LAHORE, Pakistan – Under the Obama administration, American civilian assistance to Pakistan has tripled to $1.5 billion a year, but many critics say that money doesn’t seem to have done much to spur the fight against al-Qaida or Islamic extremism.
Now the United States is throwing a new weapon into the mix – “Sesame Street,” the classic American children’s program populated with furry monsters.
Funded with a $20 million grant from USAID, the economic assistance arm of the State Department, the Pakistan version of “Sesame Street” will feature new muppets and a Pakistani village setting. The goal: to help the country’s young learn some basic words and numbers and maybe, by promoting better education, help reverse Pakistan’s descent into religious conservatism, violent extremism and economic stagnation.
The star of SimSim Humara (“Ours”), as the Pakistani edition of “Sesame Street” is called, is Rani, a cute 6-year-old human muppet, who loves science and reading, and her curiosity will be used to encourage questioning. Other characters include a spirited adult woman, Baaji, who enjoys family time and tradition, and Baily, a hard-working donkey who longs to be a pop star. They’ll speak entirely in local languages – the Urdu spoken by most Pakistanis as well as four regional languages.
The only cast member of the American version that will have a role is Elmo; others have been cut to make way for local characters.
Filming will begin here this summer, and the show will air starting in the fall. Because it will be broadcast on the national state broadcaster, PTV, it should be available even in the smallest villages.
Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer at the Lahore-based Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, which was awarded the project, said, “This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time.”