Posts Tagged ‘ Hindi ’

Pakistan’s Sesame Street: Can an Urdu Elmo Aid a Blighted Nation?

By Aryn Baker for Time

For a 3-year-old who has yet to master the use of the personal pronoun, Elmo is a whiz at foreign languages. Already fluent in Chinese, German, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, among others, the fluffy red icon has just picked up Urdu, the most common language in Pakistan. At a time when the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is at its worst in more than a decade, Sesame Street — the quintessential American children’s television program — has burst onto the Pakistani scene in a flurry of fake fur, feathers and infectious ditties about the letter alef, or A.

With its background of ripening wheat, banyan trees and a center stage that features a village snack shop overflowing with exotic fruits and vegetables, the set of Sim Sim Hamara, as it is called in Pakistan, may seem far removed from the urban street scene familiar to most Americans. But the lovable Muppets, child actors and messages of tolerance are pure Sesame. And they have all been brought to life in Pakistan with the help of a $20 million, five-year grant from USAID.

Developed in 1969 by TV producer and early-childhood-education advocate Joan Cooney, Sesame Street was designed to tap the addictive qualities of television to bring early literacy education to American preschoolers. The “quaint” American streetscape, as Cooney then called it, has since grown into the “longest street in the world,” with more than 20 unique programs worldwide, according to Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of global education Charlotte Frances Cole. Some features dubbed segments lifted from the American version; others, like Sim Sim Hamara, which means Our Sesame, are created in partnership with local production teams to reflect native culture. In Pakistan, Big Bird and Oscar have been replaced by a self-involved crocodile and a donkey with rock-star ambitions. “Children have to be able to recognize their environment and their friends if they are going to learn,” says Faizaan Peerzada, who directs Sim Sim Hamara from a studio just outside the city of Lahore. “So we had to give Elmo Pakistani citizenship.”

On a tour of the workshop where the show’s Muppets are made, Peerzada, a master puppeteer with more than 40 years of experience directing educational puppet shows for Pakistani children for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, slips his hand into a limp, feathered pocket of gray felt. Even without eyes, the unfinished puppet springs to life with the mannerisms of an owl, swiveling its head to listen as Peerzada expounds on Sim Sim’s potential with evangelical zeal. Underfunded and neglected for more than 30 years, Pakistan’s education system is in a parlous state. The recently released Annual Status of Education report in Pakistan reveals that nearly 60% of school-age children can’t read, or even do basic, two-digit subtraction problems. For a country where 35% of the population is under the age of 14, the consequences are enormous.

“As a nation, Pakistan has failed its children,” says Peerzada. If Sesame Street brought the joy of learning to generations of American preschoolers, why can’t it help teach Pakistan’s 66 million children under the age of 14 how to read? he asks. “Our children deserve this. All children deserve this,” he says. Obviously a television program that airs twice a week can’t compensate for missing teachers and limited school access, but it’s a start. “To me, Sim Sim Hamara is a gift to Pakistani children, and a window into homes that might think their children are better employed in the fields than at school,” says Peerzada.

Like the original, Sim Sim Hamara is a half-hour-long program divided into skits, song segments and celebrity appearances designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of Pakistani society. The Muppets caper with live actors on a set that combines features recognizable across the country, a kind of Pakistani Main Street that doesn’t stand out as belonging to any particular region. A dhaba, the ubiquitous snack-and-grocery shop that is the center of any Pakistani community, stands in for Mr. Hooper’s store, and is manned (or womanned) by a heavily made up Muppet auntie who anchors the show with amusing lessons about manners, safety and healthy eating. In an effort to promote tolerance in a country marked by ethnic divisions, the Muppets’ skin colors range from brown to pale orange.

Most striking, however, considering Pakistan’s male-dominated society, is the lead character, Rani, a 6-year-old female Muppet who captains the cricket team and who is passionate about science and reading. In a country where only 22% of Pakistani girls complete primary school, Rani is a model of female empowerment. But it doesn’t stop there. The rest of the show’s characters encourage Rani’s quest for knowledge — “Where does the sun go every evening?” was a recent one — modeling acceptance of women’s progress for a wider society. “You are not just teaching little girls that they can have dreams,” says Sesame Workshop executive vice president Sherrie Westin. “You are also teaching boys that it’s O.K. for girls to have those dreams.”

