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ASIA / PACIFIC
April 18, 2016
THE ASIAN REPORTER n Page 5
Zari, new female puppet, joins Afghan Sesame Street
By Lynne O’Donnell
The Associated Press
ABUL, Afghanistan — There’s a
new face on Sesame Street — a
sassy, fun six-year-old Afghan
puppet girl called Zari, with purple skin,
an orange nose and multi-colored hair, an
infectious giggle, and outfits to please
Afghanistan’s broad kaleidoscope of
ethnicities and cultures.
Zari wears a headscarf with her school
uniform, which unlike that for girls across
Afghanistan will not be black — Sesame
Street characters do not wear black — but
pale blue. Otherwise the eternal pre-teen
will be mostly bareheaded.
She is a “universal character,” according
to the team in Kabul that helped create
Zari as the first Afghan character on the
long-running children’s show, already the
most popular in Afghanistan where
children have taken Grover and the Cookie
Monster to their hearts.
“shimmering” in Afghanistan’s two official
languages — Dari and Pashtu — made her
debut on the fifth season of Afghanistan’s
local production of the show called
“Baghch-e-Simsim,” which translates as
She joins Sesame Street’s multicultural
lineup, which includes Muppets in
Bangladesh, Egypt, and India who each do
separate segments on their own national
Zari, too, will have two segments in each
show, one on her own and another in which
she interviews people from a wide range of
backgrounds aiming to educate her young
audience about such things as the
importance of study, exercise, and health.
While many of the show’s characters are
non-gender specific, the Kabul producers
said they felt it was important to make the
Afghan character a girl to help overcome
the endemic misogyny that is often
excused as part of the country’s cultural
and religious heritage.
The goal in bringing Sesame Street to
Afghanistan had always been to
eventually have an indigenous character,
said Clemence Quint, program manager
for Lapis Communications, the Afghan
partner of the Sesame Street Workshop,
which has produced Sesame Street in New
York since 1969.
The two production houses worked
together with Afghanistan’s Education
Ministry to develop a Muppet that fit into
every Afghan’s vision of their nation, while
still conforming to the values that have
made Sesame Street one of the world’s
most successful children’s television
programs, she said.
Zari was made in New York. Her
costumes incorporate fabrics and designs
from all Afghanistan’s ethnic groups —
predominantly Pashtoon, Tajik, Uzbek,
Her skin and hair were also designed to
ensure that Zari cannot be identified with
any specific ethnicity, but rather with all of
them, Quint said. “Every Afghan can
relate to Zari,” she said.
“Zari is a female because in Afghanistan
we thought it was really important to
emphasize the fact that a little girl could
do as much as everybody else,” Quint said.
Each Sesame Street season has at least
one theme, decided by the New York
producers. This season’s themes are
cultural identity and girls’ empowerment.
“So that is why a girl was a key factor in
promoting girls’ empowerment and girls’
education in Afghanistan,” Quint said.
Afghanistan has been at war for almost
40 years, since the 1979 Soviet invasion
and the subsequent mujahedeen war that
lasted a decade. That was followed by a
devastating civil war, in which warlords
drew lines based on their ethnicity and
killed tens of thousands of people in Kabul
The Taliban took over in 1996, and their
five year rule was one of brutal extremism
in which they banned women from work
and girls from going to school, confining
them to their homes. The radical Taliban
regime was forced from power by the 2001
U.S. invasion that ushered in a democratic
experiment and billions of dollars in
international aid to rebuild the country.
Part of that project was the creation of a
vibrant Afghan media sector, as well as
repairing the education system and
getting girls back to school alongside boys.
The number of children in school grew
from 900,000 in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2011,
according to figures from the U.N.
assistance mission to Afghanistan.
UNAMA says girls account for 39 percent
BAGHCH-E-SIMSIM. Sesame Street’s new
Afghan character, a sassy, fun six-year-old Afghan
puppet girl called Zari, takes part in a recording ses-
sion ahead of her television debut on Afghanistan’s
local production of the show in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Zari, whose name means “shimmering” in Afghani-
stan’s two official languages — Dari and Pashtu —
made her debut on the fifth season of the Afghanistan
show called “Baghch-e-Simsim,” which translates as
“Sesame Garden.” (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
of the total — up from near zero under the
However, Afghanistan is still an
impoverished country, with only 60
percent of its children in primary or lower
secondary schooling, according to a
January report by UNICEF on children
living in conflict zones.
In Sesame Garden, and particularly in
the character of Zari, the sectors of media
and education merge. Quint said the show
has “the highest awareness among
Afghanistan, at 86 percent, and is cited by
primary caregivers as children’s favorite
program by far.”
It targets children between three and
eight years old — slightly older than the
U.S. target group as access to formal
education is limited for many Afghan
children for a range of reasons, including
the war and religious and cultural
prejudices against girls’ schooling.
While television is largely restricted to
urban areas, Sesame Garden is also
broadcast on radio, stretching its reach to
most of the country.
The joy in working with Zari is clear in
Mansoora Shirzad’s voice as she brings
Zari to life, holding the puppet above her
head and wishing viewers a happy World
Peace Day and happy International
Children’s Day for an upcoming episode.
Describing Zari as “sweet,” Shirzad, 20,
said the new character “will have a
positive impact on our kids, will make the
program interesting, and will bring some
new color to it, enabling us to convey the
messages that our children need to know.”
“I am very happy to be here in
Afghanistan,” Shirzad said in her Zari
voice. “It is a very good place, I have made a
lot of friends, I enjoy myself a lot when I am
with my friends in ‘Baghch-e-Simsim.’”
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