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Theatre of shadows
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 03 - 2008

Despite the attractions of modern games and movies, many children are still fascinated by traditional shadow puppet theatre, revived at Cairo's Folk Puppet Forum, writes Amira El-Noshokaty
A shadow puppet theatre performance is a unique experience for 10-year-old Mohamed Imad. As the shadows on the white screen in front of him take the shapes of humans and animals acting out traditional stories, his delight is intensified by the folk tales that accompany them. All these things were combined at the Annual Folk Puppet Forum that took place last month at the Beit Al-Seheimi Court in Al-Gammaliya in the heart of Islamic Cairo.
"Shadow puppets show the audience real historical events, unlike what we see on television, where everything is staged," Imad says. "And we get to see how the puppets work, and how they are made to move."
Shadow puppet theatre is one of the oldest forms of folk art in the world, and in its 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.
Replicas of such leather puppets, some of them used hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, can be seen at the Islamic Museum in Cairo and at the National Museums in Berlin, though during the art form's decline in recent centuries the puppets were usually made of card or paper. Today, however, two artists, Bahaa El-Merghani and Said Abu Rayah, have revived the use of leather in puppet making. Starting to work together some 30 years ago, they have also improved puppet design to allow for a greater range of movement.
El-Merghani and Abu Rayah's work on the puppets has been important in the contemporary revival of shadow puppet theatre, but so too has been the work of Wamdah (Beam of Light) troupe, which brought together expertise in shadow theatre as part of the first Folk Puppet Forum last year. This year's forum built on the success of last year's inaugural event and introduced new audiences to this rich folk art.
Wamdah has now performed over 150 outdoor shows in Cairo and in Tunisia, and it has conducted dozens of workshops and produced nine documentary films on shadow puppet theatre. As well as establishing the first festival for shadow puppets, the troop has produced an exhibition, "Al-Aragoz", of the folklore puppets used in Egypt.
The forum was created on a modest budget by Wamdah, explains Nabil Bahgat, its founder and himself a playwright and a professor of Arabic theatre at Helwan University. Though the budget was only around LE3,000, it still managed to introduce the art form to significant audiences. With a larger budget of LE5,000 for this year's event, granted from the Ministry of Culture, the forum has been able to put on 12 evening performances, produce an exhibition of some 150 puppets, and organise workshops for children and other visitors.
"We do not need a million pounds to create art," Bahgat says, adding that Wamdah started out by performing shadow plays on the streets of Cairo, before moving to Al-Azhar Park, then Al-Genina Theatre. Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni has agreed to sponsor the fund planned by Shadow Puppet Centre, which will be placed under the ministry's umbrella. The centre will house a permanent museum, and free performances are planned every Friday at Beit Al-Seheimi, as is a monthly 10-day workshop aiming to interest members of the younger generation in this traditional art form.
"Believing in the idea is itself a form of success," Bahgat says, and judging from audience reactions to this year's forum it seems that there are many others who share his view. Over 500 people, mostly children, flocked daily to watch the performances.
According to Mena Mahmoud, 12, the songs and stories are more interesting than the usual television shows, as well as being very different from them. "Besides," she says, "you learn things from the stories. One thing I've learnt from the Goha play," one of the traditional stories performed as a shadow play, "is not to believe anything I hear until I see it for myself."
Ashgan Mahmoud, mother of Mohamed, explains her son's fascination with the puppets and shadow plays. He loves painting, she says, and, having seen the plays he has since started drawing the figures used in them. He will also be joining the centre's forthcoming workshop.
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 Bahgat, who sees this kind of art as a way of combating the "cultural invasion" of commercial cultural products from abroad that promote shallow, selfish values.
"People are thirsty for this kind of art because it reflects their heritage, and they share the same background. This is a kind of art that 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," he says.
However, it is nevertheless true that even with the current revival shadow theatre still faces formidable challenges from the rival attractions of the mass media and of games and toys using modern technology. Revivals of shadow theatre have also been attempted in the past, with scholar Alfred Mikhail bringing three surviving masters of traditional puppet theatre, Hassan El-Faran, Ahmed El-Komi and Hassan Khanoufa, together for performances at the Goethe Institut in Cairo, these later joining with the independent theatre company Al-Warsha to give further performances.
