Palestinian Sesame Street ails without US funds

It's quiet time on Palestinian Sesame Street. The iconic children's program, known as "Sharaa Simsim" in Arabic, has been put on hold for the 2012 season because of a funding freeze by the US Congress.

Sharaa Simsim is one of many US-funded Palestinian programmes suffering after Congress froze the transfer of nearly $200 million (£130m) to the US Agency for International Development in October. The suspension aimed to punish the Palestinians for appealing to the United Nations for statehood. 

The funding suspension — affecting hospitals, education, and government ministries that all rely on American aid — is breeding resentment and frustration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even among the most progressive organizations. 

In the Ramallah offices of Sharaa Simsim on Thursday, the writing workshop room was empty and the set was closed. 

"If we had funding, we would be writing scripts, we would be reviewing scripts, we would be hiring filmmakers to produce the videos," said executive producer Daoud Kuttab. 

Even as the freeze put Palestinian Sesame Street on hold, the State Department is investing $750,000 (£486,000) in the Israeli version of the show, which is now filming its newest season with an emphasis on teaching children the value of fairness. 

Danny Labin, an executive at the Israeli TV channel that co-produces Israeli Sesame Street, call the funding halt to the Palestinian show "extremely unfortunate." 

"Young children, whether Israeli or Palestinian, who are in need of educational tools to foster diversity appreciation and to prepare for life in a pluralistic society, should not be penalized or held accountable to the politics and political leadership, over which they have no control," Labin said. 

Sharaa Simsim, the Palestinian show, debuted in 1996 and has produced five seasons since, with long intermissions for fundraising. It has promoted a message of peace and tolerance that Israeli critics say is often missing from Palestinian airwaves. The main characters Haneen, a red-headed orange muppet, and the green rooster Kareem have became household names for Palestinian children. 

Sharaa Simsim is one of about two dozen international shows produced by the Sesame Workshop Staff, the parent company of the American show. Others are aired in Israel, Egypt, Russia and South Africa. In each country, the New York-based Sesame Street staff consults with the local production teams to create a unique cast and content. 

Kuttab said production takes months. At the beginning of each season, Palestinian educators and child psychologists work with the Education Ministry to craft themes and curriculum. Then writers draft the episodes, with occasional review from New York. Filmed in Ramallah and airing on Palestinian national television, each 20-minute episode is half Palestinian content and half American footage. 

Sharaa Simsim was supposed to begin this process in October, but Kuttab said the show won't be able to air in 2012. 

"Every month we are behind schedule it actually means two or three months down the line," he said. "If we don't do the curriculum workshop we can't do the scriptwriting. If we don't do the scriptwriting we can't do the filming, and there are actors who have their own schedules." 

From 2008-2011, USAID gave $2.5 million to the programme, covering nearly the entire budget, Kuttab said. 

USAID was scheduled to issue another $2.5 million grant to Sharaa Simsim to last until 2014, Kuttab said. But in early October, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, placed holds on $192 million in funding to USAID for programs in the West Bank and Gaza. 

She said this was in reaction to the Palestinian's appeal to the UN to admit the Palestinians as a full member state. The US, Israel and others oppose the move, saying a Palestinian state can only come about through negotiations. 

Congress restored $40 million of the funding in December but it's doubtful any will go to the show. Many programs are clamoring for funding, including healthcare and humanitarian projects, said a USAID official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of ongoing Congressional debates. 

Bradley Goehner, spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, did not say if the intention was to cut Palestinian Sesame Street and other programs, or if more USAID funding would be restored. 

"It is a matter that continues to be discussed with the administration and pertinent members," Goehner wrote by email. 

American opposition to the Palestinian bid raised hackles in the West Bank, ruled by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. Days after the USAID funding hold, Palestinian protesters hurled a shoe at an American diplomatic convoy in Ramallah. 

Nasser Abdul Karim, an economist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said the freeze hurt Washington's image and will push Palestinian groups to diversify their funding. 

"Because of the U.S. support of the Israeli agenda, (Palestinians) look at American aid with a lot of suspicion," Abdul Karim said. 

The US donates more than $500 million a year to the Palestinians, including funds for security forces, the government's operating budget and USAID programs. 

Kuttab said he is using some last-minute funding from the Palestinian Authority to tape small-scale children's programs. Core staff are working on reduced salaries, and freelancers are off the payroll. 

In the meantime, the show's muppets have been sent to New York for repairs. 

Sesame Workshop in New York confirmed the Palestinian show is on hold. Spokeswoman Beatrice Chow said Sesame hopes USAID will resume its support. 

Since it was founded, Sharaa Simsim has reflected the region's political ups and downs. 

In the first season, muppets from Israeli and Palestinian programs visited each other on TV. After the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, the cooperation crumbled. 

USAID backed out of funding after the Hamas militant group won Palestinian elections in 2006, and Kuttab scrambled to create a mini season with funding from Holland and small organizations. 

Actor Rajai Sandouka, who plays the rooster Kareem, said he is working as a freelance actor in theaters and as a drama teacher while he waits for the latest freeze to be lifted. He said kids recognize his voice when he is on stage, even when he plays other characters. 

"A lot of people are asking about me," said Sandouka, 50, from east Jerusalem.


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas