Cairo grandmother Amal Rashad is an amateur puppet-maker who decided to do something unique for her grandchildren by presenting them with not only handmade presents in the shape of the puppets she makes, but also by helping to teach them through the plays she writes and performs with the puppets.
She is now spreading this unique learning experience to other children through special workshops in which they learn how to make puppets and watch traditional puppet shows.
“Ever since I was a girl, I have had a passion for anything handmade. I loved to make my own dolls, for example, and I would even make the dolls’ clothes. When I saw something handmade that I liked, I would be determined to work until I had made something similar myself,” Rashad said, adding that today she often watches online embroidery and puppet-making videos for ideas.
Rashad aims to put her own touch on the things she learns to make from the Internet. “I really liked the puppet-making videos I saw, so I decided to make my own puppets using my own style. Whenever there is a special occasion, I now always think of making a different puppet to celebrate it with. For example, when it was one of my grandchildren’s seboua [to celebrate a baby’s first week of life], I made a puppet of a woman at a seboua using the domestic items that are used to make the baby hardy,” she said.
“Another puppet I made was of a woman spreading incense [to protect the newborn child from envy],” she added, mentioning that her skills are in the main self-acquired.
Rashad now constantly thinks of new ideas for every occasion since she thinks it is easier for her to help to educate her grandchildren through puppets. “I like to make different things in Ramadan, including Ramadan decorations for my children and grandchildren,” she said, adding that she also makes presents for her friends and neighbours. As a result, what started as a hobby has ended up as educational workshops for other children.
“I am currently organising workshops for Aladdin, a children’s magazine published by Al-Ahram,” Rashad added, saying that after seeing her puppets her friends had encouraged her to design her own Facebook page to keep a record of what she makes. “I was encouraged by similar pages, especially one based in Sharqeya, and I started to write posts about my experience of puppet-making so that more people would know about it.”
The materials she uses can all be found at home, she said. “The puppets we make in the workshops are made from simple materials that can be found at home. They can include any unwanted pieces of cloth, old buttons, bits of fibre, and pieces of string, among other materials,” she said, adding that puppet-making could be seen as a way of recycling old clothes and materials.
“I usually buy the materials I need that I can’t find at home from shops selling sewing materials, but in the main I make do with anything, including old socks and so on,” Rashad said. She tells mothers coming to the workshops to get whatever unwanted objects they can to make the puppets, even including bits of rubber or metal. She herself uses old wigs to make the hair of the puppets.
The method of making each puppet differs according to the idea behind it or the occasion of its use. “I might make one puppet on a metal frame, while I might make another out of cloth and stuff it with fibre. I might use an old plastic bottle to make a puppet, in this way recycling unwanted plastic bottles at the same time. This last puppets I made were dolls to celebrate the moulid [the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed PBUH].These look like dolls, but they can also be used as containers to put sweets in at the same time,” she said.
Rashad gives some examples of the types of puppets she has made. “I am currently working on puppets of the Aladdin cartoon characters, like Aladdin, princess Jasmine, and the Genie, for a puppet show that will carry the same name,” she said. She has also made puppets of Bougi and Tam-Tam from the famous Egyptian children’s serial of the same name, as well as characters from the children’s serial Am Shakshak.
Rashad aims at teaching children values in the simplest and most entertaining ways through her work. “I made a puppet theatre with the initials of my grandchildren on it, for example, which made them very happy. The idea is to entertain them, while teaching them values and changing their behaviour for the better in the process,” she said, adding that a puppet show could be a means of conveying information to a child.
“The most important values they learn are honesty, trustworthiness and helpfulness, especially for the needy. They also learn about the healthy diet they should observe, among other values,” she said.
She added that her plays target children from kindergarten to primary school stage. Adults may also find them entertaining since they experiment with the puppets as well to entertain their own children. The plays were particularly effective for her grandchildren, which was why she decided to help other parents bringing up their children to appreciate the values she had taught to her children and grandchildren through the puppets and puppet shows.
“I would like to see puppet shows being put on in more schools. I would like to see every home come up with an idea for a puppet show that they can make with the simplest of materials. Eventually, I would like to see my own puppets become as famous as those used in theatres and on TV programmes,” Rashad concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.