Middle East children are again being educated by puppets made in the US
Hungry as usual, hairy Elmo now eats falafel: the chickpea meatball is the hungry puppet’s new delicacy. Together with thick-eyebrowed Bert and Big Bird in the Sesame Street series, he’s one of the most important TV educators of Western children, but he also teaches to read and write and maths where mathematics was polished: Iftah Ya Simsim has recently been broadcast again, and is the Middle Eastern version of the didactic program born and bred in the US.
If it’s true that TV educates and entertains, children in the Persian Gulf will be educated and laugh with the flat screen in a new battle in the war for soft power, which does not compete for oil barrels or frontiers, but for the parental authority of cultural content. And even if Elmo, Bert and Big Bird appear with characters with a local colour, such as camel No’maan and parrot Melsoon, the new world order is played in this Street. In today’s TEG, Americans try to occupy territories of a hostile area: Arab TVs.
In 1979 (the year of Iran’s Islamic revolution), Iftah Ya Simsim was aired for the first time: in Kuwaiti studios a crowd of puppeteers trained in the US put their hands in the plush characters to inspire children with their uplifting message. The show was broadcast in 22 Arab-speaking countries and taught the rudiments of literacy and nutrition. Families with very high levels of childhood obesity and diabetes were given advice to read in a single sitting and eat healthy food: even if camel No’maan is clearly overweight, he looks active and proud of his appearance. However, in 1990 Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, that led to the Gulf War, was the first war to be broadcast live on TV all over the world. The Iftah Ya Simsim studios, packed with children, were bombed.
This program was cancelled and wasn’t aired as a result of the rift that divided the countries in the area into the ‘center of evil’ or US allies. Like Kermit the frog without Jim Henson, puppet No’maan was kept in a suitcase – until now. ‘There was nothing to address the needs of the children of the area,’ The New York Times was told by Cairo Arafat, director of Bidaya Media, the company bringing the puppets back 25 years later. The Arab Spring seems to have brought about a situation that makes Middle Eastern children be educated again by puppets made in the US, and the new location of the studios defines the relocation of the center of the American influence: Iftah Ya Simsim is not broadcast in Kuwait any longer, but in Abu Dhabi instead, which is less conspicuous than Dubai among the seven united Arab emirates. However, it’s a place that still offers free access to shops and the Big Mac.
Beg, children! The puppets’ geopolitics are planning a different sort of invasion of the Gulf: that of merchandising, including backpacks, T-shirts and lunch and happy boxes that show a red-haired camel’s friendly face and a blue parrot’s squint. Arab children beg their parents to buy them their favorite characters’ trinkets, and the TV tells them how to read from right to left or how to eat falafel with chips. In the war for soft power without tanks or drones, the world’s most powerful TV army calls up the youngest soldiers.