On 4 November, Egypt honoured Saber El-Masry, our oldest aragouz player, at the closing ceremony of the Arab Forum for Puppet Art and Shadow Puppets in its third round in Cairo. “I have been playing aragouz for 50 years, I am 76 years old,” he told Ahram Online.
It all started with El-Masry's fondness for mulids, especially the Ismail Embabi mulid in Embaba where he grew up, which he described as “a great art school for all forms of art.” Following his passion, he spent 10 years on the road following mulids wherever the wind took them until he mastered the art of aragouz.
Aragouz, the protagonist in this mobile puppet theatre, was a perfect vehicle for Egyptian criticism and mockery of the government, politics and the social status quo during the vizier's time and beyond.
“Aragouz is very special to my heart, he has a special voice (a whistle like sound), and when I was little I thought he was just a small child, until I felt his wooden face to realise he is just a doll,” El-Masry recalled. Throughout the years El-Masry mastered his trade and became quite famous as a folk doll player. Unfortunately, however, the art form was limited to mulids, although as such street art diminished little by little, entertainment managed to find its way to the public through television and video games. Hence, the business became children's entertainment at private birthday parties.
El-Masry remembers meeting folk song icon Mahmoud Shokouko and how through his connections he managed to take the route of children's birthday party entertainment. It was not until he joined the Wamda troupe for aragouz and shadow puppets in 2003 that he regained his glamour. Wamda, created by Nabil Bahgat, ex-head of Beit El-Soheimy and the current Egyptian cultural attaché in Kuwait, aimed to play the old nemar (sketches) and hold workshops to perform new ones.
“I want to preserve and revive the aragouz art," El-Masry said. "And so I joined Wamda and began to teach this art and perform it since then."
Since he joined the Wamda troupe, El-Masry managed to pass on his experience and knowledge of the form of art via numerous projects that included Bringing Back the Aragouz to the streets in 2003, School Dramas 2007, We shall reach people free of charge 2013, and archiving and documenting the aragouz through a book written by Nabil Bahgat and published by the Egyptian High Council for Culture.
El-Masry has performed in several countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Tunisia, and was honoured in most of those countries.
“I dedicate my honorary award to Dr Nabil Bahgat because he is the one who helped save the aragouz art from perishing. I also thank Mostafa, Mahmoud and Ali for helping me with this art because they are the next generation that will carry on with our mission. Thank you all and long live Egypt,” El-Masry said.
Currently El-Masryperforms his weekly aragouz performance every Friday at 6pm at Beit Al-Seheimy, Islamic Cairo
A workshop for making aragouz and shadow puppets is also held weekly prior to the performance at the same place from 3pm to 6pm on Friday