Arts & Leisure  |  March 29, 1998, Sunday
TELEVISION; Muppets Succeed Where Politicians Haven't
By JOSH SELIG (NYT) 1972 words
Late Edition - Final, Section 2, Page 45, Column 1

We are rehearsing a scene about a Palestinian rooster and a Palestinian girl monster struggling to overcome their fear of a giant Israeli porcupine.

We are in East Jerusalem, in one of two large halls in al Hakawate, the Palestinian National Theater, three weeks away from taping the first combined Israeli-Palestinian version of ''Sesame Street,'' and the rehearsal is not going well. There's too much noise -- stomping and Arabic chanting -- coming from the other hall. The monster keeps missing her cues because she can't hear the rooster crow. Somebody has to do something. It's often my job, as resident producer, to be the heavy, so I poke my head into the next theater.

A rally of some sort is under way. On stage, a local dance troupe is performing in front of large banners that feature crudely drawn automatic weapons. A young Palestinian wearing a kafiyeh, or Arab shawl, spots me and, in perfect English, explains that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine is holding an afternoon of speeches and performances to protest recent Israeli settlement activity. I return to our theater and tell the rooster he's just going to have to crow louder.

But the mood in our hall has changed. One of our puppeteers has just learned that Israeli soldiers have surrounded the building. Apparently our neighbors don't have a rally permit and the Israelis may storm the theater at any moment. Should this happen, he tells me, the soldiers are unlikely to distinguish between puppeteers and militants. Since my contract says nothing about dying in an armed conflict, I agree to cancel the rehearsal. We pack up the puppets and exit the building, Americans first. Sure enough, Israeli soldiers are everywhere and they stare at us as only 18-year-olds with M-16's can. As we file past them, I wonder if we are insane to try to make ''Sesame Street'' in a place like this.

I had arrived in Jerusalem five months earlier (fall 1996) armed with only a laptop computer and a corporate credit card that said Children's Television Workshop. My job, as I understood it, was to help the Palestinians write and produce ''Sesame Street'' segments that would be combined with Israeli-made segments to create the first warm and fuzzy, bilingual Israeli-Palestinian children's television series in history. Sort of CNN on Ritalin.

According to both sides, it was a naive idea, which in the Middle East is another way of saying an American idea. It's true that the atmosphere under the new Israeli Government wasn't exactly conducive to such a ''We Are the World'' project, but the show's groundwork had been laid years earlier and most people felt that ''Sesame Street's'' brand of Muppet love was needed now more than ever.

As a naive American, I was well suited to be the show's resident producer, a job with duties that ranged from being the liaison between the Israeli and Palestinian teams to paying for lunch. I had worked as a writer and filmmaker for ''Sesame Street'' in New York for several years but I understood little about the Middle East and its problems. In the next six months, however, I got a good dose of the complexity of both cultures and their renowned political gridlock. I also saw, and became a part of, a genuine partnership between one group of Palestinians and one group of Israelis who, despite their long, dysfunctional history, came together to work as friends.

For reasons I never quite understood, the Palestinian production offices were called Star 2000, a very high-tech name for four bare rooms with one working telephone line. Star 2000 was in the dusty strip town of Arram, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, an address that made many people, including my boss back in New York, a bit nervous. But I was never treated like anything other than a welcome guest on the West Bank.

The Palestinians were responsible for producing their own film, animation and studio segments for the show. These segments would be made in Arabic with the exception of the ''crossover'' segments, which were the scenes in which the characters from the Israeli street (Kipi and Dafi, a porcupine and a monster) would visit and make nice with the characters on the Palestinian street (Haneen and Karim, a monster and a rooster). These crossovers would be taped in both Arabic and Hebrew with a bilingual human usually interpreting for the bewildered-looking young puppets. (American ''Sesame Street'' Muppets like Bert and Ernie would appear in dubbed segments from American episodes.)

Meetings with the Palestinian team were always accompanied by a virtual rhythm section of ringing cellular phones. The scarcity of telephone lines in the West Bank has made cellular phones as necessary as pita bread, and no self-respecting Palestinian with a good job was ever without one. So essential are these phones, in fact, that last spring after our executive producer, Daoud Kuttab, was released from a Palestinian prison for broadcasting meetings of the Palestinian Legislative Council, our show's producer, George Kheleifi, was asked if Daoud had been tortured in prison. George was quoted as saying, ''Yes, they took away his cell phone.''