Such performances form the basis of those put on today by Wamdah troupe. However, the art form itself, and the tradition of mobile performances that goes back thousands of years, first came to Egypt from southwest Asia and Persia, being widely adopted from the Fatimid period onwards. Scholar Abdel-Hamid Younis distinguishes two basic types of puppet theatre in his book on the form: shadow theatre, or Khayal Al-Dhill, and regular puppet theatre using hand-held puppets, Al-Aragoz.
Few original play-scripts for the shadow puppet plays survive, though among those that do are texts by Ibn Daniel, who fled Iraq during the 13th century Mongol invasions and wrote at least three major shadow puppet plays.
"Ibn Daniel's shadow puppet plays found a very fertile artistic environment in Egypt, although some rulers disliked them," Bahgat comments. "It has also been established that this form of theatre then moved from Egypt to Turkey following the Ottoman conquest" in the 16th century. Apparently, the Ottoman sultan at the time enjoyed watching a shadow play in which the Egyptian Mameluke sultan was executed that he decided to introduce this form of theatre to Istanbul, so that his son and others could also enjoy it.
Today, Wamdah aims to perform shadow puppet plays for new audiences, preserving them and finding room for young talents to flourish in this ancient art form.
"One of the real successes of this year's forum was the group of 10 talented young students who controlled the puppets, produced and directed their own plays, even creating new puppets in doing so," Bahgat notes. "I have been trying to introduce this form of heritage to wider audiences over the past five years, and this has been a matter both of perseverance and of developing the form."
Developing the form involves selecting traditional motifs and plot devices from it and placing these in new, modern contexts, he explains. Authentic puppets could be integrated in the context of a modern festival like Valentine's Day, for example, and a "microchip can even be inserted inside an aragoz " to give it new capabilities.
However, more important than new ideas aiming to make the shadow theatre more relevant to modern life is the need to preserve the form for future generations. In one piece, Ali El-Zeibaa, the idea of the form's resistance to contemporary mass culture is even highlighted, with El-Zeibaa resisting foreign invasion through his wits and his mastering of the arts of disguise, managing to revenge his father's murder, outwit his rival Sonour El-Kalbi, and preserve the state as he does so.
For Zeinab El-Sharqawi, producer of the Ali El-Zeibaa play and one of Bahgat's students at Helwan, the forum's aim of protecting the art form and its history is one of its most important functions. However, just as important as this custodial function are the workshops for children organised in parallel with the performances.
During these, children and adults are taught how to draw cartoon storylines and make the shadow puppets used in the performances. "We teach them how to make the puppets, and they then pick a theme or story and use the puppets to tell it," she says. "We brought performances to the Cairo International Children's Film Festival last year, and the children managed to create their own play from scratch and perform it too."
For Mohamed Said, another, more recent Wamdah member and an advanced student at the same faculty, the fun comes from meeting the challenge of simultaneously preserving the heritage while introducing new techniques.
"We have updated the way in which the stories are recited and adapted them to our target audience, while maintaining the authentic themes of the folk play," he says. "This is the secret of our success."
MUSTAFA Othman, 68, known as Saber El-Masri, is the oldest living Egyptian puppeteer, or aragoz, having practised the art for 40 years. "I loved it because I loved the famous Shokoko, an Egyptian artist who introduced the puppet theatre to a larger audience than the ones that used to watch it at the mulids [religious festivals]," Othman explains. "I used to watch Shokoko at the Al-Kit-Kat fun fair in Imbaba, where the mosque of Khaled Ibn El-Walid now stands."
"I would climb up a tree and watch from a distance. I was fascinated. I loved the sound of the aragoz : although there were numerous aragoz artists in the mulid, Shokoko was different because he adapted the language used and addressed a larger audience."
After spending 10 years performing shadow plays at mulids, Othman established himself in Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo, known in the past for its theatres and clubs, and from this base he has been performing professionally ever since.
"I thank God for the past 30 years. No door was ever closed," Othman says. Now in his third year working with Wamdah troupe, Othman explains that in his work he has "always put the child first. I am always very conscious of what I say during the performances, because children learn from them."
Since he started working, many things have changed, he says. "People in those days were less sophisticated and they would laugh at anything. Nowadays, children are much more aware, and they demand more from entertainers."
What the shadow plays have that other more modern forms do not, Othman says, are spontaneity and the possibility of real interaction with the audience. "An aragoz performer can and does talk directly to the audience, a tape recorder can't. Some of my happiest moments as a performer are when I can address a child individually.

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