With one of the longest histories of any modern country, Egypt (Egyptian Arabic: مَصر Maṣr), officially the Arab Republic of Egypt (جمهورية مصر العربية Arabic: Jumhūriyyat Miṣr al-ʿArabiyya; Egyptian Arabic: Gomhoreyyet Maṣr el-ʿArabeyya), is a transcontinental country spanning the north-east corner of Africa and the south-west corner of Asia, via a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. The nation’s rich cultural heritage is partly the result of various foreign influences, including Greek, Persian, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and European.
The existence of puppetry in Ancient Egypt during the rule of the Pharaohs has been proven on the one hand by the discovery of several items, conserved at the Musée National Égyptien and at the Louvre in Paris, and on the other hand by ancient Egyptian and Greek texts. However, “puppets” in this case cannot be looked upon in the modern sense as manipulated objects for use in performances. Puppets, sometimes articulated, made as children’s toys often with a funeral quality, were found in tombs. Wooden funeral figurines representing mummies in their caskets were also discovered. Herodotus (II, 78) and Plutarch (The Banquet) describe similar types of objects that were circulated at the end of banquets to pleasurably reflect upon death. Moreover, mobile statues played an important role in religious ceremonies. The famous Zeus-Amon statue gave its oracle readings (in the desert at the present-day Siwa Oasis) after having been carried in procession by priests to whom it would indicate, by its head movements, which direction to take. Puppets were used during rituals pertaining to sexual aspects such as fertility or childbirth. Herodotus describes Osiris feasts during which women walked around with “articulated statues approximately one cubit long, which would be moved by ropes, and whose virile member, almost as long as the rest of the body, would wag about” (II, 48).
Puppets, Shadows and Islam
With the introduction of Islam into Egypt, images, statues, puppets and anything of a fetish nature were prohibited. All forms of direct performances were obviously also forbidden. However, with the expansion of the Muslim empire and the diversity of celebratory practices, these restrictions lessened, which first of all benefitted puppetry (with indirect theatrical performances), since human actors were not particularly appreciated.
Shi’ism was introduced in Sunnite Egypt with the arrival of the Fatimids. This new branch of Islam, whose rites, celebrations and feasts were practised in a boisterous manner, acquired in the country a particular nature inspired by Egyptian cultural heritage, especially since strictness towards the plastic arts had, during this era, sharply diminished. Most researchers uncover the emergence of shadow theatre in Egypt during this period, the 10th century.
This type of theatre was notably marked by the texts of Ibn Daniel (13th century), considered to be the most ancient theatrical plays written in the Arabic language. Moreover, there are in existence several texts discovered by orientalists who had also found a large number of puppets, presently kept in Egyptian and European museums.
In terms of technique, Egyptian shadow theatre used the shadow and light method but, contrary to Asian shadow theatre, did not have recourse to colours. Puppets were made out of solid camel leather, measuring approximately one foot (30.5 centimetres), and included articulations and holes through which the puppeteer placed a stick in order to animate them.
In regards to the Egyptian Aragoz – whose etymology is merely a popular variation of the Turkish word Karagöz –, he is virtually the popular national image of the buffoon represented by a glove puppet of a dwarf with a pointed red bonnet and a bizarre voice, vaguely reminiscent of the image of the dwarfish god Bes.
Although shadow theatre today has totally disappeared from Egyptian life, an Aragoz (glove puppet) performance can nevertheless occur during religious and popular celebrations.
Even though essentially inspired by European puppetry (especially in terms of technique), modern puppet theatre first appeared in Egypt in the 1950s and tried to distance itself by absorbing Egyptian culture and spirit through its subject matter, characters, etc.
In 1957, the Egyptian government established the first glove puppet troupe which created a repertoire of seven productions composed of theatrical plays and sketches produced by Ahmad Amer. Several authors, such as Mahmoud Ahmad (La Croyance Belief, inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables), Abed El-Mou’ti Hijazi, and Zaccharia El-Hijawi, have written for this troupe. All the productions were rudimentary and of poor technical quality.
In 1958, thanks to a visit by Romanian and Czechoslovakian troupes, the first encounter between Egyptians and European modern puppetry occurred. Two Romanian artists, Ioana Constantinescu and Tana Siscu, stayed on in Cairo to train Egyptian artists in the art of conception and manipulation of puppets.
In 1959, the stage of the Arab Music Conservatory witnessed the first performance by the Théâtre de marionnettes du Caire (the Puppet Theatre of Cairo) of Al Chater Hassan, inspired by one of the most famous popular children’s stories written by Salah Jahine, with puppets and sets conceived by Naji Chaker.
In 1960, the director Salah Al-Saqa, writer Salah Jahine, and composer Sayyed Makkaoui pooled their talents to present the most important Egyptian puppet performance up to that time, the Opérette de la grande nuit (The Grand Night Operetta). Salah Jahine had taken his inspiration from traditional popular Egyptian festivities: the “grand night” is one that precedes the birth of a Muslim saint. The author succeeded in reproducing several famous popular Egyptian characters (the mayor, the popular singer, the clown, the farmer, the travelling salesman) thus allowing the artist Naji Chaker to create new models of string puppets. The story of the play is simple: it consists of a mother who loses her child in the crowd during the “grand night”.
Egypt then witnessed an interesting and curious phenomenon as famous popular poets wrote for puppet theatre, which was comprised most often of singing and musical performances. After Salah Jahine, Bayram El-Tounisi wrote puppet plays like Bint el-Sultan (The Sultan’s Daughter) and Al-Dik el-Ajib (The Enchanted Rooster), with music composed by Paul Armoziscu.
The Egyptian government supported puppet theatre and contributed to its development by sending abroad several artists to study puppetry arts: Salah Al-Saqa (directing – Romania), Ibrahim Salem, Mustapha Kamel, Ahmad El Matini, and Kariman Fehmi (scenography – Czechoslovakia). However, this interest slowly faded until puppet theatre completely disappeared from governmental agenda.
The official statistics of the Ministry of Culture corroborate this decline. Between 1990 and 2000, the Théâtre de marionnettes du Caire presented twenty-two new puppet plays versus thirty-one taken from their repertoire, thus showing the popularity of older repertory plays, all the more since the newer plays were inspired by the older ones, both in terms of the selection of themes and the conception of puppets.
Present day puppet theatre in Egypt confronts the same problems as other live entertainment: restricted public, artists who prefer more modern media arts, and a contemporary society which places little importance on puppet theatre. This type of art is still perceived as being for children and critics refuse to interest themselves in and analyze puppetry performances.
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