While puppeteering might seem like a lot of fun, it requires dedication, practice and skill to perfect. This is especially true for the puppeteers behind the Middle East’s nostalgic hit show, Iftah Ya Simsim. “One of the first things people do wrong when they puppeteer is moving their hand too much,” explained Iftah Ya Simsim’s Creative Director and puppeteer Ammar Al-Sabban. “The trick is to make the puppets’ moves seem human. When they speak, you should only move the lower half of the ‘mouth’ to speak, like a jaw. Otherwise the whole head flies around and the puppet won’t maintain eye contact with whoever they’re speaking to.”
It’s these little tricks and more that make puppeteering for Iftah Ya Simsim’s muppets such a nuanced job. Al-Sabban, the puppeteer for the Arabic-speaking Ka’aki and Gargur (Cookie Monster and Grover), explained that he needed to practice with his own handmade puppet months before getting it right. His colleague, Iftah Ya Simsim’s human actor and puppeteer Abdullah Rafah, recounted a similar uphill struggle when first puppeteering for the show’s famous furry red favorite, Elmo. Mastering his character’s mechanisms and mannerisms over the show’s three seasons allowed Rafah to inject subtle characteristics that bring Elmo to life.
“People love when Elmo tilts his head to the side when he’s listening,” explained Rafah. “It’s like a kid. It’s endearing and gives him an added dimension even when he’s not speaking.” For the two puppeteers, bringing inanimate objects to life is only half of the fun. What really makes the job worth it is seeing the children immediately embrace the magic created by the show’s muppets. The love the puppeteers and their furry friends receive is what makes long hours of raised arms and sore shoulders worth it. “It brings joy to people,” said Al-Sabban. “It’s magical how you can bring a muppet to life and say whatever you want to say and people will listen and laugh.”
The pair are joined by four other talented puppeteers on the show: Duha Haifawi, who plays the only girl puppet, Shams; Michel Jabali, the desert-bound penguin; Maher Mzowak, the bossy Melsoon; and Abdullah Qassim, Iftah Ya Simsim’s flagship camel No’man. In addition to the main cast, there are two “Anything Muppets”, assistant puppeteers who handle the furry extras or assist with bigger puppets like Ka’aki. Kamiran Kanjo and Maryam Al Atouly are the show’s go-to hands when it comes to butterflies fluttering in the background, frolicking cows and stray limbs.
The group of actors represent a range of characters as diverse as themselves. The personalities and voices each muppet requires takes intensive training, understanding and dedication. For Mzowak, becoming Melsoon meant staying true to his the bird’s portrayal in the original Iftah Ya Simsim and Mzowak’s own take on the character. “When I was six-years-old, I used to love Iftah Ya Simsim,” recalled Mzowak. “I used to copy Melsoon, his voice, his tone and his ‘hoo hoo’.”
When he landed the role as the bird, it came naturally to the seasoned actor. “The [original] Melsoon was kind, intelligent and a little angry,” said Mzowak. The puppeteer says that while the new Melsoon is quick to get frustrated and annoyed by small things, “he still has a good heart also and lots of knowledge [to share].”
Haifawi, who recently moved to the UAE from Jordan to puppeteer, shared similar sentiments. Since Haifawi joined later in production, she had to work quickly and hard to acquire the skills, voice and attitude of the sprightly and energetic muppet. “Shams’ voice is loud and high-pitched,” said Haifawi, explaining that while the muppet’s voice was easy to do, it still required plenty of practice and precision to film skits and musical segments. “I didn’t expect it to be this challenging but it gets easier everyday” One of those challenges lies in maneuvering the puppets realistically.
Ready to air
No’man, which is a full-suit muppet maneuvered by Abdullah Qassim, requires the actor to spend hours in costume. The muppet is full of wires and screens and can weigh up to several kilos. But that does not deter Qassim, who says the children he entertains as the singing and dancing camel makes all the sweat worth it. Qassim never lets his fatigue show while in character, allowing No’man’s serendipitous personality shine. Qassim’s challenge is the physical toll required to play an otherwise carefree character. On the other hand, Habib the penguin’s puppeteer, Jabali, has the reverse problem. As a small, flightless Arctic bird in the desert, Habib must contend with large emotional weight of being an outsider.
Of Habib’s portrayal, Jabali says, “He’s an expatriate, immigrant or even a refugee. Since he’s new to Iftah Ya Simsim, he faces many difficulties and challenges. But he adapts and continues to adapt every day to new things he did not previously know.” Each muppet comes with his or her own bag of surprises and challenges. Mastering the voices, perfecting the movements and staying true to character are some of the most important skills needed to bring the puppets to life.
Once again, Elmo, No’man, Shams and friends are back on screens across the Middle East. Thanks to the hard work and love of show’s puppeteers – and with a little help from their furry, lovable friends – the third season of Iftah Ya Simsim is ready to air this Ramadan.