The Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: لجمهورية العربية السورية Al-Jumhūrīyah Al-ʻArabīyah As-Sūrīyah) is a country in Western Asia bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the south-west. Damascus, its capital, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups.
The first records of puppetry in Syria are of shadow theatre. Abul Ala al Maarri (973-1057) in one of his poems refers to shadow theatre but does not give specific details. A clearer comment comes from a 1308 manuscript of Shams al Din bin Ibrahim al Dimashqi. The text tells of a young man who is murdered, and who, immediately before his death, manages to say, “Mohammed bin al Mukhayil al Dhahabi killed me …, the murderer works with his father as a shadow player … ” Thus, Syria, a thriving cultural centre since the 7th century, has a long history of puppetry from an early period.
Karakoz and Traditional Shadow Theatre
The four centuries of Ottoman occupation (1516-1918) brought decline in the intellectual, cultural, and scientific spheres. There were simultaneous developments in folk arts (including shadow theatre) and Ottoman Turkish influence was clear. This is especially true with the character of Karakoz who originally represented a Turk (see Karagöz), but here turned into the Arab Syrian par excellence and, of course, spoke Arabic. The shadow theatre with its plainspoken Karakoz was full of sociopolitical critique and had great influence. It dealt with the situations of everyday life and the state of the country. The genre, thus, became a space where people could air anger, hatred, and rejection of an oppressive regime.
One of the earliest references to the Arabic-speaking Syrian Karakoz is the description of an Aleppo shadow theatre show attended by Alexander Russell, included in his Natural History of Aleppo (1756): “The puppet theatre is created by silhouettes like the Chinese shadows, …the whole performance is guaranteed with the great talent and expertise of the solo performer who changes his voice and imitates the dialects of the countryside and other qualities for the play’s characters.”
The puppets, about 20 centimetres high, were made of perforated donkey hide and manipulated using horizontal rods. The shows took place in cafes where the “tent of Karakoz” was erected in one corner: a booth behind which the manipulator stayed and animated the characters, in the light of oil lamp illumination.
Shadow theatre enjoyed unparalleled expansion in the 19th century. During Ramadan (fasting month), competitions were organized in major Syrian cities with performers from Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tartus participating. Syria, therefore, already had festivals of puppet theatre long ago.
Under the French mandate (1918-1946), the most famous showmen played a major role in rousing opposition to the colonial government. In 1946, when the country celebrated independence, an event at the Damascus Arab Club included puppet master Saleh Habib, who came from a famous family of shadow puppeteers, the Habib family of Damascus, who rose to fame in the early 19th century and maintained popularity for 150 years.
Aleppo also had very talented performers such as Hajj Mustafa Srour, Mohammed Merhi al Debagh, and Mohammed Sheikh (one of his plays was published in French by Chérif Khaznadar). In Homs one found Abu al Keir al Subahi and in Latakia, Hajj Hasan al Lathiqi, who died in the 1950s at the age of one hundred and ten years. Suleiman Abu Abdellatif al Maamari was one of the most famous performers of the Syrian coastal area during the first half of the 20th century.
Abdulrazzaq al Dhahabi, who learned the trade from Saleh Habib, was the last traditional shadow puppeteer active in Syria. He wrote the show titled Himara wa joura (Donkey and The Hole) that was published in the magazine Al hayat al masrahiya (Theatre Life) in Damascus in 1982.
In the late 1950s, after the proclamation of the Syrian-Egyptian union, the Ministry of Culture of the United Arab Republic appointed three Yugoslav experts under the leadership of theatre director Bogo Kokolja to create the nucleus of a puppet theatre in Damascus (at the same time as the Cairo-based Puppet Theatre was being established in Egypt). The troupe presented many Kokolja productions. In the beginning, the majority of performances were accompanied by piano music played live by Souwim Ismail. In 1962, Saher El Ghabat (The Enchanted Forest, a stage adaptation by Czech director and dramaturge Jan Malík of Začarovaný les by Zdeněk Schmoranz) was directed by Kokolja and Abdellatif Fathi, who was responsible for directing the puppet theatre and staging plays through 1965.
The theatre was directed by Abdellatif Fathi, Fatima Zein, Youssef Harb, Arfan Abdel Nafeh, Salwa al Jabiri, and Adnan Salloum, respectively. Yassine Baqqoush and Ahmad al Jayjakli are among the most famous Syrian artists who worked in this company.
Experts from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, such as Julien Marcovina, Oscar Batik, Constantine Brekhensko, Mircha Nicolao, and Dorina Tănăsesku, introduced diverse techniques of directing and puppet/scene design and construction.
The Puppet Theatre of Damascus is the only live, professional puppetry-producing company in Syria. It presents a large number of plays from local scripts and sometimes from translations. It uses glove, rod, and string puppets, masks, and other forms.
Traditional shadow theatre has meanwhile almost completely disappeared. There remains, however, a young artist, Zaki Cordilo, who trained as a puppeteer with Abdulrazzaq al Dhahabi, the last traditional artist (d.1993). Zaki Cordilo inherited a superb collection of puppets, which are over one-hundred-fifty years old, and he presents his shadow theatre in Damascus. Shadi al-Hallak, son of a traditional storyteller, likewise, took up the art toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century. He was working for its revival in conjunction with staff at the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage committee, and has listed Karakoz as nearly extinct but viable for resuscitation with effort.
During the political unrest and fighting following the “Arab Spring”, puppets have been used as part of the protest against the government, and YouTube puppet shows earned wide viewership and press note in 2012. A Diary of the Small Dictator by Masahit Mati uses as a main character a wooden headed glove puppet called Bichou and parodies the Syrian president Bashar al Assad.