Three-year-old Tahira Sreen keeps interrupting the Muppet, getting up and kissing its fuzzy purple cheeks.
“We will also make food for Zari,” Tahira chimes in.
The two young women who take turns bringing Zari to life say these children’s reaction is not unusual.
“When they see Zari they are looking so happy,” says 18-year-old Sima Sultani, the puppeteer who voices the character in the Pashto language, Dari.
“Most of the children they want to hug, they want to touch, mostly they want to kiss Zari,” adds 23-year-old Mansoora Shirzad.
Afghanistan’s first muppet
Zari is the first and only Afghan Muppet on “Bahgch-e-Simsim,” or Sesame Garden — the Afghan version of popular children’s television show “Sesame Street.”
For its first four seasons, it consisted largely of dubbed content from “Sesame Street” programs around the world.
But in the show’s fifth year, Zari, supposed to represent a six-year-old Afghan girl, was introduced.
Zari is mostly purple, with a yellow nose, bright, multi-colored dress, and long hair made out of braids of brown yarn, with pink, blue and orange highlights.
After being chosen for the program, Shirzad and Sultani were flown to India for training at the offices of Sesame Street’s Indian production.
The two women now speak of Zari in the third person.
Sultani says she forgets herself when she begins to perform as Zari, while Shirzad, whose family returned to Afghanistan in 2005 after living for years as refugees in neighboring Iran, says the role of Zari is “the most wonderful experience.”
“I don’t want to lose Zari. Because I really love her. She gives me love… she gives me lots of happiness,” Shirzad says.
“I think I could find my childhood in Zari.”
The importance of Zari being female
Shirzad, who juggles her TV puppeteer job with studying music at Kabul University, says it was important that the character be a girl, as there are a lot of rules for girls in Afghanistan.
“We want to show people that it is not impossible for a girl to do anything she wants.”
Women’s rights in Afghanistan have deteriorated dramatically after decades of conflict. The Taliban banned girls from school and required women to wear burqas outdoors.
After a US-led bombing campaign helped oust the Taliban in 2001, Western-backed governments took steps to improve women’s rights.
Despite some gains, according to the United Nations Development Program, only 12% of Afghan women can read and write. Meanwhile, the UN reports nearly 90% of women have suffered physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage.
“In Afghanistan, girls suffer the most,” explains Massood Sanjer, director general of entertainment at Moby Group, the parent company of the two privately-owned Afghan TV channels that broadcast “Bahgch-e-Simsim.”
“Creating a girl character to be a hero can get the parents to think that girls and boys can be equal, and that actually girls could be better sometimes in terms of their talents.”
Education through TV
On “Bahgch-e-Simsim,” Zari teaches numbers and letters from the alphabet. She also sings songs and introduces subjects such as art and cooking.
Her segments air alongside appearances by other internationally recognized “Sesame Street” characters.
For the past five years, 26-year old Zubair Ahmad Kakarr has provided the Afghan voices for many of these Muppets, including Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert [of the apartment-sharing duo Bert and Ernie].
In a darkened sound studio, Kakarr growls and yelps in Dari along with a televised recording of Grover, who is on screen introducing viewers to a globe of the world.
As Kakarr puts it, “Bahgch-e-Simsim” has two main goals: education and fun.
Education is important in a country like Afghanistan, which has among the world’s lowest rates of literacy.
One subject the program does not address is the war.
Producers say they are trying to provide a safe haven from the conflict that continues to tear Afghanistan apart.
“We want to give this idea for the children that it’s not just about war in our country,” explains Shirzad. “We want to make them happy and make them laugh.”
But the entire production team struggles with the difficult balance between creating the Sesame Garden fantasy in the television studio, and facing the reality of the dangerous world outside.
Those threats became all too real last January when a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a bus carrying employees home from work at the TV station.
At least seven broadcasters and journalists were killed, including 31-year old program editor Sayed Jawad Hussaini.
“It was like losing a family member,” says Jawed Taiman, executive producer of the program.
“It’s not easy to forget everything… your problems, your country’s problems,” explains Shirzad.
“You just have to focus on Zari, on laughing… on making her alive,” she says.