There’s a new face on Sesame Street – a sassy, fun 6-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 will wear 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 bare-head.
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.
Zari – whose name means “shimmering” in Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashtu – made her debut on Thursday on the fifth season of Afghanistan’s local production of the show called Baghch-e-Simsim, which translates as Sesame Garden.
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.
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.
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.
Each Sesame Street season has at least one theme, decided by the New York producers. This season’s themes are cultural identity and girl’s empowerment. “So that is why a girl was a key factor in promoting girl’s empowerment and girl’s education in Afghanistan,” Quint said.
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.
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 children’s television shows in Afghanistan, at 86 percent, and is cited by primary caregivers as children’s favorite program by far.”
While television is largely restricted to urban areas, Sesame Garden is also broadcast on radio, stretching its reach to most of the country.
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.”