The United States is using a new technique to fight terrorism: weapons of mass puppetry. Watch out, militants, the kids are all right and are going to kick butt with – a Pakistani version of Elmo!?
Reactions hit the ceiling when the media announced the U.S funded Pakistan with $20 million to get started on their own version of Sesame Street, in hopes it will “preach tolerance.” While that’s all fine and dandy, it leaves us wondering whether everyone in Pakistan is going to see this as a kind and generous move … or as an American attempt infiltrate the minds of children in Pakistan?
Officials claimed there will be absolutely no U.S. involvement in the production of the content for the TV show, however, there are bound to be suspicions floating around in Pakistan regarding this matter. Overall, the show doesn’t seem terrible at all: with a young girl as the main character, and an all-new cast (which means no Big Bird and no Gonzo, only a localized version of Elmo) focusing on the importance of education for all, having a localized Sesame Street only seems like a good idea at first.
Here’s something they might not know, though. Sesame Street in Urdu (the national language of Pakistan) is not going to be new for Pakistanis. There has been an Indian version of Sesame Street, Galli Galli Sim Sim, which was funded by the U.S. Agency of International Development – and a lot of the television in Pakistan includes Indian channels. Pakistani kids are already familiar with Sesame Street and its puppets. Since the Indian version focused on local issues as well (such as health care, dance education, etc.), bringing the series to Pakistan to focus on current local issues isn’t exactly exclusive.
There have been older and more local puppet TV shows in Pakistan, too – such as Siyasi Kaliyan (or Political Petals), a puppet show in which the main character was free to say things which ordinary people weren’t during martial law in Pakistan under General Zia-ul-Haq. So if an old, bespectacled puppet under the name of Uncle Sargam can freely talk about not agreeing with Zia-ul-Haq’s rules and regulations, I’m pretty sure the Pakistani version of Elmo will be able to say a few things about the importance of education for girls in rural Pakistan.
The only objection I have is that help from the U.S. is coming into Pakistan at the wrong time. If the project had been self-funded by Pakistani government, there might have been no cause for debate. However, U.S.–Pakistan relations have been quite wobbly for the past few years, (the recent discovery of Bin Laden staying at Abbotabad didn’t help things, either) and the idea of the U.S. taking a sudden interest in helping Pakistan launch a TV show, which aims to instill new values into the next generation, probably won’t go over well in rural areas.
The group responsible for the production of the series is the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, a well-known organization in Pakistan which has been working with puppetry and education since 1974. Many would have preferred the Rafi Peer group to handle the funds themselves, or depend on assistance from the private sector, rather than international aid.
During Fox News’ discussion of this development, Jonas Max Ferris (Fox News economic analyst) says, “TV is our best export. I’ve always felt getting our shows into these countries is a good way to counter the anti-American hostility and brainwashing that goes on in a place like Pakistan.” And to that, he added, “You’ve got this character that looks like she’s practically wearing the American flag.” (In the defense of the character, she’s wearing the two main colors which public schools in Pakistan have worn for over fifty years.)
The show will air on national television in Pakistan at the end of November.
What do you think? Is trying to reach out to the children of a struggling nation wrong? Or is it the right thing to do, provided the circumstances?