Egyptian glove puppet character. With the head made of wood, large dark eyes enhanced with kohl, a moustache painted on the face, red clothing, Aragoz is an extraordinary mix of Islamic, European and ancient Egyptian cultures.
According to some, he was introduced into Egypt between the 15th and the 17th centuries by travellers. Others claim that he started in Egypt, that his traditions are hundreds of years old, and that his existence is intimately linked to the ancient festivals. But no matter what his origins, it is certain that he presents pure Egyptian characteristics and that he has a Turkish name inspired by Karagöz. He wears a red hat called tartour, like Petrushka, his play resembles that of Pulcinella, he holds the famous wooden stick, and expresses himself with a copper whistle called amana (a swazzle or pratique), just like his European comrades.
The character of Aragoz is sharp, mocking, and headstrong. It is a popular satirical hero that uses idiocy as his weapon; he plays the idiot to hide his game and to destroy the powerful, the tyrant, or the undesirable stranger. Aragoz succeeds where the common person cannot, and the spectator can identify with him in imaginary settings. The stick plays an essential role; it represents the justice that the common man would like applied to the mighty.
The manipulator of Aragoz must show great vocal prowess since he plays several roles at the same time. He must have a “voice” commensurate with the important role of the songs (tarab). Aragoz uses the language of the street sprinkled with insults and vulgarity that are essential comic elements. The language itself sometimes becomes satirical with the caricature of the provincials, the Sudanese and Berber people. Gestures are made of blows and surprises. Aragoz hits, or plays hide and seek, and repeats these gestures.
In most cases, Aragoz is accompanied by an assistant-actor who plays the role of mediator between the show and the public. He is often equipped with a rhythmic instrument that he utilizes to punctuate the performance and to increase the enthusiasm of the public.
The show consists of four scenes preceded and followed by the song of Aragoz and his assistant. The first scene shows the arrival of the undesirable character that will be chased out at the end. This importunate character varies from one show to the next: Aragoz and the thief, Aragoz and the storeowner, the Berber, the provincial, the clerk, or even Aragoz and his wife …
The staging is a simple booth. However, some puppeteer showmen use a caravan pulled by a mule, where there are seats for the audience and a space for the performance. It is important to mention that the presentations of Aragoz were linked to religious Muslim holidays, particularly the celebration of Mawlid (the birthday of the prophet) and the month of Ramadan …
Egypt is currently experiencing the disappearance of this art form. However, in some areas it is still possible to see an Aragoz showman set up his stage before using his whistle (swazzle) to attract children. Nowadays, he tells them a story inherited from his grandfather to which he adds contemporary details, eliminating all insults while manipulating a puppet with a head made of plastic and not of wood!
One of the last Aragoz artists is Mustafa Osman “Amm Saber” (b.1937), who has been performing this character since childhood, having as his model the famous Egyptian actor of the 1940s, Choukoukou.