The day is Monday. The time is 3pm. You can call it rush hour, but by Cairo standards it is simply one of the many rush-hours of the day associated with children going home from school. Normally one would be sitting in their car or school bus, listening to the radio or playing games on their phones.
However, this day is brought to a standstill when a giant dragon puppet bows at the tip of your car from the side of the road.
Similar scenes took place a number of times that Monday 13 October at Rhoda Island – a middle-class Cairo neighbourhood surrounded by the Nile – as Mahatat for Contemporary Art's five-day tour presenting arts in public space in Mansoura, Damietta, Port Said and Cairo came to a close.
This time the tour – one of many that will happen quarterly under the ongoing Mahatat project 'Art of Transit' – featured El-Kousha puppet troupe along with Abo Kareem marching band.
The marching band composed of nine musicians, lead the march down the corniche to the beat of their various range of percussions, while El-Kousha puppet troupe simultaneously presented a performance of their two giant puppets: a dragon and folkloric villain Omena El-Ghoula.
“We wanted to tackle the theme of fear,” Nassef Azmy, puppeteer and founder of the troupe, tells Ahram Online. “Inspired by the traditional folkloric characters such as the dragon or Omena El-Ghoula, we wished to explore how people make themselves afraid, especially children.”
During the parade, the two puppets would walk around the crowd, interacting with the audience. One time you would see the dragon running after a child, with the child frightened, while the next minute the child would be chasing the dragon to touch him.
“Adults have this dynamic too,” Azmy states. “We momentarily forget the puppet is not real and react to it as a new creature, in puppetry this is called The Childish Vision.”
In Rhoda Island, passersby were strongly taken by the puppets. Phone cameras were consistently capturing the event, children were running around the puppets and balconies were full of people gazing at the scene below.
According to Azmy, the scene was similar in Mansoura and even more festive in Port Said.
The troupe visited poorer areas inside Mansoura, not the more economically privileged neighbourhoods. People were consistently questioning them on why they were here, and why they have these giant puppets, but in a curious manner not a skeptical one.
“One man in Rhoda insisted on giving me a pound,” Azmy laughs.
On the other hand, in Port Said it was festive and celebratory, which Azmy predicted. “Port Said has El-Limby puppet, which people compete to create and parade with every year so the society there is used to puppetry.”
El-Limby is a long standing tradition in Port Said. A city known for its resistance movement against the British occupation, the puppet was created around the turn of the century originally as a symbol for the occupation and burned. Every spring since the locals take the puppets on parade.
“Street art interferes with people's daily relationship with the space,” Azmy explained. “Once there is an artistic intervention we begin to look at the street in a different way. It is no longer getting from point A to point B but we stop to look around, to look up, just to see it differently.”
Azmy's statements echo truths one can see frequenting performances in public spaces. This was particularly evident – and hilarious – the moment the dragon and Omena El-Ghoula were crossing the main street towards the end of the parade. Nothing will bring a twist to an otherwise tedious Cairo traffic moment than seeing two giant puppets crossing the chaotic street.
El-Kousha's dragon puppet in Rhoda Island (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
El-Kousha puppet troupe
Many people remember El-Kousha from their giant puppets at protests. One iconic one was the same dragon used in a protest against genetically modified seeds entering Egyptian agriculture through Monsanto. Another was the four giant Supreme Council of Armed Forces puppets during the army's reign over Egypt following Mubarak's removal in 2011.
While El-Kousha has existed for almost 15 years, its revival came with these protest puppets in January 2012. Azmy recalls he was at the January revolution anniversary march and he saw a group of youth who had a giant puppet resembling Egypt's ruler at the time Tantawy. He approached them and invited them to visit him in Fayoum to work on more advanced puppets.
From that point the new troupe was born. They participated in several protests with the puppets, as well as the opening parade of the last edition of Mawred's international circus festival CirCairo in 2012.
However, the troupe goes back all the way to 2000. During this time, Azmy was still residing in France - where he studied theatre - working with a puppet troupe there. He would return for a few months a year to Egypt to work on the troupe along with its co-founders the late Bahaa El-Marghany and Mohamed Ezzat. However, when El-Marghany died tragically in the infamous Beni Suef theatre fire of 2005, and another member of the troupe Hossam Abdelazim suffered severe burns, the troupe's work came to a halt.
According to Azmy, giant puppets cannot just perform out of the blue. They have to be related to a festival happening and gathering of people be it a protest, wedding, feast celebration or moulid.
All of El-Kousha's work is concerned with the street, since puppetry as a concept is meant to go to people in their own environments. However, the troupe does not only work with the giant puppets. They are working on the revival of all kinds of traditional puppetry techniques that are becoming obsolete in Egypt such as the Aragoz, shadow theatre and string puppets.
The troupe have three projects coming up this year, all aiming to reinvent and contemporise the traditional puppetry techniques.
However, El-Kousha is not only aiming to showcase performances, but also to work on research and train young artists to rejuvenate the status of puppetry that used to be in Egypt.
“This country is one of the important countries that had shadow puppet theatre, Aragoz, and many experiences with puppetry which is diminishing,” Azmy said.
“We are trying to put it back on the table not to recreate the past but use this art form within the society now and to make the street a place that can host performances.”