"Sesame Street" vs. the Arab street

Public television's attempt to bring Big Bird and friends to Arab-Americans has been curbed by reluctant corporate sponsors -- and a wary immigrant community.


Christopher Farah
January 23, 2004 1:10AM (UTC)

Warren Avenue does not particularly resemble "Sesame Street." It's located in metro Detroit, with four lanes of rumbling traffic, and it features a jumble of shops that would look equally at home in Jordan, Egypt or Lebanon: Shatila Pastries, Layalli Zeman Cafe, Nasim's Barbershop. Their signs are as likely to be in Arabic as in English.

Unlike any of the show's characters, the people who live on Warren, who pray at its churches and mosques, are likely to speak in either language, and many of the women and girls cover their heads with hijabs, or scarves.

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But these differences are exactly what attracted the people of Sesame Workshop to the area. Three months ago founders of the famous children's show proposed a new program called "Sesame Neighborhood." It would take place in South Dearborn, off Warren, and provide an inside look at the life of a community that boasts a population estimated at anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 people of Middle Eastern descent. The goal was to produce five half-hour shows that would be available for syndication on Public Television stations across the country.

But with every idea comes a demand for money. And in this case, the lack of corporate sponsors -- and a notable lack of financial commitment from a conflicted Arab-American community -- have kept "Sesame Neighborhood" from coming alive.

Sesame Workshop typically develops a list of potential sponsors who would have a natural interest in funding any new show. For "Sesame Neighborhood," that meant Michigan-based corporations, Arab-American businesses and members of the Arab-American community in general. So far, none of those possible sources have come through in a significant way. Production, originally scheduled to begin this month, has been postponed, awaiting the same $300,000 in funding that Sesame Workshop needed three months ago.

And while the people of Public Television don't expect Arab-Americans to foot the bill entirely for a show about them, they have been increasingly frustrated with a community that initially seemed enthusiastic about "Neighborhood" but has since failed to pony up any cash to pay for it. The heart of the problem, though, seems not to be apathy or a lack of generosity, but the age-old issue that has faced all American immigrant communities -- the struggle to remain true to old values and homelands, and a wariness of a new culture that hasn't always been fair in its depictions. All of this, of course, has been made much more complex by the pressures of America's post-9/11 War on Terror and its implications for this country's Arab citizens. Arab-Americans have generally grown much more suspicious of American authorities and institutions -- to the point where some would rather insulate themselves from American pop culture than embrace it.

Ironically, the Sept. 11 terror attacks are exactly what sparked Sesame Workshop's initial interest in developing an Arab-American "Sesame Street" in the first place.

The idea for the show was inspired in part by a study of the emotional well-being of American children, commissioned by Sesame Workshop in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The survey tried to gauge how secure and safe kids felt in light of the recent events and focused special attention on the feelings of Arab-American children in Detroit, Houston and northern New Jersey. The study found that Arab-American kids tended to "feel under suspicion" and were "experiencing more vivid and immediate anxieties than the overall group."

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Sesame Street already featured a regular segment called "Global Grover," in which the scratchy-voiced blue Muppet traveled to places around the world and talked to children. But Sesame Workshop wanted to target Arab-Americans specifically. "Arab-American children were feeling greater isolation and shame, not surprisingly," says Ann Gorfinkel, who's in charge of the nascent "Neighborhood" project. "Ideally we wanted a series that families would watch together -- Arab-Americans would see a positive representation of themselves on the screen, and non-Arab-Americans would learn about another culture."

The programs would feature Arab-American children -- and maybe even Arab-American Muppets -- playing, praying and learning in their homes, churches, mosques and schools. If this effort went well, the five shows could possibly launch "Neighborhood" into other communities -- Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, Russian-Americans and pretty much every hyphenated group you can think of.

To develop and promote the idea, the president and CEO of the Sesame Workshop, Gary Knell, traveled to Dearborn for a series of meetings with politicians, representatives from Detroit Public Television -- which would produce the show locally -- and leaders of the Arab-American community there.

"All the people showed up, and initially the general attitude was, 'I'm here, it's late, after my work. What do you want?'" Knell says. "Then we started talking and it immediately became, 'We love this idea. Let's make it happen.'"

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But with relatively little progress since then, those optimistic tones are starting to change. "It's been mystifying and somewhat frustrating," says Steven Antoniotti, president of Detroit Public TV, and one of the series developers. "Arab-Americans come to us, to Sesame Workshop, to have this discussion, saying, 'We want to see more Arab-Americans represented on television,' but when it's time to put up the funds for it, there's nothing.

"I guess the message is, We'd like to see this, but it would be nice if somebody else does it for us."

Sesame Workshop has been approaching various Michigan-based corporations to help sponsor the project. If a corporation decided to pay for the whole program tomorrow, production of "Sesame Neighborhood" would begin, and there would be no need for any money from Arab-Americans. But so far, that just hasn't happened.

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Gorfinkel says that several corporations expressed initial interest in the project, including SBC Ameritech, Comerica Bank and the Ford Motor Co., whose hiring of large numbers of Arab immigrants in the early 20th century was a big reason Detroit became an oasis of the Mideast in the heart of the Midwest. All of them turned her down, saying that although the cause was good, they just didn't have the money available. Kathy Pitton, a Comerica spokeswoman, said that the project looked promising but that funding had to be denied due to "budget constraints." Comerica has a division devoted specifically to Arab-American outreach, helping individuals and small businesses with loans and grants, and staffing some bank branches with employees fluent in Arabic; any funding Comerica contributed to "Neighborhood" would have come from this initiative.

