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'Sesame Street' Translated into Arabic


Since its debut in 1969 in the United States, the children's television show "Sesame Street" has spread around the world, reaching youngsters in 120 countries. Now the colorful, furry puppets known as the Muppets will educate and entertain in even more of the world's 22 Arabic-speaking countries. The show's Egyptian version is being dubbed into Simplified Classical Arabic.

"Ahlan, ana ismey khokha. Wu di awel marah liyah fi Amrica. Wu mishtaah aabel Elmo. I said, 'my name is Khokha and this is my first time here in America and I cannot wait to meet Elmo!'"

That is the voice of Khokha, 4, an Egyptian girl who lives in Alam Simsim, or "the World of Sesame" as it translates in Arabic.

The outgoing, bright-orange Muppet with purple hair speaks an Egyptian colloquial form of Arabic. Recently she visited New York City at the invitation of the Mosaic Foundation, a non-profit organization formed by the wives of Arab ambassadors to the United States. The group is providing a grant to dub Khokha in Simplified Classical Arabic, the form of the language used throughout Arab media. This way her show can reach the broadest possible audience of Arab-speaking children.

But will things that are culturally appropriate in Egypt be accepted in, for example, Saudi Arabia? Producer Nalia Farouky does not foresee any cultural conflicts.

"The things that we stay away from when we do our shows is we do not talk about religion, we do not talk about politics, we do not ram things down people's throats. It is not fishing for controversy," she said.

Nonetheless, Sesame Street's co-productions go beyond teaching the alphabet or counting to ten. Often they address the specific needs of children in a given region. On South Africa's Takalani Sesame, an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami is helping reduce the stigma of AIDS. And in Egypt, a country with a high illiteracy rate among women, Khokha goes to school, does not wear a veil and dreams of doing things that in some countries only boys are allowed to do.

"There are a lot of things I want to do," she said. "I want to be an astronaut. And I also want to drive a big truck. I also want to be, um, um maybe I can help people who cannot do many things. Like there are a lot of children who are very sick and I want to help them, and maybe be a doctor. And many, many other things these are just some for now."

Khokha's voice and puppeteer, or Muppeteer, is Dina Al-Saleh, who is confident that this message of girls' goals will not offend new viewers.

"It really helps that they are puppets," she explained. "Because sometimes when they are human, they are like, 'Well, I do not know if we dress that way, and this is too short for a four-year-old or this is, you know, this is too fancy or oh no she has make up on!' and you know? A lot of these things might bring up controversy, but as far as puppets are concerned, the sky is the limit."

Arab children are not the only ones who will come to know Khokha. The Mosaic Foundation is also funding an upcoming project to introduce Khokha to the American pre-school crowd, explains producer Nalia Farouky and Khokha.

FAROUKY: "It is two hours, hosted by Khokha in English and she would be addressing American kids, and it is basically to provide a window for American children to see a day in the life of an Arab child."

KHOKHA: "I want everybody to know, like all the kids in America, that we are all the same. Maybe we have different kinds of foods and we have different kinds of weather and maybe we have different animals as well. Other than that we are the same."

From Dubai to Detroit, the universal appeal of Sesame Street seems the same in any language.