x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Those who watched the programme in its heyday are now adults, with families and children of their own. But Iftah Ya Sim Sim is no longer just a nostalgic memory.

The creative director of the new version of Iftah Ya Sim Sim, Abdalla Al Sharhan, with the Sesame Street muppet Cookie Monster, known as Kaaki in the Arab version, at the Al Ain Reads Bookshow. Razan Alzayani / The National
The creative director of the new version of Iftah Ya Sim Sim, Abdalla Al Sharhan, with the Sesame Street muppet Cookie Monster, known as Kaaki in the Arab version, at the Al Ain Reads Bookshow. Razan Alzayani / The National

“Iftah ya sim sim abwabak nahnou al atfal

Iftah wa istaqbel As-habak nahnou al atfal..”

(Open sesame your doors, we are the children

Open and welcome us, your friends, we are the children.)

It is the song that every Arab child of the 1980s knows by heart. The opening words that meant it was time for Iftah Ya Sim Sim, the local adaptation of television’s Sesame Street, literally translated as “open sesame.”

“Everyone remembers the opening song, it is unforgettable,” says Noura Al Noman, an Emirati children’s and young adult author.

It began with a catchy “la la la”, sung by a choir of children and set against scenes of children from across the Arab world running past familiar landmarks like the Pyramids and deserts, twirling and jumping around playgrounds and down ancient alley ways before running towards a white fort whose gates are open to let them into a new world, a new episode of Iftah Ya Sim Sim.

Those who watched the programme in its heyday are now adults, with families and children of their own. But Iftar Ya Sim Sim is no longer just a nostalgic memory, with plans now well advanced to bring it back to our screens,

Two years ago, the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States and Sesame Workshop, the US production company behind the original, signed a memorandum of understanding in Riyadh to relaunch the Arabic brand for a new generation of children.

This 2013, Bidaya (Arabic for beginning) was set up at TwoFour54, Abu Dhabi’s media and creative hub, with its inaugural project the Iftah Ya Simsim Educational Initiative, sponsored by Mubadala Development Company.

The initiative is seeking local talent to help relaunch the old series w with a new vision and content suitable for children of today.

“It is a huge challenge, but it is an amazing project and honour to be able to bring back something as powerful and wonderful as Iftah Ya Sim Sim,” says Abdulla Al Sharhan, the creator of the Emirati character and cartoon Hamdoon, who these days is the creative director working with Bidaya on the relaunch of the beloved old series.

Still in its initial stages, there are workshops being held about muppetering — as the art of working with muppets like the Cookie Monster is called —, how to balance educational and entrainment content, and how to bring out the best from the old and introduce new concepts and characters.

“I love Cookie Monster, I used to wonder where all the cookies went when he ate them,” says the 32 year old Emirati. “Honestly, the series had real character. It was amazing. The whole family would sit and enjoy it together.”

Iftah Ya Sim Sim mark 2 is also supported by an educational advisory council made up of education experts and media professionals. The new series will also tackle new media formats besides TV, and may include important Arab talents and figures as guests on the show.

“We are looking at how to bring up today’s issues, like say, healthy eating or dieting, through its characters, where the child is learning through the interaction,” says Al Sharhan, who has three young children to test some of the new contents to see their reaction “Science and learning will be fun again”, he promises.

Even 30 years ago, Iftah Ya Sim Sim was much more than a dubbed version of Sesame Street. The rights to make an Arabic version were bought for over US4 2.5 million dollars by the Gulf Cooperation Council Joint Program Production Institution, who brought in experts to introduce an all encompassing Arabic curriculum that would teach and cultivate Arab values and culture.

Favourite characters like Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, and Kermit were recast Arabic names, becoming Kaaki, Bader and Anees, Gharghour, and Kamil and now speaking modern classic Arabic. There were also new muppets and segments taped and created for by Arabs for Arabs.

They included a camel known as Nu’man, a green and yellow parrot, Malsun, along with Yaqut, a lavender-coloured monster with a long nose a, and a purple full bodied cat wearing ribbons called Abla. Original segments were taped relating to heritage, like wedding rituals of indifferent countries plus poem and songs. Much of the show took place on a set designed as an intricately traditional Arabian neighbourhood called “Sharee Eshreen” or 20th Street.

In all, over 130 episodes were made, each over 40 minutes long. Critics hailed it as one of the most successful pan-Arab collaborations of educators, creators, writers and artists from the Middle East. First broadcast in 1979 and taped in Kuwait, it was shown across the Middle East and North Africa until 1990 until the first Gulf War brought it to a premature end.

Such was its popularity that it is said the Iraq invaders stormed the set of Sharee Eshreen, taking away not just videos of the show but some of the muppet costumers as prisons of war. It is said that the Nu’man costume, as well as Cookie Monster were never found or returned to Kuwait.

To this day, just mentioning the show triggers nostalgia in its fans, some of whom watched reruns on TV well into the 1990s.

“There was something special about the show. It was really well done where both the children and their parents could watch and enjoy,” says Mrs Al Noman. It may have been decades since she last saw any of the episodes, but to this day,

whenever she thinks of the Arabic alphabet, she remembers the “Alphabet song” from the show. “When I try to remember the place of an Arabic letter, I sing the alphabet song from Iftah Ya Sim Sim inside my head and recall the location,” she says.

Her favourite character was Count Dracula, who kept his distinctive laugh and accent when dubbed into Arabic.“He had a funny accent and made numbers sound interesting. We needed that then, and we need something like this today,” she says.

More localised productions were also made including inEgypt where it was known as Alam Simsim (Sesame World), Jordan (Hikayat Simsim or Sesame Tales) and Palestine (Shara’a Simsim or Sesame Street) Nothing though, could compare with the extent and quality of the original pan-Arab production that saw Khaleeji actors, as well as some from Syrian and Iraqi playing characters on the show with child guests who would come after school to take part in taping.

One of the biggest focuses on the new Iftah Ya Sim Sim, will be rekindling the Arabic language. For Al Sharhan, this could not come at a better time. “We are losing our language, and so through Iftah Ya Sim Sim, we can revive the language in such a way that a child learns proper Arabic in a fun way,” he says.

Pausing, Al Sharhan makes a quick call, saying it was one he forgot to make earlier in the day.

And Elmo picks up.

“Hello! Yes Elmo wants to talk to you, yes you ...” says a very bubbly giggly red Elmo on the screen of the iPhone. “This is an example of how far technology has gone where one call their favourite characters,” laughs Al Sharhan.

Meanwhile, fans of the show, now grown up, have their ideas about what should be kept from the original.

“I would just enhance the old music. I wouldn’t dare change the original song, just make it sound better,” says Taha Al Ajami, Emirati musician, who has been approached to creating music for the show.

Now 35, he recalls rushing home as a child to finish his homework in time for the “cartoon hour” after 3:30pm, when every child in the UAE would tune into the must-see one channel that featured shows like Iftah Ya Sim Sim as well as dubbed Japanese anime and classics like Tom and Jerry.

“If you overslept during your afternoon nap, you missed your cartoon hour. So in many ways, we cherished it more than say today’s children who have 24 hour cartoons broadcast on TV,” he explains.

Al Ajami has an entire DVD collection of the show, and still loves to re-watch as an adult.

“There has been nothing like that show since then,” he insists. “Nothing produced on that quality and that level for Arab children. I am so glad it is now happening again and new generation of children will get a chance to enjoy, to dream and imagine like we did,” he said.

RGhazal@thenational.ae