Our script review meetings always began in English, mostly for my benefit, then quickly reverted to Arabic whenever anybody felt strongly about anything, which was just about all of the time. The topics of these scripts -- embroidery, fishing, Jerusalem -- reflected the everyday aspects of their culture that Palestinians wanted the world to see. For them, ''Sesame Street'' was a chance to counter the stereotypes they had seen on television for decades: images of Arabs as camel riders, thieves and terrorists.

Involvement in the ''Sesame Street'' project did not come without a price for the Palestinians on the team. They were often subjected to severe criticsm from other Palestinians for what was seen as a form of ''normalization'' with the Israelis. So why did they agree to work on the show? I asked our animation producer, Ayman Bardawil, this question one night over drinks. ''I am doing it for my children,'' Ayman said, ''so they will not hate the Israelis.'' This was quite a statement, given that Ayman had twice been ''interrogated'' by the Israelis, a process that included, he said, the crushing of his testicles.

The Israeli ''Sesame Street'' team was based in Ramat Aviv, an upscale Tel Aviv suburb. It was, without a doubt, the most heavily armed television studio I had ever been to. In addition to the three guards at the gate with automatic weapons, another guard was permanently stationed outside the studio where the Palestinian team was taping. I don't know if this was standard policy or if the Palestinian puppets just looked particularly dangerous.

ONLY a few members of the team from the original Israeli ''Sesame Street,'' first broadcast in the early 1980's, worked on this new production. (There are currently ''Sesame Street'' co-productions or broadcasts of the English version in 86 countries.) The new team was made up of young professionals who were deeply committed to the show's themes of tolerance and mutual respect. During my first visit to Tel Aviv, one staff member, Adi Vinitza, took me to a service commemorating the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. With tears in her eyes, Adi told me that for her working on ''Sesame Street'' was a way of keeping Rabin's dream of peace alive.

There were difficult meetings, especially those in which we discussed the crossover segments. Disagreements usually centered on how and why the puppets would visit one another. The Palestinians felt that the Israeli puppets needed a clear reason for their trips to the Palestinian street, so as not to be confused with Israeli settlers who were just popping by for tea. Furthermore, they wanted the puppets to be, at first, somewhat fearful of one another. As one of the Palestinian writers, Sami-Al Kilani, said, ''These segments should exist in a place between hope and reality.''

The Israelis, on the other hand, wanted everyone to become instant friends and happy neighbors, a position that I found quite paradoxical given that the Israeli team had visited the Palestinian offices only once and had done so with an armed security guard in tow. In the end, a compromise on the crossovers was reached: the puppets, after a short, nervous introduction, became as friendly as Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn.

Once in the studio, the two teams themselves mingled cautiously and the atmosphere was not unlike a high school dance before anyone has started dancing. Fortunately Cathy Chilco, the vice president of Sesame Street International Production, arrived and made a bold executive decision: dinner for both teams at a restaurant on the Mediterranean.

This was the first time all the Israelis and all the Palestinians had spent an evening together and Cathy saw to it that everyone sat, more or less, Israeli-Palestinian-Israeli-Palestinian, the regional equivalent of boy-girl-boy-girl. Soon the dancing had begun. The children of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, were toasting the children of kibutzniks. The conversations were in Arabic, Hebrew, English and (for some reason) Hungarian, and the topics were far more likely to be about puppets than politics.

After that evening, a true spirit of friendship began to take hold in the crowded IETV studio. During breaks, the Israelis and the Palestinians had coffee together, with or without their American chaperones. People touched one another when they talked.

No one was immune to the love fest. Even the Palestinian team's most vocal anti-Israeli member, Nancy Ishag, who had lost a half-brother during the intifada, surprised us all one day by sporting a toy ring she had been given by an Israeli crew member and announcing: ''Look! I am engaged to a Jewish!'' She had not become engaged, of course, but she had done something that for her was almost as radical. She had made her first real Israeli friend.

Despite the Palestinians' relative inexperience, their work in the studio impressed even the hardened Israeli crew members, and their segments turned out to be as good as those of any ''Sesame Street'' co-production in the world. (The show goes on the air in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories on Wednesday.)

The morning after the Palestinian wrap party, on a plane to my next ''Sesame Street'' assignment, in Finland, I had time to reflect. In the grand scheme, I knew we hadn't solved any problems; if anything, the political situation was worse now than it had been in years.

Then I began to think about one of the last studio segments we had taped. In it, Haneen, the Palestinian monster, and Dafi, the Israeli monster, discover they love some of the same foods. ''Hummus! Falafel! Hummus!'' the puppets had squealed, and everyone had laughed so much that we had to retape the segment. It occurred to me that maybe ''Sesame Street'' had given the Israelis and the Palestinians something they hadn't had before: a place where, for a short time, the two monsters could play.