But if the Arab-American community itself seems hesitant to commit resources to the program, why should outside businesses be inspired to take action? Ishmael Ahmed, director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), was one of the Arab-American leaders who participated in Sesame Workshop's development meetings. Ahmed says that the lack of a financial commitment from concerned Arab-Americans is not due to a lack of interest or enthusiasm for the project, but to a lack of familiarity with American nonprofit institutions -- and to the failure of public television to address effectively the concerns of Arab-Americans.

"Arab-Americans are generous and they do give," he says. "They just don't give in formats most Americans are used to. African-American, Asian and Latino communities are the same way -- used to giving through churches or mosques. I have a great deal of respect for public television, but the outreach effort hasn't been made. They haven't targeted us the same way they target others -- doing campaigns, coming out and visiting, running programming that reflects us.

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"Arab-Americans will support what they're asked to support."

Others, though, see this as emblematic of the Arab-American community's struggle to integrate itself within the broader American society -- particularly in the light of the War on Terror, which many Arab-Americans felt targeted them specifically and isolated them even further.

"Even before 9/11, Arab-American and Muslim kids felt alienated and at a distance from the mainstream," says Nabeel Abraham, a professor of anthropology at Henry Ford College and an editor of the book "Arab Detroit." "Now we're in a precarious situation -- we've got rednecks, two wars against Muslim countries, and people who want to wage more war. Who says a 9/11 won't happen again?

"We can try to get ourselves into the mainstream, but we shouldn't push. There's a point where there's a backlash against us from the broader society."

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Zana Macki, a first-generation American raised in Dearborn by Lebanese immigrants, has 12 nieces and nephews. Since 9/11, they've faced an animosity they hadn't experienced before. "My 9-year-old nephew was at school, and one of the kids said, 'I don't like Arabs,'" says Macki. "My nephew looked at him and said, 'I'm one of those people you're talking about.'"

Macki has been a supporter of "Sesame Neighborhood" since the idea for the series was first conceived. "It puts a human face on our community, as parents, as children, as people proud of our culture," she says. She has been associated with ACCESS for 20 years, and in November, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, helped coordinate a two-day television shoot for Sesame Workshop in Dearborn, taking a camera crew to a local mosque, a Muslim school and a Muslim family's home. Since the funding efforts have stalled, it's the only footage Sesame has shot.

Macki says she plans on holding a local fundraiser for "Sesame Neighborhood" sometime in the future but can't give an exact timeframe: "This is slow moving." She has discussed the project with other community members and says that all have been enthusiastic about the idea. But she adds that getting the broader Dearborn community to trust and support outsiders may be difficult. "People are leery of anything that goes on in the media, especially because of past representations of Arabs."

Abraham agrees. "If you look at other children's shows, produced by Disney, for example, distinctly Arab characters are portrayed as the villains," he says. Many Arab-Americans thought the evil Jafar from Disney's "Aladdin" was made to look more Arab, with darker skin, a turban and a hooked nose. "Someone positive, like Aladdin, is stripped of all his Arab connotations."

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And many recent immigrants don't want their children to fully embrace American culture, in the fear that they'll lose their connection to their Arab roots. Television programs like "Sesame Street" are avoided in favor of native-Arab programming beamed in by satellite.

"Many of the newcomers -- Iraqis and Yemenis -- have built a wall between themselves and society," says Aoun Jaber, who moved to Detroit from Lebanon in 1978. Jaber is the former head of cultural affairs for a popular local Lebanese social group with 10,000 members.

"These newcomer parents don't know English, and they don't want to know it," he says. "Before satellite dishes, people were forced to watch American TV -- there was no alternative. Now they enjoy living 100 percent Arab. They are afraid of Americanization. If you leave it up to parents, few will notice an Arab-American 'Sesame Street.'"

Sesame Workshop has previous experience integrating its programming style with an Arab cultural format. In 2000, it created an Egyptian version of "Sesame Street" called "Alam Simsim" ("Sesame World"), that was produced in Egypt with Arab children and a lineup of adult and Muppet characters with names like Khokha, Filfil and Nimnim. (In one segment of the show, kids sing a song about street cleaning -- "Let's roll up our sleeves and clean our streets!" -- as they pick up trash from an impossibly filthy road, sweep, plant trees and even paint curbs. This may seem like odd fare for a children's show -- unless you've been to Cairo and seen the streets there.)

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Segments of "Alam Simsim" may be translated into English and used for "Sesame Neighborhood," when and if production begins. According to Knell, "Alam Simsim" was "98 percent well received, even enthusiastically received."

The Arab-American supporters of "Sesame Neighborhood" believe the same thing would happen here. But only if the money materializes. And it's still unclear whether that will ever happen, and whether the Arab-American community will make contributions of its own.

"Everybody acculturates in their own way," says Ahmed, the head of ACCESS. "Some try to blend in. Some want to fight. I think this program leaves room for both. Being American doesn't mean giving up who you are. 'Sesame Street' is an American trademark. It's like a seal of approval for being American."


Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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