KABUL, Afghanistan — The team that was crowded into a slightly down-at-heel office in central Kabul could not look more ordinary. There was Zubaid, a young man in a sweater with a knitted cap pulled low over his head, Ali, in a suit, tall with cropped hair; Ferishta, in a typical long black coat-dress and blue headscarf. They and the others in the room were a bit shy, smiling politely.
But put them in a sound studio and they are transformed: this is the uniquely talented crew that is now bringing the characters of Sesame Street to life for thousands, perhaps millions, of Afghan children.
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.
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The show premiered just one week ago, and has attracted a lot of attention in a country starved for some good news for a change.
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.
Others were similarly impressed.
“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.”
The style might take some getting used to, though.
“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.”
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.
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“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.
Through Sesame Street, Farzana wants to give children back a sense of wonder.
“I am hoping we can give them the right to use their imaginations,” she said. “This instills empathy, the ability to identify with others.”
This, in turn, could help to reduce some of the religious, ethnic, and regional divides that exist among Afghans.
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The project is an ambitious one. While much of the footage is archival stock straight from New York, giving the Sesame Street Muppets their own Afghan identity has been a challenge.
“We interviewed over 600 applicants for 15 characters,” Farzana said. “The voices had to be dead-on. I wanted them to be perfect.”
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.
“Our actors have become co-creators in making the dialogues work,” she said.
In addition to the familiar character pieces, though, Farzana is making 26 original films about Afghan life and society, to insert into the half-hour show.
These will cover topics as diverse as the first day of school and kite flying.
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.’”
Farzana’s message is particularly important in the wake of a horrific attack on Shiites in Kabul on Dec. 6, as they marked their holy day of Ashura. More than50 people were killed, and many feared a new round of ethnic or sectarian violence in the country.
Sesame Street, or Bagch-e-Simsim, as it is called here, wants to put those fears to rest.
But as Afghan culture rubs up against Sesame Street rules, sparks begin to fly.
“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.
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 the meantime, she is content with the progress she is making. 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.”
Kabul-based journalist Abdul Qayum Suroush contributed to this report.