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The world in miniature
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 10 - 2006

This year the Puppet Theatre opened during Ramadan for the first time, Amira El-Noshokaty could hardly wait to go
The Cairo Puppet Theatre is Egypt's only child performance venue. Built in the late 1950s, the stage -- and the dedicated team that brought it to life -- made an enormous impact on Egyptian culture before it fell into relative decline. According to Mohamed Nour, deputy director, "Prior to 1958, the art of puppeteering, whether shadow puppets or [the originally Turkish] karakoz, was more of a spontaneous movement undertaken on individual initiative. But there was even a Ministry of Education department devoted to the use of puppets for instructional purposes." In that year, following the success of two troupes from Czechoslovakia and Romania in Egypt, the first national troupe was founded with the help of members of those troupes. Pleased with the first ever performance, President Nasser decreed that the theatre should be built. It duly opened in 1959 with the epoch-making El-Leila El-Kebira (The Big Night, a depiction of a saint's anniversary that won second prize at the Bucharest Puppet Theatre in 1962) -- written by vernacular poet Salah Jahine, with music by Sayed Mekkawi and puppets by Nagi Shaker, and directed by Salah El-Sakka. Despite efforts to revive the art, according to Nour, a range of factors continue to stand in the way of success: lack of scriptwriters and directors who truly understand the genre, lack of room within the establishment and, most drastically, perhaps, the need to catch up with latest technical developments -- for which there is no budget to support the exchange programmes required. A 1996 bid to establish a children's art institute, including puppet theatre teaching, except for a building to house it, has yet to see the light. Hard-working puppeteers struggle to improve their performance: "Two years ago, there were only 22 puppeteers in Egypt, the majority 40 years old and older. So we established a workshop to train young artists, selecting 24 out of 200 applicants." But the theatre is surrounded by hawkers and street vendors, and there are no provisions to upgrade the premises sufficiently for hosting shows from abroad. Media coverage has also plummeted. Even when Salah Jahin, Salah El-Sakka and musician Mohamed Fawzi -- some of the biggest possible names -- collaborated to make a puppet show, Sahsah, Nour says, the media failed to provide it with the necessary support: "For any art form to prosper, there has to be a parallel line of constructive criticism to monitor and evaluate it, and this is what the media is no longer doing." Though a profitable enterprise -- a source of national revenue thanks to school trips and a consistently high level of attendance, made up largely of those who grew up on El-Leila El-Kebira, people who have professional connections with the genre or eager parents -- the government believes the Puppet Theatre is popular enough to make advertising unnecessary. Housewife Wafaa Abdel-Moez says the Puppet Theatre is her two little boys' principal treat, confirming that audience size has grown in recent years. An effective means of conveying ideas to children, she says, the puppet theatre has the edge over television.
Enchanted lantern
"THIS WORLD we move in is like an enchanted lantern: the sun is the light, the world the lantern and we shadows." Omar El-Khayyam
As for the shadow puppet theatre, this is one of the oldest folk arts known to man. In his book on the form Abdel-Hamid Younis says that, though it originated in the far east and arrived in Egypt by way of Persia, this art has been with us continuously since Fatimid times -- though it all but disappeared in 1948. According to director Hassan El-Geretly, a pioneer of independent theatre, "The introduction of radio and television as well as cinema drew people away from this art. Performing in markets or on the streets, artists were often harassed by the police and were forced by lack of financial rewards to take other jobs as well." El-Geretly says that shadow puppeteers were marginalised and persecuted until 1985, when scholar Alfred Michael gathered the three surviving masters of the trade for a performance at the Goethe Institute: Hassan Khanoufa, Ahmed Al-Komy and Hassan Al-Faran soon joined El-Geretly's troupe, El-Warsha, where their technique was integrated into, and not merely used by, a contemporary performance context, notably in El-Geretly's adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays, Dayren Dayer. "All my life I wanted to move from behind the screen," El-Geretly recalled Khanoufa's wish, which he was finally granted in El-Warsha, proving excellent as the Choir of Dayren Dayer. The form was introduced through workshops in Upper Egypt, notably in Minya with the Jesuits and the Salama Moussa Association, and has gained in credibility as a result. "The three masters died while they were members of our troupe," El-Geretly says. "Despite relying mainly on improvisation, they generously handed over their technique, so that their art should live through us. El-Warsha now trains art and development facilitators, and through our efforts this art shall be taught as well. Aside from El-Warsha, dozens of young artists from Minya, like those who make up Al-Taif wal-Khayal troupe, for example, have already adopted it." El-Warsha has recorded Khanoufa's reminiscences. "I never gave up on my work," Khanoufa recalled. "It's all I have, all I know how to do... Even when there was no work, I'd go out on the street with the karakoz kit and set it up and pass the hat around... I'll go wherever work takes me. I'm ready to leave, anywhere, at any time. My work is my home, you see."


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