CAIRO--The suggestion came as a casual comment from a script consultant in New York: Nix the rabbit and have the little boy play with a doll. It was a simple request, no doubt aimed at broadening concepts about gender.
But for a conservative Muslim country, it was just too extreme.
"We insisted, 'No, little boys don't play with dolls.' We felt it would offend somebody," said Amr Koura, an Egyptian producer who for the last year has brought a culturally translated version of "Sesame Street" to the Arab world's most populous country.
Called "Alam Simsim," or "Sesame World," the retooled program began its first season here under a cloud of suspicion. It was an American show, funded by the American government, aimed at Arab children--fertile ground for conspiracy theories about brainwashing and cultural imperialism, which were promoted in left-leaning media.
But "Alam Simsim" has demonstrated that, even amid deep distrust of the West, it is possible to bridge the divide.
By building Egyptian themes and values on the time-proven frame of the popular children's show--and by not forcing boys to play with dolls--the program is now viewed regularly by 61% of Egyptian children under 8 years old.
The show's success is testament to a need for remedial education that is so overwhelming that it outstrips the suspicions of most parents.
About half of Egypt's school-age population is illiterate, and 88% of youngsters under 6 do not have access to preschool programs. "Alam Simsim" also has drawn attention to the plight of girls, who are almost twice as unlikely as boys to have attended school.
"Sixty percent of all girls in Egypt are illiterate--this is the school group from 6 until 15 years old," said Abla Marzuk of the nonprofit group Save the Children. "In the poor areas and in Upper Egypt, girls often drop out between the ages of 13 and 15 because we have problems with early marriage."
In addition to basic literacy, the show touches on sensitive issues facing society, from a need to focus on personal hygiene to the tense relations between Coptic Christians and the Muslim majority.
Though the producers were ordered by the government to stay away from religion, they gave one of the characters a noticeably Coptic name, Girgis. He is a rotund grocer who is a good friend to his Muslim neighbors.
"One day my daughter asked me, 'Is it true, Daddy, that all Christians go to hell?' " Koura said recently while sitting in his studio and musing about the impact of the show. "I said, 'No, Girgis is a Christian.' She said, 'Oh, well,' and that was that."
The difficulty with selling the show to an Egyptian market began with its benefactor. Start-up funding came as part of a $66-million grant from the United States Agency for International Development to the Egyptian Ministry of Education.
USAID programs are at times viewed cynically as a cover for exporting American culture and values to impoverished, underdeveloped countries.
Enter Kokha, Nimnim and Filfil, furry cousins to the more familiar Elmo, Grover and Big Bird. Rather than transplant the show wholesale, producers here and in New York devised characters that were uniquely Egyptian, or as Egyptian as a Muppet can be. Kokha, the star of the show, is a peach-colored 3-year-old girl who in not too subtle ways demonstrates that girls can be ambitious. She climbs trees, asks lots of questions and says she wants to be somebody important when she grows up.
Iman Youssef Milad, 30, encourages her 7-year-old to tune in every day. "It teaches the letters and is presented in a simple way," she said. "It's like a lesson but in a nice way."
But the show has not converted all skeptics.
"We have our own values in our society," complained Lobna Abdel Meguid, a university professor and mother of twin 6-year-olds. "For example, the sharing of roles between males and females. Here a man can help in the housework as a matter of cooperating with his wife if he wants to, but we don't need to be lectured on that."
Sesame Workshop, the parent company based in New York, began refining its brand of educational television in 1969. It used advertising techniques such as short, snappy jingles to "sell" educational ideas to children.
Over the years, it has tried reaching into foreign markets, with varying degrees of success. A German version of the show has been on for more than 20 years. But two shows that tried to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis are now off the air.
Since "Sesame Street" stepped back into the sensitive world of the Middle East, there has been a lot of learning on both sides. New York would never, for example, insist that Ernie sit in a bathtub chatting with a female Muppet. Writers in Cairo have learned that they can't leave a child in an unresolved predicament, even if it gets a laugh.
The second season has already been shot, and producers are looking for funding for a third.
In the end, there is one common factor that producers on both sides said made things come together.
"Four-year-olds, we find, are more alike than different, all over the world," said Robert Knezivch, who oversees international co-productions for Sesame Workshop
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