The great divide down Sesame Street

What happened when the Muppets tried to bring peace to the Middle East
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The Independent Online
The peace process has been complex amongst humans in the Middle East. But then wait until you try to involve Muppets.

Children's Television Workshop, the group which makes the children's programme Sesame Street, is producing their seventeenth foreign version of the programme. But the Israeli-Palestinian version, due on screen by the end of the year, is the first time that former enemies have been united to work together.

Sesame Street is the wildly popular American show which as well as teaching the children the rudiments of reading and maths, preached love, tolerance and not being nasty to people who are different. It brought to life Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and the duo Ernie and Bert beloved of children ever since.

Each foreign version has its own idiosyncrasies - it is said that the Russians came up with plot lines which would have not been out of place in a Tolstoy novel and the French insisted on giving Big Bird a facelift so he looked like Charles de Gaulle.

But in the Middle East there have been difficulties from the start, with the Israeli and Palestinian Muppets even having to live on separate Sesame Streets. If you're Israeli, look out for Rehov Sumsum - a street with an ice-cream parlour and a view of the Mediterranean. If you're Palestinian there is Shariyee Sumsum with a well, a shop selling Arab sweets and a backdrop of the West Bank.

Lewis Bernstein, the executive producer, said: "Both sides felt fairly strongly that they had two independent lives that would interact every now and then. But for them to be singing and dancing together - that would be so far from reality that it would become unbelievable, even for Sesame Street."

The Americans then suggested a compromise - a park where Muppets from both sides could play together. The Israelis agreed. The Palestinians wanted to know who owned the park. "While the Palestinians thought it was a good idea, they felt it was unrealistic," added Mr Bernstein. "There is no such thing as neutral territory there. It was too sensitive an issue."

To combat the language barrier, the producers are trying to use a core of 3,000 words that are similar in both Hebrew and Arabic. In one case, however, the Palestinians wanted one of their characters to say that he learned Hebrew while in an Israeli jail. Mr Bernstein said: "We said it wasn't necessarily the message we wanted to get across."

But real life has a nasty habit of intruding - once, just before shooting a scene in which Palestinian and Israeli Muppets meet, a Tel Aviv cafe was blown up. The crews were asked if they wanted to continue with the production. "Both teams wanted to do it despite the violence," said Mr Bernstein. In the end the Palestinian crews were booked into Tel Aviv hotels whereas, ironically the Israeli crew had far more difficulty getting to the studio because of the roadblocks.

Each side has its own crew, writes its own scripts and looks at the other's. But all the Muppets are united in their loathing of onions which are served to them: Mr Bernstein said: "The symbolism for those watching is that is that we all have our fears but above all we are children who can get along if we throw off our parents' hang ups."

The Israeli-Palestinian version is not the only one to address social issues. The street itself is adapted to reflect whatever country it is in - in Norway it becomes a train station because children do not play out in the street, in Mexico it is a plaza, in Canada a national park.

The Turkish version focuses heavily on health and hygiene issues because of the high infant mortality rate whereas the Kuwait version praises manual labour as producers were worried that children brought up after the discovery of oil would be cocooned in a wealthy environment.

The next production planned is a post-apartheid version for South Africa. Cooper Wright, project director for South Africa, said it had to become a multi-media project including radio and community outreach because of low levels of television ownership amongst blacks.

Mr Bernstein is confident that the Israeli-Palestinian version will succeed and help children learn tolerance. But the two sides are not above taking an affectionate swipe at each another.

The Israelis' version of the grumpy Oscar the Grouch is Moishe Oofnik, who lives in a broken down car. The Palestinians however decided dispense with Oscar as "an Israeli grouch was more than sufficient".