Lebanon (Arabic: لبنان Libnān or Lubnān; Aramaic: לבנאנ; French: Liban; officially, the Lebanese Republic; Arabic: الجمهورية اللبنانية Al-Jumhūrīyah Al-Loubnānīyah; French: République libanaise) is bordered to the north and east by Syria and to the south by Israel. It is located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. This geographical position is reflected in the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of this country in Western Asia.
Although the first recorded references to puppet shows in Lebanon date back only to 1847 in a document of the French Consul to Lebanon in Beirut, Henri Guys, referring to puppetry performances he had attended since the beginning of the 19th century, it is believed that puppetry was known in Lebanon well before that period.
The history of Lebanese puppets is strongly related to the traditional Syrian puppet theatre which was itself, in most aspects, inspired by the Turkish shadow theatre, Syria and Turkey having together formed the Ottoman Empire for over four hundred years (see Karagöz, Syria, Turkey ).
Performances by traditional puppets took place in the cities of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, enlivening the popular cafés on various special occasions such as the month of Ramadan and other religious festivals. Typical characters, manipulated in the shadow theatre technique, were heroes of mostly Turkish origin but with a number of local variations such as Karakoz, Iwaz, Al Afiouni, Al Moudallal, Bakri Moustafa who was a representation of Turkish authority. The flat figures were made of cowhide, tanned then painted, and manipulated with a perpendicular rod, all behind a cloth screen.
The only traces of these shows are the seven texts transcribed in 1901 by Enno Littmann, a German orientalist, which date from the period 1839 to 1861: Al Chahhadine (The Beggars), Ifranjoun, Al Afiouni, Al Hammam (The Hammam), Al Sahra (The Evening), Al Khachabat (The Floorboards), and Amoun. Some titles are clearly of Turkish inspiration, but with a completely different content (Al Hammam for example); others, while connected to Turkish theatre pieces and their modifications, are tied to everyday Lebanese life.
The performances were by a solo puppeteer who gave the voice for all the characters. He sometimes made use of an assistant or a musical ensemble. He interpreted the themes as he wished, stressing the characters’ weaknesses and playing with the double-meanings of the language. The subjects were variable: commentaries on everyday life, political criticism, the promotion of merchandise or shops.
The most celebrated puppeteers of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were Mahmoud El Karakizi (Tripoli), Sleiman Abou El Jabalawi and Abou Ezzat El Karakozati (Sidon), and Rashid Bin Mahmoud (Beirut).
After World War I and the start of the French Mandate (1919), which followed the Turkish occupation, popular puppetry went into decline and was completely extinguished with the death of its last showman El Karakizi in 1935.
A Post-Independence Revival
After independence was won in 1943, the art of puppetry was once again to be seen, if only timidly, in the missionary French schools, as a method of teaching the French language. It was only in 1959 that it resumed its place on the public stage, when René Trabaud (an artist of French origin) and Joseph Fakhoury (who founded a family troupe in 1960) presented glove puppet shows for children on the new medium of television.
During the Civil War (1975-1990), the country saw the emergence of small amateur troupes composed of volunteers who played in empty public spaces, shelters and community centres (such as the Centre for Arab Culture).
The troupe Al Sanabel (The Ears of Wheat), founded by Ghazi Makdachi, became memorable for its musical glove puppet shows for children with original oriental songs and stories peppered with traditional morality.
At the same time, the company Soundouk el Ferji (The Magic Box), under the direction of Najla Jreissaty Khoury, put shadow theatre back in the spotlight with traditional tales and popular little histories performed in modern style. The company also performed with string puppets. The country saw the rise of puppeteers like Maha Nehmé, with education-oriented material, Paul Mattar, Michel Jabr and others.
After the war, a generation of professional artists appeared, distinguished by its serious research into different techniques. The puppet was introduced into the university curriculum and puppet shows were no longer to be perceived as being only for children.
Puppetry has become the principal medium for many prominent Lebanese artists such as Rachad Zeaiter (puppeteer), Ahmad Kaabour (composer), Walid Dakroub (scenographer), and Karim Dakroub (a director trained in St Petersburg). This last founded the Lebanese Puppet Theatre in 1995, a company that produces plays and organizes cultural activities such as the Mediterranean Puppet Festival (1999), a biennial event supported by the Ministry of Culture and the European Commission. In 2004, the puppeteers of the Lebanese Puppet Theatre set up their own cooperative association, Khayal (Shadow), the Lebanese branch of UNIMA.