How Sesame Street is Localised for Arabic Children
Everyone in the Netherlands is familiar with Sesame Street. We used to watch it ourselves, or our children or grandchildren grew up watching it. In the adventures of Tommie, Ieniemienie, and the other characters, all sorts of aspects are covered. In this Dutch adaptation of the original American show, you sometimes learn about letters and numbers, whereas other times the moral of the story revolves around friendship. However, the structure of the children’s program varies depending on the culture. In this article, I take you behind the scenes of the television series in the Arab world.
Iftah ya simsim
Sesame Street is called Iftah ya simsim (افتح يا سمسم) in Arabic. The name can be translated as “Open sesame”, which is a reference to the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves from One Thousand and One Nights. In this story, a poor woodcutter observes how the captain of the thieves opens a door in a mountain by uttering the phrase. It used to be believed that the sesame plant had a magical effect that could lift spells and enchantments. This is also why we still associate “Open sesame” with something being magically revealed.
The series premiered in the Middle East and North Africa in 1979, where it quickly became one of the most popular children’s programmes. It provided children with an alternative way to start learning. Despite the show’s great success, no new episodes were produced after 1989 until various organisations made plans in 2010 to revive the series. In 2015, Iftah ya simsim was reintroduced, and live shows were even performed at schools.
In 2020, the program was succeeded by Ahlan simsim (أهلا سمسم), which means “Welcome Sesame.” This is a co-production between the creators of Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, and it is specifically aimed at Syrian children. Children learn from recurring characters from Iftah ya simsim, such as Elmo, and other Muppets, how to manage emotions and feelings, and how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges in life.
To localise or not?
Sesame street is a television series that airs in cultures around the world. In each of these cultures, consideration must be given to how relevant and appropriate the themes, topics, and characters are. And maybe that applies even more so to the show in Arab culture. As explained in the article “The importance of context in Arabic”, the choice of words, themes and topics is extremely important.
Some characters that we know from Sesame Street also feature in Iftah ya simsim. The well-known duo Bert & Ernie return as Badr & Anis, Grover takes on one of the four supporting roles in the program as Gargur, and Ka’ki and Kamil are the Arabic versions of Cookie Monster and Kermit. Although the names of these characters have been adapted, they have remained the same otherwise.
However, not all characters have been included in the Arabic adaptation. As you might still remember, children in the Netherlands have adventures with Tommie and Ieniemienie, a dog and a mouse. They are sometimes joined by Pino and Purk, the big blue bird and the piglet. Nothing unusual, you might say; a dog is part of the daily life of many families in the Netherlands, and mice, pigs and birds are also familiar to us.
However, this is far from normal in the Islamic world. Pigs are considered an impure animal according to Islamic law. That is why Muslims do not eat pork and do not use products derived from a pig, such as boar bristle brushes. Dogs are also considered unclean and should therefore not be allowed in your home. Guard dogs, hunting dogs and livestock herding dogs are exceptions to this rule.
Modified names and animal species
So you can imagine that it is unthinkable that these animals will appear in the Arabic version of Sesame Street. The creators chose to modify the names and animal species for the main characters. Arab children follow the adventures of No’man, Shams, and Melsoon in a typical Arab neighbourhood, with palm trees and the desert in the background, rather than the adventures of Tommie and Ieniemienie. No’man is a camel, Melsoon is a parrot, and Shams is a puppet designed to represent a cheerful and energetic girl. Her name literally means “sun.” The camel is strongly associated with the Middle East and is a commonly used mode of transportation, especially in desert regions. Parrots are also commonly found in the region. In this way, the creators have crafted a setting that closely resembles the ‘real’ world, making it easier for Arab children to relate to the series.
To make it truly Arabic, the creators went beyond just modifying the animal species, names, and environment. Because Iftah ya simsim primarily serves an educational purpose, the topics addressed had to be culturally relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.
One of the topics that is very prominent is spirituality. Spirituality plays a significant role in Arab culture because, in combination with faith, it manifests a strong connection with Allah. That’s why through Iftah ya simsim, children also learn about Islamic principles, social behaviour, manners, and important qualities such as honesty, respecting parents, loyalty, and interacting with others. This way, children are taught the importance of the three pillars of the Islamic community: cooperation, love and justice.
Indeed, whether something in a children’s programme is localised or not, fully adapted or omitted altogether depends greatly on the specific target culture. And that is no different for the Arabic version of Sesame Street.
Are you curious about the Arab world after reading this article? Read “From the desert to Baghdad: the spread of Islam and Arabic” to discover how it became so wide.