How ‘Sesame Street’ tones down for Afghans

By Penny MacRae ,AFP

NEW DELHI — Indian and Afghan producers of children’s TV favorite “Sesame Street” are brainstorming in a New Delhi office, swapping tips on how to make Big Bird and his fluffy pals palatable to local viewers. As the show makes India a satellite hub for production and training, it is a chance for the Afghan producers to tap into their Indian peers’ six years of experience in balancing sensitivities in their own culturally and religiously diverse nation. In doing so, the Afghans are working out how to avoid upsetting their own audiences in their quest to teach reading, writing and arithmetic in a conflict-torn country where only 50 percent of children attend school. “This is all the education they’re getting,” says Sayed Farhad Hashimi of the other half. Hashimi is an advisor to the Afghan show that launched in 2011 and is now heading into its second season as “Bagch-e-Simsim” (Sesame Garden). Hashimi notes that in his religiously conservative, warring country, the program treads a fine line, and is unique as a show for young children there.

“Parents control the television and they’re going to turn it off if they don’t like what they see,” he explains over cups of green tea in mugs emblazoned with “Sesame Street” puppets. “We don’t want that to happen. We want it to be received well — in fact it’s vital,” he says, adding that the program consults with the government and parents about content. “In most places, schools aren’t open, so we’re reaching out to high-need areas.”

“Sesame Street,” which airs in countries from Pakistan to Tanzania to Turkey, insists its co-productions are not done to create positive attitudes toward the United States but to “foster positive attitudes” in children about themselves. “The goal is to reach all children at the same time as accommodating local sensibilities,” explains Ira Joshi, an education director of the Indian version of the highly popular U.S. show, as the Afghans nod strongly in agreement.