Syrian actor popular in GCC dies aged 70

Al Asha co-starred in hit comedy, and played ‘Malsoun the Bird’ in Arab adaptation of Sesame Street

Damascus: Veteran Syrian actor Tawfik Al Asha died in Damascus on Friday, aged 70. He was known in the Arab Gulf for role in the comedy show Maraya, and for playing the character of ‘Malsoun the Bird’ in the Arab adaptation of Sesame Street, called Iftah Ya Simsim. An educational show that remained imprinted in the memories of generations of Arabs, it was the first joint production in the Arab World, carried by the GCC one year after its creation.

Al Asha was born into a prominent Damascene family in 1948. He started acting at the age of 13, two years after Syrian Television was created. After a low-profile career on the Syrian stage, he was contracted to join a pan-Arab cast for Iftah Ya Simsim in 1979, produced by the Joint Programme Association of the Gulf. Syrian compatriots included the linguistic expert Ihsan Qanawati and the writers Najat Qassab Hasan and Abdullah Al Danan.

The show, which was an immense success throughout the Arab world, came in response to low pre-school attendance in the Arab region. The Arabic rights for Sesame Street were purchased from its American producers for $1.6 million. It aired in 22 Arab countries, preceded by: “The Gulf Cooperation Council Presents.”

Malsoon and another character, Nouman, were additions to the Arabic series, not found in the American one. All studio scenes were shot in Kuwait while outside ones were filmed throughout the Arab world. Season I of Iftah Ya Simsim, which had a total of 95 episodes, started in 1979, and due to its success, was followed by a second season in 1982, with 82 episodes.

The show transformed Al Asha into an overnight star in Syria and throughout the Arab world; he got a prominent and permanent role in the Syrian comedy series Maraya, staring alongside Yasser Al Azmeh. When GCC producers started working on the third season of Iftah Ya Simsim, he declined to join, giving the character of Malsoon to Kuwaiti comedian Tarek Al Ali.

The third season was not as successful as the first two, interrupted by the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which forced the censorship of many scenes due to the presence of Iraqi actors. A fourth season was produced by the Abu Dhabi Educational Council and the Arab Bureau of Education, in 2015. Al Asha declined to join as he was suffering from what his family described as “chronic health problems.” His last television appearance was in the 2005 season of Maraya.

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