Straight from the Muppet's mouth: Jordanian artist Natheer Khawaldeh talks Gargur and "Iftah Ya Simsim"!
If you need someone to “Tell You How to get to Sesame Street,” Natheer Khawaldeh will lead the way!
The distinguished Jordanian comedian actor, writer and voice-over artist is currently in Abu Dhabi, where he’s partaking in the preparatory workshops for Bidaya Media’s new project that’s bringing the magical world of “Iftah Ya Simsim” (Arabic for Open Sesame) back to life.
Iftah Ya Simsim is the Arabic-language adaptation of the iconic children’s TV programme Sesame Street.
Following a competitive selection process, Natheer was chosen from a large pool of regional talent to play the “cute, furry little monster” Muppet “Gargur” - AKA Grover!
“Selecting the puppeteers involved an Arab-wide search through a casting call that was sent out through emails, notices, and contacts with our partner organizations. We had lots of people who submitted their CVs and shared with us a video of them performing. Dina Saleh, the Muppeteer Khawleh, from Alam Simsim (Egypt) did the first screening of candidates. We then had a follow selection process with master puppeteers from Sesame Workshop, Mr. Marty Robinson, who worked with the finalists. After ten days of training we selected 7 puppeteers,” said Dr. Cairo Arafat, Managing Director of Bidaya Media.
What makes Natheer valuable for this role is not confined to his puppetry skills, but stretches to his incredible ability to master over 6 different voices and write creatively, interestingly and educationally for children.
AlBawaba heard a sneak preview of Natheer’s voice as “Gargur” and we were amazed at how similar it sounded to that of the original Muppet’s. Nonetheless, the voice pro added his own flavor to the blue monster’s new voice, brought alive with adept mastery and manipulation by Natheer’s expert hand.
Old show, new beginning
It feels like a lifetime away since we last saw the furry characters in action, but 34 years of absence counts as a very long time in TV years.
The popular show, which Natheer describes as “the highlight of my career and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” was once produced in Kuwait, running for 11 years from 1979 until 1990.
Why bring it back now? According to Mr Al Qarni, the director general of the GCC Arab Education Bureau, who led the development of the show's educational curriculum, Iftah Ya Simsim is a "necessary programme" to bring back to the region.
"It's a very good educational tool, and it can be adapted to send positive messages to our youth in a way that is digestible. What matters the most is that the curriculum is specifically targeted at the Gulf region, and is in Arabic,” Mr Al Qarni added.
But this time it’s back in a different form. It will differ from Sesame Street but feature the same mix of puppets and real actors, and seek to educate through entertainment.
Robert Knezevic, senior vice president of Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation that produces the programme, said: “The mission that we set for ourselves was to create something that is as it was to the kids who grew up on it 30 years ago.”
The perfect fit
Dr. Arafat emphasised the importance of finding the perfect puppeteers: “The Muppets are loved by children and reflect the playfulness, curiosity and imagination that is within children...and all of us! Finding just the right talent to bring these Muppets to life is a top priority of our work.”
Clearly they’ve found that in Khawaldeh, who coincidentally took part in Season one of Jordan’s version of Sesame Street, “Hikayat Simsim” (Simsim’s Tales), back in 2009.
The young artist enthusiastically told AlBawaba: “Iftah Ya Simsim complements every one of my accomplishments in the field of children’s work in Jordan, including theatre work, storytelling, dubbing, presenting children’s TV programmes and writing. This project incorporates all those genres under its hat and crowns them like the cherry on top.”
“Now that I’m doing Iftah Ya Simsim, I’m feeling great responsibility in the way I pick my future projects, which I can tell you will be done with a very careful eye,” Natheer added.
Iftah Ya Simsim will broadcast on multiple GCC channels in early 2015.
Don't forget to watch Natheer in Season two of his upcoming Ramadan comedy TV series “Jar Gabl Dar: My American Neighbor” on Roya TV and follow him on Twitter @nazeerkhawaldeh, Facebook نذير خوالدة - Natheer Khawaldeh and Instagram natheerkhawaldeh.