Of course progressive values in one culture can be interpreted as transgressive in another. Sim Sim Hamara has the added burden of being sponsored by the U.S. in a country where American meddling is viewed with increasing hostility. For that reason, the program’s authors have had to broach sensitive issues with subtle creativity. One recent segment opened with a despondent Baily, the would-be rock-star donkey, who decided he would never sing again because someone told him it would make him grow horns. “This is how we get at the idea of mullahs who are against singing,” explained one of the producers. The skit ended with the appearance of one of Pakistan’s most famous rock stars leading the whole cast in an uplifting song about believing in your self, entitled, fittingly, “Faith.”

Teachers who see it as a way to promote literacy at home have praised Sim Sim Hamara, as do children who have never really had a program to call their own. “I find that those who regularly watch Sim Sim Hamara know more about health and body parts and their functions,” says Islamabad school principal Masart Sadiq. “They get lots of ideas about careers, which they discuss with their teachers too.” Aniqa Khan, a 12-year-old from Rawalpindi, says she now wants to be a pilot, like Munna, Rani’s 5-year-old Muppet co-star. “He is excellent at math, which inspires me to spend more time on math.”

So far, and against fears in a country where the assassination of a governor accused of blasphemy was celebrated in the streets, there has been no negative response to Sim Sim Hamara. “I think my biggest fear was that the program would be misunderstood before it even aired,” says Peerzada. “People might have thought it was some kind of brain-washing project. But at the end of the day, all we are doing is teaching a child to count.”

The same could not be said of reactions to the program in the U.S., where Fox News in October dubbed Sim Sim Hamara a boondoggle for Elmo and conservative commentators quickly took up the cause. But as Sesame Workshop’s Westin points out, $20 million pays for a lot more than Elmo’s Urdu lessons and a plane ticket to Pakistan. It covers a state-of-the-art studio, high-definition digital-video equipment that won’t be obsolete in a few years, and the foundations of an educational institution that, if all goes to plan, will provide Pakistani children with the basic-literacy building blocks that have been the mainstay of early-childhood education in America for more than four decades. Current estimates say that Sim Sim Hamara is reaching more than 3.5 million Pakistani children who have no other access to preschool education. “This is a smart investment,” says Westin. “Early-childhood education is one of the most effective ways to build stability in any country. An investment like this is not only going to benefit Pakistan, but our children as well. If we can help to create a more peaceful world, that is a benefit to all of our children.” And that sounds like something Elmo would love, in any language.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– We commend this great project by the United States government and the USAID program. The $20 million grant and this educational program will not only help the children of Pakistan who are not provided an adequate educational system by their own government but a program like this goes a long ways in the betterment of ties between the United States and Pakistan and leaves a lasting legacy for the area’s children for years to come.

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Seeking Solace in Sufism

By Renuka Deshpande for Daily News & Analysis

The city’s metamorphosis from a sleepy town to a metropolis has left most of us long for peace and contentment. This is why Punekars are taking to Sufism as a quest for harmony and the need to seek refuge in the promise of hope and love.

Sufism or Tasawwuf, the mystical arm of Islam, which is inwardly directed, deals with the soul’s relationship with god. It advocates oneness with god and urges that everything men do, be driven by one sole motivation — the love of god. The word Sufi means ‘clothed in wool’, reveals Dr Zubair Fattani in his article The Meaning of Tasawwuf, and is metaphoric of the inwardness of Islam wrapped in its exterior expressions.

Over the centuries, it has found expression in the ecstatic and reflective poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hafiz, Rabia and Moinuddin Chisti and others, which is increasingly popular in the city.

Bookshelves laden with books on Sufism and its various expressions in poetry, music and dance are a common sight, as are the collections featuring Sufi music maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Kailash Kher and the Sabri brothers, among many illustrious others.

