: Farzana’s production crew “is now bringing the characters of Sesame Street to life for thousands, perhaps millions, of Afghan children.” Those voices must be heard, and not just in Kabul.

So Bring on the Masses

For something like this to work, people should have access to basic things like power, and, well, televisions. This kind of access in a place like Afghanistan is often restricted to the cities. Fortunately, the demographics of Afghanistan support that sort of urbanized model:

Based on NRVA, around 80 percent of the total population of Afghanistan is living in rural areas (74 percent rural and 6 percent Nomads), while the remaining 20 percent are urban residents. Only 11 province main cities are considered urban (high populous urban).

It must be the 20% that live in the urban that comprise the “millions of Afghan children” mentioned in the article above. And electricity shouldn’t be an issue in either urban or rural areas, or access to a television:

Television viewership was very low in rural areas compared to urban areas. 34% of rural respondents never watch television, whereas 68% of urban respondents watch television every day.

Of course that would be the case in the dark days of 2006, when the naysayers and cynics were fully engaged with only focusing on the negative. By the time of the same survey done in 2011, things have much improved, but they’re asking about TV ownership, which may not be as reliable a metric, but it does use the phrase “TV,” so I’m going with it:

Less than half of respondents (42%) report that they own a TV but this is the case for around four fifths (81%) of urban respondents compared to a third (32%) in rural areas.

Likely there are (or there will be) millions of Afghan children watching the refitted Sesame Street in the urban areas. The rural kids likely also number in the millions, but if only the millions in the cities get to watch Baghch-e-Simsim, then we’re good. Things like rural areas always tend to sort themselves out, anyway, particularly in Afghanistan.

Get Thee to Kabul

Also of interest is the Ambassador’s statement:

“Teachers here in Afghanistan will discover that Sesame Street can help children start school well prepared,” US ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker said.

Of course, with the caveat that those kids come from Kabul or some other urban area. I’m not being cruel or narrow-minded: it’s just better this way. Otherwise you end up trying to educate a lot of poor kids:

According to the NRVA, the majority of the poor come from rural areas. The main characteristic of the rural poverty is high food insecurity and a lack of access to infrastructure and basic public services. Illiteracy is prevalent among rural Afghans and the general level of education is low.
Of course, as with all things Sesame Street, the main point is learning. This is from the Sesame Workshop’s webpage, the folks responsible for the show in the States, and it’s an example of one of the planned episodes:
Seven- year-old Deedah meets with her Aunt Samira, who is a civil engineer.  Samira takes Deedah to one of her construction sites, where she wears a hard hat, and watches her Aunt look at blue prints with other engineers.  Samira tells Deedah that if she wants to be an engineer too, she needs to study hard and learn her math.
Since Deedah is probably lucky enough to live in Kabul, this might actually happen. If Deedah’s parents were foolish enough to stay in someplace like Uruzgan, then this scenario might be less likely. Here’s the assessment from the Gloomy Gus Brigade over at Australian Government Aid:
Uruzgan is a poor province with a strong, conservative culture. Its development challenges are formidable. Education is particularly poor, especially for women, and access to health care is limited. The provincial literacy rate is five per cent, and while nearly 10 per cent of men are literate, the literacy rate for women is recorded at less than one per cent. Over 40 per cent of the population lives over two hours from a health facility and less than 10 per cent of the population has access to safe drinking water.
Or Deedah could live in Maidan Wardak, which seems to have no interest in educating its youth:
“Most professional teachers have either taken refuge outside the province, been martyred during the wars, or worked for foreign organisations due to economic problems at the moment,” Hafizollah Waziri, Maidan Wardak director of education, said

Waziri told IWPR that there were 331 active schools in the province, employing 4,375 teachers – but accepted that there were problems arising from the lack of trained personnel. Only 510 teachers in the province were qualified, he said.

Solution? Move Deedah’s family to Kabul, where things like education and electricity are possible. Otherwise, it might be tough to watch TV:
Only 497,000 of the country’s 4.8 million households are connected to what passes for a national power grid, despite more than $1.6 billion already spent on energy projects, according to data from the country’s utility corporation.

Of course, there are those that still don’t realize how truly reliable the grid is in Kabul:

And that head of electricity? He needs to realize that there are kids who need to watch their Sesame Street. Grid or no, Baghch-e-Simsim must go on.

And the winner is…

…for the 2nd awarding of a slot on the Team America All Stars: Tania Farzana, for having the tenacity and vision to move forward with a Western-based educational television program challenging traditional values, guaranteed to reach urban kids in a predominantly rural country in desperate need of reliable power and education.

Here’s to you and the US Embassy for paving the way for the certainty that is 2014!

3 Responses »

  1. How come the muppets get all this yardage whereas the replacement for the mayor of caldwellville has arrived completely under the radar?

    LTG Caldwell, he of the liars club, slipped out-of-country and was replaced by LTG Daniel P. Bolger as CG NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan w/o a whimper — nothing at http://ntm-a.com/wordpress2/, nothing at http://www.defense.gov/ — what’s going on over there? A coup?

    Are the muppets going to take over ANSF training? It would be an improvement, no doubt.

    And does this have anything to do with you being absent doing heaven knows what?
    — Don

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