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Elmo in Urdu? 'Sesame Street' Heads to Pakistan

Apr 8, 2011 – 7:42 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

U.S. airstrikes, aid and diplomatic offensives have achieved only marginal success in winning Pakistani hearts and minds, so American officials are now deploying their secret backup weapons: Bert, Ernie and Cookie Monster.

Funded by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the American children's TV program "Sesame Street" is heading to Pakistan. Filming begins this summer, and the show is set to debut in the fall. It'll feature furry muppets speaking mostly Urdu instead of English, in a Pakistani village setting.

U.S. civilian aid to Pakistan has recently tripled to $1.5 billion a year, but that money -- invested in food aid, education and infrastructure -- has failed to woo all Pakistanis away from al-Qaida, anti-American sentiment or Islamic fundamentalism. So U.S. officials are taking a different approach, hoping that "Sesame Street" can instill education values in very young Pakistani children, arming them with the learning tools to fend off extremism later in life.

Sesame Street
The Pakistani version of "Sesame Street" will feature new muppets and a Pakistani village setting. The goal is to help the country's young people learn basic words and numbers and possibly help them reject violent extremism later in life.
"The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning. And inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated," Faizaan Peerzada, the head of a Pakistani theater group that's collaborating with "Sesame Street's" American creators, told McClatchy Newspapers. "This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time."

The show will air on Pakistani state television, PTV, and thus will be available in even the most remote villages with TV service. For those without, mobile TV vans will circulate the country, bringing "Sesame Street" to places without even electricity.

The format will be largely the same as the U.S. version, with each episode highlighting one letter and number for children to learn. Like the U.S. version, the program will also have strong female characters, with the subtle aim of promoting tolerance and gender equality. But it's not slated to touch on any political themes outright.

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"Teaching kids early on makes them much more successful when they get to school. And this program will have the capacity to encourage tolerance, which is so key to what we're trying to do here," Larry Dolan, head of USAID's education office in Pakistan, told The Guardian. "In terms of bang for the buck, reaching 95 million people is pretty important. This is much more than a TV program, far more ambitious than a 'Sesame Street' series."

Ironically, word of "Sesame Street's" Pakistan debut comes as U.S. lawmakers debate possibly de-funding public broadcasting inside the United States.

"Sesame Street" also has co-productions in 30 other countries around the world, including Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa.
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