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King or Aragoz
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 12 - 2008

Nashwa Abdel-Tawab invites young and old to watch a shadow puppet theatre performance
Tomorrow will see a free shadow play at the Beit Al-Seheimi Court in Al-Gammaliya in the heart of Islamic Cairo. The play, King or Aragoz will start at 7pm, and the venue can be found by going to the Al-Fetouh Gate and asking for the old Islamic house. The one-hour-and-half performance of shadow theatre, or Khayal Al-Dhill, and a regular puppet show using hand- held puppets, Al-Aragoz, will take us through three linked stories that can be enjoyed by an audience aged from four to 74. More than 350 people a week, mostly children, flock to watch the performances. As the shadows on the white screen in front of the audience take the shapes of humans and animals acting out traditional stories, their delight is intensified by the entrancing folk tales that accompany them.
Tomorrow's play starts with a king who is feeling bored. The Aragoz, wearing his long-coned hat, advises him to take up something different, such as acting. Pleased with the adventure, the king embodies the famous legendary character of Shahrayar of the Arabian Nights, who would kill a wife every day until outwitted by Sheherazade, his last wife, who managed to escape the penalty by telling him bedtime stories. Since Shahrayar fell asleep before the end of the story each night, he spared her so she could finish it and she would immediately begin another. There is a surprising twist to the traditional story. Instead of being the king who issues the orders, Shahrayar finds himself taking orders from the cock that announces the dawn.
Amusing as the storyline might be for children, it is quite alarming for adults to find the cockerel playing a positive role in events, while the people, who formed the community ruled by the king have no voice of their own. It can be seen as a reflection of the stagnant social and political attitudes that throughout history have infiltrated into daily life.
The aragoz easily convinces the king to act again. This time he embodies the role of the folk character Goha, and then the king from the tale by Hans Christian Anderson where no one can see his clothes.
The show is clever and entertaining, and no one will regret using it as an excuse for a family outing, especially in such a historical venue. It is a traditional show with a hidden message. And do not be afraid to comment out loud: aragoz encourages interaction, and who knows, you might even change the plot.
The fact that shadow plays attract both children and their parents alike is a sign of their success, and it is this that has particularly struck the author, Nabil Bahgat, who sees this kind of art as a way of combating the "cultural invasion" of commercial cultural products from abroad, promoting shallow, selfish values.
"People are thirsty for this type of art because it reflects their heritage, and they share the same background," Bahgat says. "This genre enhances the imagination, and if we abandon it, then the whole nation will fall behind and be left in the hands of a generation in search of instant entertainment and instant pleasure."
Shadow puppet theatre is one of the oldest forms of folk art in the world, and in the Egyptian version the puppets are traditionally made of animal skin decorated with patterns and motifs borrowed from Islamic art. Shadows of their movements are cast onto a translucent screen in order to tell folk tales and traditional stories.
The show is both written and directed by Bahgat, a professor of Arabic theatre at Helwan University and the founder of Wamdah (Beam of Light) company. Bahgat has played an important part in the contemporary revival of shadow puppet theatre. Wamdah started out by presenting shadow plays on the streets of Cairo before moving to Al-Azhar Park, then to the Geneina Theatre. The company has now performed more than 1,000 outdoor shows in Egypt and 140 shows in Tunisia, France, Morocco, Jordan, and the United States. It has also conducted dozens of workshops and produced nine documentary films on shadow puppet theatre.
Few original play-scripts for the shadow puppet plays survive, but among those that do are scripts by Ibn Daniel, who fled Iraq during the 13th century Mongol invasions and wrote at least three major shadow puppet plays.
Today, Wamdah aims to perform shadow puppet plays for new audiences, preserving the material and finding room for young talents to flourish in this ancient art form.
Beyond entertainment, Aragoz and Khayal Al-Dhill tackle socially pertinent issues by connecting historic events with the current affairs gripping the nation. "We create a 'bridge' between heritage and current reality through issues of concern to the people," Bahgat says.
In another show, Ali Al-Zeibaa, even the idea of the form's resistance to contemporary mass culture is highlighted, with Al-Zeibaa resisting foreign invasion through his wits and his mastery of the art of disguise, where he manages to avenge his father's murder, outwit his rival Sonour Al-Kalbi, and preserve the state as he does so. Bahgat performed this play in the US after the invasion of Iraq in front of an audience of 40,000 Americans.
The show Aragoz Dot Com is another example that deals with the topic of lying and deception -- both past and present. Bahgat has the Hyksos attack Egypt on the pretext that the noise of their animals annoys them in Al-Sham (the Levant). A parallel is subtly drawn to President Bush, who attacked Iraq on the pretext that it owned weapons of mass destruction.
The Beit Al-Seheimi also presented Arayesna ( Our Dolls ), which delves into the inner conflict between attachment to the homeland and the desire to "belong to the other". "Look at the Ninja productions," Bahgat says. "They are always followed by pizza promotions. This creates a non-productive person; whenever he feels hungry he orders junk food by phone." Bahgat also emphasises that multinational companies impose cultural norms to influence consumerism patterns.
" Arayesna furthermore unveils the danger of the Western doll, whose features do not relate to our reality," Bahgat says, noting that this performance ultimately serves to acquaint children with "pure" Arab models that express some of "our own features and values".
"I have achieved something people are talking about," Bahgat says. "If everyone has a successful project rooted in our civilisation, we will enrich the world." Bahgat has a message of passion for art, history, Islamic civilisation and for his fellow countrymen who suffer in the same way he does.
What the shadow plays have that other, more modern forms do not have are spontaneity and the possibility of real interaction with the audience. So don't miss the experience.


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