Egyptian universities have come to the aid of Al-Aragoz, a traditional form of popular glove puppet street theatre threatened by the modern world.
In 2018, Unesco included Al-Aragoz in its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Experts who nominated the craft for inclusion on the list noted that “regular performances now rely on fewer than ten active practitioners, all of an advanced age.”
Nahla Emam, a professor at Egypt’s High Institute for Folk Arts, helped present the case for inclusion to Unesco. She believes Al-Aragoz must modernize in order to survive.
“Al-Aragoz is subject to huge competition from electronic games,” Emam said. “Everyone sees how different what is available to children today is from what was available to previous generations.”
While noting the “great response” from audiences to traditional shows, Emam welcomes attempts “to give Aragoz art a modernist content that guarantees its continuity.”
Among those trying to update the tradition is Osama Mohamed Ali, an associate professor of arts and puppetry at Cairo University. He organised an exhibition in August where 28 of his students displayed puppets they had made.
“We received hundreds of visitors,” Ali said. “We felt the audience’s great familiarity with the designs submitted by the students. We have also received offers to display the exhibits in other places.”
For years, Al-Aragoz shows were performed inside rectangular wooden wagons that moved from one place to another. They used glove-like puppets with wooden heads and faces with comic features, the central character being called Aragoz.
“I thought of directing students to work on the character of Aragoz and his family for their graduation projects, with the hope of changing stereotypes.”Osama Mohamed Ali
An associate professor of arts and puppetry at Cairo University
The Aragoz player moved the puppets with his fingers while telling his stories and imitating satirical conversations among his puppets about life. He used a special mouth instrument to change his voice, adding to the comic performance.
“I thought of directing students to work on the character of Aragoz and his family for their graduation projects, with the hope of changing stereotypes,” Ali said.
“We started with a workshop to teach the basics of the Aragoz’s dramatic formation, before we moved to test materials and manufacture techniques.” The students produced more than 13 different forms of the puppets.
The exhibition celebrated famous puppeteers such as Mustafa Othman, known as Uncle Saber, who died in October 2019 at the age of 80. (See a https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NteJ-vPKzXI” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Unesco video of Othman performing and explaining his craft.)
One of the spectators at Ali’s students’ exhibition, Nafisa Hassan, said it brought back childhood memories.
Gallery: Puppets in an Exhibition
“I never expected to find university students interested in designing Aragoz puppets,” she said. “I thought that this art had completely disappeared, just as its street performances disappeared.”
Weekly Performances in a Museum
On the official level, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture has been hosting weekly Al-Aragoz performances since 2007 in the Bayt Al-Suhaymi, a 17th-century Islamic themed house and museum in central Cairo.
The shows are presented free of charge by the Wamda Troupe for Aragoz and Shadow Puppets, which was founded 20 years ago by Nabil Bahgat, a professor and head of the theatre department at Helwan University.
Bahgat also prepared Egypt’s submission to register Al-Aragoz with Unesco.
“I am pleased with all the recent academic efforts related to Aragoz, after a period of negligence,” said Bahgat.
Students at Cairo University had presented a graduation project for a master’s thesis, he noted. Al-Aragoz also recently received the attention of officials and private institutions.
“This interest confirms the success of the experience I started nearly 20 years ago to revive and restore this art, until it gained local, Arab and international recognition as one of Egypt’s important arts.”Nabil Bahgat
A professor and head of the theatre department at Helwan University
“This interest confirms the success of the experience I started nearly 20 years ago to revive and restore this art,” Bahgat said, “until it gained local, Arab and international recognition as one of Egypt’s important arts.”
Bahgat has had to rely on original narrators because Al-Aragoz lacked an archive until he published his book “The Egyptian Aragoz”. He also produced several documentary films and organised exhibitions of Aragoz puppets, and in addition to the Wamda Troupe, he found the Popular Doll Forum in 2006, and the Egyptian Aragoz Festival in 2019.
While he welcomes any initiative to restore Aragoz performances, Bahgat said that after registration by Unesco, “a number of fake Aragoz narrators and tales” appeared.
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There are no “strict methodologies” for drawing inspiration from Al-Aragoz because the art of puppetry “depends on free imagination,” Bahgat said. “However, it must be emphasized that we are inspired by, not retrieving, original works. This difference is important.”
Bahgat welcomed efforts to revive, employ and draw inspiration from other folk arts, saying that many of them “deserve care and investment.”
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