"This is the summary of my journey: the Aragouz who became a diplomat!" he laughs, explaining how honored he is to re-ify the folk art of puppetry, or aragouz, on an international level. Speaking to Al-Ahram Online is Nabil Baghat professor of theatre at Helwan University, the founder of WAMDA troupe for Aragouz and Shadow Puppets, the former head of Beit El-Sehemi, and the former Egyptian Cultural Attache to Kuwait.
Born in 1975, In Abu Kebir, village, Sharkia, Bahgat's perception of folklore was quite different.
"To me it's more of my perception of life or how I take a stand on life. I always notice that we live a certain life style while television, portrays a totally different style so I never believed it. You see in Beheira, I grew up watching folk rituals alive in the march of the prophet's mulid, daily rituals, baking cookies during Eid, Ramadan rituals," he told Al-Ahram Online.
Such an authentic Egyptian background had a great impact on Bahgat as a young boy. He gathered that certain of his grandfather’s proverbs and sayings reflected much more than mere words. Eish takhod ya Bardisi min taflisy? (What will you gain, Bardisi, from making me stone broke?) was one his grandfather repeated. As it turned out, Bardisi ruled Egypt after the French invasion, and as people strained under the immense taxes he imposed, so Egyptians revolted against him.
"This is what makes me believe more in the social history and collective memory contained in these words – I side with the oral history, the one that comes from the people, and not the official version. I believe that history is not made by rulers, it is made by the marginalized, rulers only write it not make it. And this is the destiny of history: that it’s true but unfair, because it overlooks the thousands of real people who made it. Take the high dam for example, and how it is said that Abdel Nasser is the one who built it, what about the builders? History here is not telling all the truth. That’s how I see it," he notes.
Bahgat's revelations continued to unfold, as he pursued his studies in Arabic poetry and theatre. He attained his masters’ degree specializing in the theatre plays of cultural icon Badia Khairy. His PHD was focused on the work of playwright Abu El-Seoud El-Ebiary. Before long he was assistant professor of theatre in Helwan University.
"I published my masters degree in a book, a few years ago. But Badia Khairy opened up a gateway to other worlds, other questions. I always wondered, what makes Egyptians responsive to certain art forms? My own answer lay in the reception of these art forms. Like how come all Egyptians like certain plays for example, or certain of Om Kalthoum’s songs?"
“But the theatre I watched did not represent me,” Bahgat admits to how he felt after becoming assistant professor of theatre. Shakespeare is great but does not represent me, nor does Oedipus.”
"I asked myself a question, why didn’t my dad ever take my mother to the theatre? Because it does not represent them. The way the theatre was designed in the form of a box was mainly to protect people from immensely cold weather in Europe. Our theatres are open air yards."
Such reflections on people, modern culture and modern theatrical performances triggered a further question, why are there numerous constraints when it comes Egypt’s renaissance? The answer is that we do not believe in the people: we start where our predecessor started and not where they ended," he notes.
Haunted by the cultural identity of Egypt, Bahgat saw the sign that inspired him to go back to the roots and dig deeper. "I was walking in downtown Cairo and I read a big sign reading 'Shahrazad’ featuring a blond with blue eyes in her bikini." As alienating as it was, the sign lead him to a treasure. "I decided to start by searching for the first theatre I ever witnessed, which was the aragouz.”
Unlike the Turkish Qara Qoz, (Black eyes), the wooden puppet dressed in Red is an Egyptian invention mobile puppet theatre, that criticized the political and social status quo. It is said that the name aragouz, rhymes with Qaraqoush, Egypt's most vicious vizier, who was doomed to a legacy of mockery. The aragouz was a popular and successful form of street art, roaming mulids and street carnivals, and over the years winding up as the favourite puppet show of children's birthday parties.
Bahgat's quest in search of aragouz art started off by asking university professors where he should look. "When they told me that it died out a long time ago, I realized the gap between academics and people, so I started my own search in mulids and came across the ensemble I am working with now."
By 2003 Bahget founded the Wamda (spark of light) troupe for folk arts, which revived the art of aragouz as well as shadow puppets. With the masters of the trade on board, from Amm Saber, the oldest aragouz puppeteer in Egypt, to the late Hassan Khanoufa, the last shadow puppet master, Wamda managed to revive and renovate Egypt's oldest folk arts. Since 2004 and up to this moment, Wamda troupe gives a weekly workshop for young children as well as a performance of aragouz and shadow puppetry every Friday at Beit El-Sehemi, El-Moez street.
"I've created the first archive for aragouz art including all the acts, on CDs and in a published book; then I wanted to create a new generation of aragouz players and managed to get the state to recruit the aragouz and shadow puppeteers in Beit El-Sehemi,"
From 2007 to 2017 every Friday is self-production. Now seven artists and their seven families are gaining their monthly wage from the art of aragouz. It’s a great success to work in arts, to revive the artform and sustain a living. Folk arts can be of economic value. "The greatest thing that I’ve ever done is the fact that I succeeded in conveying my ideas to the artists that worked with me."
Through Wamda troupe, Amm Saber Egypt's oldest aragouz puppeteer was acknowledged and honored at the closing ceremony of the Arab Forum for Puppet Art and Shadow Puppets in its third round in Cairo 2015.
Bahget currently has an application to the Immediate Preservation Committee of UNESCO, to create a school to preserve the art of aragouz.
"I've always wanted to produce differently, without funds, for one can produce a show then sell it to the state. And this is what I did, and so without any funding we can create beautiful art. And it worked just fine."
Thanks to Bahget's efforts, replicas of Egyptian aragouz puppets are showcased in international museums in the United States and all over Europe. As for Egypt, Bahget launched the annual seminar of the folk doll from (2006-2012) as well as a permanent exhibition of folk dolls including the authentic original wooden molds at Beit El-Sehemi
"Before I started working with the aragouz and shadow puppetry artforms, there wasn’t a single Youtube clip of them on the internet. Not even one picture. We ran over 100 workshops to create aragouz and shadow puppets. We wrote 36 performances, in addition to reiterating old performances."
Four years ago, he was chosen as the Egyptian Cultural attaché in Kuwait. And during that time, Bahget created over 500 Egyptian cultural events, as well as enhancing the capacity of the Egyptian cultural office in Kuwait.
"I wanted to show people that something like al aragouz can make you into a diplomat. Working with the aragouz made my resume very impressive, and brought me lots of publicity. It made me represent Egypt in over 36 countries of the world. True I revived aragouz, but he carried my name as well, as he is the one who truly presented me to the people."
"I used to tell them I am the aragouz that became a diplomat and this is what I really meant. If you work on the local it will take you to the international.