For the past year and a half, we’ve been hard at work developing Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame”), a brand-new, locally produced version of Sesame Street for children across the Middle East, premiering in February 2020. The show is part of our broader humanitarian initiative with the International Rescue Committee, which brings early learning and support to families affected by displacement in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
Anytime we create a new local Sesame Street show, we bring together experts from the region to identify the most pressing needs of the children we aim to reach, and we work together to ensure that our programming is curriculum-driven, culturally relevant, and will give kids the skills they need to thrive.
This collaborative process is what Sesame does best — and we’ve been doing it around the world for nearly 50 years. We know how important it is for children to see their own lives and experiences reflected on-screen, and our characters provide that bridge with the help of extensive research, collaboration, and the magic of Muppets.
Discussing story ideas at our Creative Workshop
Last year, we held a series of workshops in Lebanon and Jordan that brought together teams of early childhood specialists, play and art therapists, psychologists, linguists, writers, artists, and local IRC staff to develop the show’s curriculum and explore creative ideas for Ahlan Simsim’s characters, storylines, and songs.
It’s always thrilling to see how those brainstorming sessions lead to initial sketches of new Muppets, which transform first into foam models and then into fur. But, for me, my favorite part is that first moment on set when the characters spring to life and I forget that they’re puppets. On Ahlan Simsim, this moment happened in our studio in Amman, Jordan, when our two new lead Muppets were sitting on a sofa, their furry legs so short they didn’t even reach the edge. Thanks to trick cut-out cushions, the puppeteers weren’t visible. And as I looked at them, the cameras and crew and bustle on set faded away, and I felt like I was watching two colorful kids making their way through the world. I felt protective of them — and proud.
Today, I’m so excited to introduce you to those newest Muppet members of the global Sesame Street family: Basma, Jad, and Ma’zooza,
Basma is an almost-six-year-old purple-furred Muppet who jumps headfirst into new experiences. She’s a born performer, loves to sing and dance, and has a special ability to create music and sound effects. These come in handy when she can’t quite find the words to express herself. She’s always ready for an adventure — her favorite phrase is, “Yalla!” (“Let’s go!”)
Jad is an almost-six-year-old yellow-furred Muppet who’s new to the Ahlan Simsim neighborhood. He and Basma are best friends. Jad expresses himself through visual art and has the special skill of painting in mid-air using his grandfather’s paintbrush, which he brought with him from where he used to live. Jad is a natural organizer — before he does anything, he likes to think it through and make a plan!
And then there’s Ma’zooza, a sweet baby goat who follows Basma and Jad everywhere, playing and exploring with them. But her ultimate favorite thing? Eating anything shaped like a circle. Ma’zooza doesn’t mean to cause chaos…but sometimes she just can’t help it!
Basma, Jad, and Ma’zooza will go on exciting adventures together in the Ahlan Simsim neighborhood. With the help of animated and human characters as well as familiar Muppet friends like Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Grover, they’ll learn all about big feelings and how to manage them through coping strategies like counting to five and belly breathing. We’ve made these social-emotional skills the focus of Season One because research shows that these skills form a crucial developmental foundation for young children. We also know from research that these “emotional ABCs” are especially important for kids who’ve experienced the trauma of war and displacement, as is the case for so many children in the Syrian response region.
As I watched Basma and Jad that first day in the studio, I thought of all the young kids across the region who also have so much learning and growing ahead of them. I saw Basma and Jad not just as Muppet characters, but as two kids living in a very “real” world — a world in which they sit side-by-side and talk. And laugh. And learn and grow and explore. They looked so comfortable with each other, and in their world. That’s what Ahlan Simsim is all about: helping children learn, feel more connected…and giving them a reason to smile.
Jad and Elmo in Azraq refugee camp, Jordan
This article was originally posted on Ahlan Simsim’s Medium page.