Jyoti Mate, a city Sufi music and dance therapist, uses this mystical dimension to heal all those who seek solace in it. The whirling dervishes, the most iconic symbol of Sufism, are the basic element of Sufi dance and represent the earth rotating around the sun, also symbolic of the universe.

“Sufi dance helps stir pent-up and suppressed emotions within oneself. The hands are outspread while whirling and the head is thrown off-centre. A lot is metaphorical in Sufism, dance being no exception. The raising of the right hand and facing it skyward indicates absorption of knowledge from the heavens and the left hand which is pointed downwards, palm-down, passes it on to others.The head thrown off-centre is an urge to be non-egocentric, so that the ego doesn’t grow further. The cap used by Sufis is made of camel hair and is of a specific height, again symbolising the curtailing of the ego,” she says.

Mate adds that response to her therapy sessions has steadily grown since she first started in June 2008 and people often break into tears after the session is over.

On the music front, there is Ruhaniyat, the all-India Sufi and mystic music festival presented by Banyan Tree, which has been coming to Pune for the past eight years. The seven-city festival brings with it Baul musicians from West Bengal, comprising Sufi Muslims and Vaishnav Hindus, the Manganiars from Rajasthan singing Sufi folk music from the state, qawwals like the Sabri brothers and Turkish Sufi musician Latif Bolat, among others. Nandini Mukesh, director of Banyan Tree, who also emcees Ruhaniyat, says that the festival has elicited phenomenal response in the city.

“Last year, our attendance read around 1,800 people. We found ourselves continually adding chairs,” she says adding that the audience in Pune is very evolved and sophisticated and comes with an understanding of the music played at the festival.

Speaking of the musical response she receives at Ruhaniyat, Nandini says, “Baul songs are incredibly symbolic and metaphorical and touch a chord within people. Qawwalis comprise incredibly powerful musical compositions and progressions, but the Hindi and Urdu lyrics are simple to understand. Beyond a point, however, words cease to matter and the musical experience turns mystical and takes precedence.”

The popularity of Sufi rock bands like Junoon from Pakistan, along with Coke Studio, has also led to the emergence of Sufi rock bands like Chakra in the city, which does a lot of covers of Pakistani Sufi music songs, along with some original compositions featuring dohas of Baba Bulleh Shah and Kabir.

The Osho Meditation Resort in Koregaon Park, has whirling meditation sessions every Wednesday. Ma Amrit Sadhana of the resort, says the eyes are kept open and unfocused while whirling, which forms the first stage of the meditation technique, the second being rest.

“The response to these sessions is great. Watching so many people be a part of the session, and the sight of them totally engrossed in whirling is beautiful,” she adds.

Sheetal Sanghvi of The Urban Ashram, which hosts many Sufi music and dance workshops, is bringing Sheikha Khadija to Pune in November for a whirling meditation workshop. Khadija is a Sheikha in the Mevlevi Order of America.

“Sufism promotes unity and love and the response to our Sufi workshops is really growing. This is because orthodox systems of religious beliefs sometimes don’t narrate to the soul as well as they should. Sufism, with its teachings, gives hope to people,” he adds.

Islamic scholar Anees Chishti, who isn’t a Sufi but has studied it, is skeptical of this current trend of what he feels is pop-Sufism.

“Sufism requires penance and meditation. Sufi rock and dances are nothing but a Western concept. They call the whirling movements dervishes, but the term, is durvesh, dur meaning pearl and vesh meaning hanging, in Persian. So the composite means ‘hanging like a pearl’. In Turkey, during the time of Rumi, the head of the khanqah or mystic hall, was a durvesh. When he played the daf and sang mystical poetry, people listening to him would go in a trance and start whirling. So ‘durvesh’ refers to a person and not a bodily movement. All this pageantry is a marketing tactic,” he says.

Opinions on the topic are many and varied, but most will agree that Sufism in its numerous interpretations in literature, music and dance does feel divine.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– Amongst literally hundreds of favorite Rumi quotes, one of our top one sums up life very well when he said: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

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