Palestine (Arabic: فلسطين , Filasṭīn, Falasṭīn, Filisṭīn; Greek: Παλαιστίνη, Palaistinē; Latin: Palaestina; Hebrew: פלשתינה, Palestina) is a geographic region in the Middle East (Near East), situated between Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. As a strategic crossroads since ancient times for religion, culture, commerce and politics, Palestine has experienced a long and turbulent history, and has been controlled by numerous peoples and empires.
Although we have evidence of old rain-making practices performed by both Muslims and Christians using figures of “Mary” or a saint to evoke rain (Teeffelen), the written evidence we have of secular puppetry in pre-1948 Palestine is limited. One reference appears in an article by Enno Littmann (1900), in which the writer notes a performance of a shadow theatre play staged in Jerusalem. The description, although brief, shows that this was a scene from Karakoz (or Karagöz), the traditional theatre found throughout the Mediterranean basin. Later, in 1943, an article appeared in the British newspaper Palestine Post, which called the puppetry performance in Jerusalem a Turkish Punch (the adventures being reminiscent of those of Punch in England). Whatever other records of puppetry in Palestine before 1948 that may exist have not been located, though oral testimony is available.
During the 1950s, puppets were used in a simple way by “storytellers with music boxes”. These peepshow boxes (in Arabic, soundouk al farjah also el ferje, “image box” or soundouk al dounia, “box of the world”) were fitted with peep holes for a few spectators to see the figures in a row of images depicted inside. The storyteller would use small glove puppets to tell stories and to attract the public to his performance.
The theatre Al-Kasaba was the first to use puppets in its performances for children. The first puppets were made by the Russian-born Israeli puppeteers Simion Golik and Vadim Dikerman who taught manipulation techniques to the actors of the Al-Kasaba theatre. The majority of the puppets were glove or rod puppet figures. The first show performed at Al-Kasaba, Little Red Riding Hood, took place in 1995.
After the experience of Al-Kasaba, a limited number of Palestinian artists have honed their skills in puppet theatre. The first, Abdul Salam Abdo, from the Palestinian National Theatre, is today regarded as the foremost puppet artist in Palestine. He has produced his own plays that have toured Palestine, Arab countries, and international festivals.
The second Palestinian to create his own puppets and produce plays is Nidal Al-Khateeb, founder of the troupe Al-Tantoura in Hebron in 1995 who has toured locally and performed in international festivals. Actor and puppeteer, Al-Khateeb does solo or small group performances inspired by Palestinian folk tales or contemporary situations. For example, Butto in Jerusalem presented at the 2007 Artas Lettuce Festival showed Palestinians wishing to visit the holy Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and difficulties in travelling to it. His performance tours to villages – particularly in the southern West Bank – often address difficult subjects (child marriage of young girls or aspects of the current political conflict). One can find excerpts from one of his plays on the occupation of Palestinian territories in the documentary by Dominique Dubosc, Palestine, Palestine (2002) which shows a couple of puppeteers who performed in schools. Nidal Al-Khateeb has also participated in several local and international festivals.
Hossam Zuheika (b.1962) is a puppet maker and performer who trained at the Palestine National Theatre with Ola Brown. He also collaborated with French artist Isabelle Veillon, and has done a number of shows including Ass kicks Asses and The Mermaid.
The Festival of Puppetry organized by the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem began in 1989. It is the only international festival of puppet theatre in the Palestinian territory, but being located in Jerusalem, the participation of companies from the West Bank and Gaza has been difficult because of travel restrictions imposed on the territories by Israeli military authorities, but in 2011 the festival was held in Nablus, Jerusalem and Ramallah to accommodate audiences in different areas.